Activists failed to secure enough signatures to expand ranked-choice voting in Maine’s most liberal city


This week, Portland city officials notified Fair Elections Portland, a pro-ranked-choice voting group, that they did not acquire enough signatures for their ranked-choice expansion initiative to qualify for ballot access. 

The group ultimately fell 76 signatures short of achieving access to the city’s ballot. If the initiative had made it on the ballot in Portland, voters would have had the opportunity to decide on expanding ranked-choice voting to city council and board of education elections. Portland currently uses ranked-choice voting for mayoral elections. 

Originally, the group turned-in more than 8,000 signatures for the ranked-choice expansion initiative, more than the 6,816 threshold necessary to receive access to the ballot. However, more than 1,000 signatures were disqualified by the city clerk’s office, leaving petitioners approximately 410 signatures under the threshold. 

In an attempt to receive access, Fair Elections Portland filed an appeal to resubmit 300 signatures the campaign believed were valid. In addition, the group complained that the signature threshold was too high and requested it be lowered.

State law requires petitioners to submit signatures that equate to 20 percent of the number of votes cast in the municipality in the last gubernatorial election. There was confusion about whether this figure included total turnout in a gubernatorial election or only votes cast for a gubernatorial candidate. 

The City of Portland, in its infinite wisdom, decided to lower the threshold by only including votes that were cast in the gubernatorial race, not total turnout. The new threshold that petitioners were expected to meet was 6,655 signatures — 161 less than the original threshold.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap indicated that the figure should include total turnout due to the wording of state law. Nonetheless, the group failed to submit enough valid signatures to achieve ballot access. 

In 2010, voters in Portland approved ranked-choice voting for mayoral elections via a charter amendment. Proponents of ranked-choice voting claimed the voting system was superior to plurality voting because it would produce majority winners, thereby more accurately expressing the will of voters.

However, research from The Maine Heritage Policy Center shows ranked-choice voting elections produce a majority winner only 39 percent of the time. This occurs because approximately 11 percent of votes, on average, are exhausted in ranked-choice voting elections. 

The 2011 Portland mayoral race was no different — the winner of the election received only 46 percent of the vote. This occurred because nearly 18 percent of all votes cast on Election Day were exhausted by the final round of counting. Put differently, 3,494 ballots were excluded after the first round of tabulation. 

After Fair Elections Portland was told they did not achieve ballot access, the chair of the group’s steering committee said they would be asking city councilors to put the measure on the March ballot for voters to consider. Both Mayor Ethan Strimling and City Councilor Belinda Ray have indicated that they would be interested in bringing the initiative to voters.

The city council is now waiting for a legal opinion to determine whether it can bring forward an initiative that failed to receive enough signatures from voters. There’s uncertainty about whether the council would need to establish a charter commission to advance the initiative or if they could immediately move the issue to ballot.

Regardless, proponents of the initiative failed to collect enough valid signatures to achieve ballot access…in Portland. Even after the threshold was lowered, petitioners couldn’t earn a spot on the ballot. Was this the result of a poorly-run campaign or a lack of support for ranked-choice voting?


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