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Portland City Council allows RCV expansion to proceed after activists fail to obtain ballot access

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On Monday, Portland City Councilors voted unanimously to put a measure on the March 3, 2020 ballot that would allow voters to decide whether the city will elect their city councilors and school board members by ranked-choice voting. The city has used the ranked-choice voting system for mayoral elections since 2011, though it was only triggered in the 2011 and 2019 elections. In 2015, Mayor Strimling avoided an instant run-off when he received 51 percent of the vote. 

Ranked-choice voting is an electoral system whereby voters rank their candidates based on preference. If none of the candidates receive more than 50 percent of the votes in the first round of tabulation, the candidate(s) who cannot mathematically win are eliminated and those ballots are reallocated until a candidate prevails with 50 percent of the remaining votes. However, when candidates are eliminated from contention, some voters’ ballots become exhausted, lowering the vote threshold necessary to win by a “majority.”

For voters whose ballots become exhausted through ranked-choice voting, it is as if they never showed up to vote on Election Day. In Portland’s mayoral race earlier this month, nearly 1,200 ballots were exhausted before Kathleen Snyder officially prevailed using the RCV system.

Earlier this year, groups who supported the expansion of ranked-choice voting in Portland failed to collect enough signatures to put it on the ballot. After more than 1,000 signatures were disqualified and city officials reinterpretted state law to lower the signature threshold, supporters of the campaign still failed to collect enough signatures, ultimately falling 76 short of the requirement.

State law requires petitioners to submit signatures that equate to 20 percent of the number of votes cast within the municipality in the last gubernatorial election. Anna Kellar, the Chair of Fair Elections Portland, said Monday the campaign felt there was “strong support” for the initiative in the city, despite failing to obtain enough legitimate signatures to move the measure onto the ballot.

In the discussion surrounding the move to place it on the March ballot, proponents and some city councilors indicated they wanted to put it out to voters at that time, instead of the June ballot, because they expect higher turnout for the presidential primary. According to Title 30-A §2105, in order for a charter amendment to prevail, the number of votes cast for and against the question has to equal or exceed 30 percent of the total votes cast in Portland in the last gubernatorial election, and the votes cast in favor need to be more than 50 percent of the total votes cast.

In 2018, a total of 34,082 votes were cast in Portland for the gubernatorial election. Therefore, at least 10,225 voters would need to vote for or against the measure in the March election for it to become effective, assuming it prevails with a majority of the votes cast.

Nonetheless, this action by the city council signals they will put measures on the ballot despite groups failing to collect enough signatures. If the measure was truly popular amongst Portland residents, Fair Elections Portland should have had no trouble producing enough signatures to ensure ballot access.

Put simply, the Portland City Council voted to put a measure on the ballot after activists couldn’t garner enough support or get the job done procedurally. It seems hard to believe they’d do the same for an initiative with which they do not agree.

About Adam Crepeau

Adam Crepeau serves as a policy analyst at The Maine Heritage Policy Center. He can be reached at acrepeau@mainepolicy.org.

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