PORTLAND, Maine — Before the final vote tabulations were made, a Southern California man emailed the Bangor Daily News with a prediction about the Portland mayoral race from afar.
Terry Reilly, an outspoken nationwide critic of Portland’s newly implemented ranked choice voting system, predicted the winner would end up with about 8,000 votes from the nearly 20,000 ballots cast in the mayoral race. Less than a majority.
The use of ranked choice voting is under fire in Reilly’s state, specifically in San Francisco, with an opposition group working to put a repeal question before voters as early as next year. There, voter turnout waned and campaigning reportedly turned negative this fall. Opponents say ranked choice voting hasn’t delivered on what its supporters promised when it was installed about seven years ago.
In Portland, by comparison, mayoral candidates and city officials largely considered the city’s first experience with the program a success. But City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones — the previous mayor who came in third behind Michael Brennan and Ethan Strimling — said residents should prepare to think hard about whether they want to use ranked choice voting again in four years, when Brennan’s term is up.
“I was not wild about it when the charter commission proposed it and I’m still not wild about it,” Mavodones said. “I think the community should have a discussion about whether ranked choice voting is something we should stick with.”
Reilly’s email arrived in the early morning hours of Nov. 9, before a day and a half of ballot scanning, computer processing, scan reviewing and eventually vote counting determined that Brennan bested a field of 14 other candidates to become the first publicly elected mayor since 1923.
Brennan also had finished Election Day with the most first-place votes, but would have only won with a plurality with just more than 27 percent of the tallies.
The Portland Charter Commission’s report a year earlier urged voters to adopt a slate of changes that would restore a popularly chosen mayor and ensure that person gets elected with more than 50 percent of the vote.
The previous 88 years, the City Council had appointed the mayor essentially as its chairman. With the charter changes approved in 2010 by Portland voters, the new publicly chosen mayor would be elected using ranked choice voting with the goal of making sure the winner garnered majority support, not just plurality support.
In ranked choice voting, voters could rank the candidates from No. 1 all the way to No. 15 if they desired. If no single candidate held a majority after the first-choice votes were counted on Election Day, the lowest ranked candidates, starting from the bottom and going one by one, would have their second choices reallocated among the remaining candidates as first-choice votes. Those “instant runoffs” were ostensibly done until one candidate finished with a majority.
At the end, Brennan was named the winner with 9,061 votes. Better than Reilly expected, but less than half of the votes tallied from the 19,728 ballots cast for mayor.
“I supported [ranked choice voting] before I studied it a bit more,” Reilly wrote to the Bangor Daily News. “I was for RCV before I was against it. [I opposed it] mainly because it doesn’t live up to the promises I continuously read about — such as a majority winner — and still do to this day.”
During the candidate elimination rounds, ballots were dropped from the total if they didn’t rank beyond a certain number of candidates, or marked two candidates for the same rank somewhere along the way, disqualifying the ballot from consideration during subsequent instant runoffs.
Ranked choice voting advocates point out that Brennan did win a majority of the votes on the ballots still in play by the final round — 16,234 — and note that it’s un-American to require voters to fill out every slot on a ballot if they don’t want to.
“We have a culture of permitting abstention in the U.S., and not coercing rankings,” said Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, a Maryland-based ranked choice voting advocacy group. “The majority in Portland was not denied. You can’t mandate voting, and you can’t mandate ranking. You have to permit people to say ‘no.’ The point is, they have the power to weigh in.”
In a traditional voting system, it’s difficult to say who really has broad voter support when there are multiple candidates and nobody garners a majority on Election Day, Richie said. If Brennan simply had a small group of ardent supporters, but did not have widespread support, he could have won on Election Day if the other candidates split up the votes opposing him, Richie said.
Richie referenced Maine’s 2010 gubernatorial race, in which he said independent Eliot Cutler likely would have beaten eventual winner Paul LePage, a Republican, if the second-choice votes of third-place finisher Democrat Libby Mitchell and two other independents were redistributed between Cutler and LePage. In a five-candidate race, LePage won with 38 percent of the votes and Cutler trailed with 36 percent, while Mitchell finished with 19 percent.
So the Day 2 and Day 3 work, in which Brennan continued to aggregate second-choice votes from other candidates, was valuable to prove he was the winner with wide voter support, Richie said.
Mavodones argued the same result could be achieved using a traditional runoff, in which the top two vote-getters on Election Day then are pitted against each other in a one-on-one race several weeks later. Mavodones dismissed arguments that runoff elections are too expensive.
“We ended up spending at least as much on TrueBallot as we would have on a traditional runoff,” he said.
TrueBallot is a nationwide organization Portland paid $20,000 to run its Day 2 and Day 3 scans and tabulations.
Caleb Kleppner, who headed the Portland effort for TrueBallot, said the winner of a traditional runoff, at which statistics show voter turnout typically tails off, likely would not get a number of votes greater than a majority cast on Election Day. The point being, he said, is that if one is arguing that ranked choice voting isn’t adequate because the Portland winner only got 9,000 of the 20,000 votes, he or she might be equally disappointed with a traditional runoff in which the winner gets even fewer votes.
In Lewiston, for example, where a traditional mayoral runoff was held Tuesday, winner Bob MacDonald received 2,543 votes. That’s far less than 50 percent of the ballots cast on Election Day nearly a month earlier, when more than 8,100 votes were spread out over five candidates.
Plus, said Kleppner, the ranked choice voting system, which keeps all the candidates in the mix until Election Day, promotes a more civil campaign season, whereas a two-candidate face-off can more easily drift into personal attacks between the two.
“When it’s one on one, they know what to do, which is to trash the other candidate, to drive down the polarizing wedge issues,” agreed Richie. “When it’s ranked choice voting, you’ve got to develop a positive message and build broad bases of support, do well in debates and knock on doors.”
City Councilor David Marshall, who finished fourth in the mayoral race, said he would approach homes with other candidates’ signs on their lawns during the campaign season in hopes of at least earning the residents’ second or third choice votes.
“If your goal is to be first in the first round, but not worry about anybody else, you could just solidify your neighborhood vote and try to overpower other neighborhoods,” Marshall said. “Ranked choice voting really encourages candidates to seek citywide support, work with each other and build coalitions, and not to turn to negative campaigning, because that can hurt your chances of picking up votes in runoff rounds.”
But Mavodones said while the tenor of the campaign was polite, it wasn’t substantive. A period of one-on-one campaigning would open the door for voters to learn more about the top two candidates’ ideas about policies and visions for the future than was possible in the crowded race leading into Election Day, he said. Mavodones noted countless forums hosted around the city by different organizations and how most allowed candidates just two or three minutes each to talk about their respective platforms.
“There were so many candidates who came in because of the ranked choice voting, we never had any real venue to engage in high-level debate,” he said. “It was a civil tone, by and large, throughout the campaign, but it didn’t have candidates engaging in high-level discussions.”
Like Mavodones, Marshall looks forward to discussing the future of ranked choice voting in Portland, but he sees the process as only getting better. Marshall said he’ll push the city to investigate new voting machines in future years that are capable of tabulating the ranked choice votes on Election Day, eliminating the time-consuming Day 2 and Day 3 processes.
And Richie said he can even envision a future in which the whole state of Maine follows Portland’s lead in implementing ranked choice voting.
“It still seems different and it still seems ‘alternative’ to a lot of people right now,” Richie said. “But my hunch is there’s going to be a state or two out there — and Maine is a candidate, as is Minnesota — where this is adopted [at a state level]. Places where you have a regular pattern of having more than two candidates who get more than 10 percent of the voting, you get results that are questionable and that people challenge, you start to look for a new election system.”