A report from city officials last week reaffirmed Roberto Rodriguez as the winner of an at-large City Council seat and explained that several dozen disputed ballots were a result of human error.
The report released Nov. 22 said 45 “auxiliary ballots” discovered in a locked vault in City Hall on Nov. 16 had been manually entered into the electronic records on Election Day but were not available to be counted during a Nov. 9 recount.
“For reasons that are not entirely clear, although the envelope with the 45 auxiliary ballots was in the box and located on the counting table for the counting teams to count, the team with that particular box of ballots appears not to have counted them perhaps because of a misunderstanding by counters as to whether they should be counted or not,” the report concluded. “We attribute this to simple human error.”
Rodriguez, who will be sworn in on Dec. 6, said while it was helpful to have the city provide a summary of the events, there is room for improvement.
“I would like an opportunity to give the city some feedback based on our experience of the recount, and hopefully just facilitate the city in how they do recounts in the future,” he said.
Rodriguez said the city’s process involved volunteers for each candidate going through the ballots, counting, and then passing the ballots to the other candidate’s volunteers. He said it would be a smoother process and would result in fewer discrepancies if volunteers for both candidates reviewed ballots at the same time.
“That eliminates how many people are passing ballots around,” Rodriguez said. “Other than that, I’m happy with the summary and that we were able to confirm the right outcome.”
The recount was needed after what is believed to be the first tie in a ranked-choice voting election, where Rodriguez and Planning Board Chairman Brandon Mazer each ended with 8,529 votes.
Mazer was initially declared the winner on Nov. 4 after City Clerk Katherine Jones drew lots on the steps outside City Hall. After Mazer’s name was drawn, Rodriguez requested a recount.
Rodriguez said he believes drawing lots is unnecessary, and in the event of a numerical tie, an automatic recount should be called. He said he hopes the Charter Commission will continue to look at this and work toward a resolution, although he also said it shouldn’t be the commission’s top priority since numerical ties are statistically unlikely.
The recount led to a dispute over 37 ballots, 33 of which were eventually deemed exhausted and would not impact the result; each candidate received two additional votes. Additionally, Mazer and his team had an account of 26 ballots they believed were in favor of Mazer but were not reflected in the city’s recount.
The report said the city was able to address this to Mazer’s satisfaction and that the 26 votes were mistakenly counted twice.
There was also a 36-vote disparity between the votes counted during the recount and the votes reflected from Election Day, which was determined to be related to the batch of 45 auxiliary ballots that were counted for computer totals but not counted by hand during the recount. These auxiliary ballots contained 20 votes for Mazer, 11 for Rodriguez and 14 that were determined to be exhausted.
Ultimately, this led to a final count of 8,560 votes for Rodriguez and 8,534 votes for Mazer.
Mazer conceded the election on Nov. 10.
“It was, as we saw, a very close race,” he said. “Even closer than we thought. It does also show that the voting machines are relatively accurate.”
Mazer said there are “always lessons to be learned” in an election, but said there were some procedural issues that frustrated his team during the recount.
“In essence we were told ‘We have all the ballots here, they’re accounted for, it’s just the hand count is more accurate,’” he said. “That didn’t end up being true.”
Mazer said there was a realization that something was off when Rodriguez was up by 35 votes and there were 36 ballots unaccounted for.
“There was no way to require the recount to make sure all the ballots are there,” he said. “Especially with an election this close and with that many ballots potentially unaccounted for. Those ballots mattered, and it was closer than that end result.”
Mazer said the results made more sense once the auxiliary ballots were discovered, given how the votes were distributed.
“It ended up being a 20-25 vote spread,” Mazer said of the final count. “Which was probably more than worth challenging after the recount.”
The at-large council race was the most competitive municipal election this year, with four candidates hoping to replace outgoing Councilor Nick Mavodones. In addition to Rodriguez and Mazer, Travis Curran and Stuart Tisdale were on the ballot.
As for what comes next, Mazer said he will continue to serve on the Planning Board.
“This won’t be the last you hear from me,” he said. “I still have the Planning Board, and we have Recode Phase 2 coming up.”
Charter commissioner hopes to modify RCV, overhaul council
The Portland Charter Commission elections committee is poised to recommend changes to the way candidates are elected to municipal offices, and also to significantly change the makeup of the City Council and School Board.
Committee Chair Marpheen Chann said he has prepared initial language that would convert municipal elections to proportional ranked-choice voting. He said the mayoral election would still use the existing system, where a candidate must get over 50 percent of the vote to win.
Proportional RCV reduces the winning threshold when there are several candidates running for more than one seat.
Chann said his proposal would dissolve the at-large seats on the City Council, School Board, and future Charter Commissions, and reduce the number of districts from five to three. Each district would elect three representatives.
The current system creates barriers for involvement, Chann said, with a single winner-take-all election in each district that paves the way for candidates with ideologies that might not represent most people in their district. He said three districts with three representatives from each one would allow more seats at the table for different viewpoints.
Under Chann’s proposed language, the winning threshold in a multi-seat election would be equal to the number of votes cast divided by the sum of one plus the number of seats on the ballot. So in the case of a district with three seats to be filled, the divisor would be four (one plus three), creating a winning threshold of 25 percent.
Chann said such a system would create greater opportunities for more people to participate and have a chance to represent their neighborhood.
He said his initial proposal, which still has to be vetted by the committee before it can be recommended to the full Charter Commission, also assumes the commission’s governance committee might take the mayor’s position out of the City Council.
“For me, the first priority is starting the conversation about changing the makeup of the districts so we can have this language,” he said.
Chann said this model is the result of discussions the committee has had with RCV experts, and from discussions that followed the Charter Commission election in June, when candidates with less support leapfrogged candidates with significantly more first-place votes.
Chann said he is also open to the idea of a 12-seat City Council, although his proposal at this time maintains the current nine seats.
The proposal is contrary to the idea floated by several candidates during the Charter Commission campaign to increase the size of the council by increasing the overall number of districts, which also would have eliminated at-large positions. Chann said that model also would result in a winner-take-all style of RCV.
In addition to switching non-mayoral races to proportional RCV and revising the districts, Chann said his proposed language would also create a permanent elections commission to help the city clerk’s office.
“The clerk does a reasonably good job, but I can tell that they’re strained during election periods,” he said.
The commission would work on education campaigns to increase voter participation, and hear election appeals and complaints in the event clean election reform is adopted.
Finally, he said the proposed language would reduce the required number of nomination signatures required of candidates for the City Council, School Board, and the Charter Commission.
Mayoral candidates would still have to secure 300-500 signatures to appear on the ballot, but district candidates would need only 75-150.
— Colin Ellis