Ranked-choice vote to pick Portland's mayor both simple, confusing

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PORTLAND — Election Day will be historic not only because the city is choosing its first popularly elected mayor in 88 years, but also for the way the mayor is elected.

The city will be using a process known as ranked-choice, or instant-runoff voting. It allows a majority winner to be chosen from a large field of candidates without a runoff election.

Portland’s 15 candidates will be listed vertically in alphabetical order on the ballot. To the right of each name will be bubbles in 15 columns to indicate the voter’s order of preference.

Voters will rank the candidates by filling in ovals for their first choice, second choice, third choice and so on.

Ron Schmidt, a political science professor at the University of Southern Maine, said voters may initially be overwhelmed by the ballot, especially with 15 candidates.

“Fifteen or more is a lot,” he said. “It is confusing.”

But Schmidt said the process probably reduces negative campaigning typically seen in a “winner-take-all” election, since the winner will need votes from people who support his or her opponents.

“Ranked-choice voting does give people an incentive to not (campaign negatively),” he said.

After the polls close on Nov. 8, City Clerk Katherine Jones said the ballots will initially be processed using the city’s voting machines. If one candidate earns a majority – 50 percent plus one vote – of the first-place votes cast, that person will be declared the winner, she said.

But if no one gets a majority of first-place votes in the first round, the instant runoff begins – the next day. Jones said that’s where workers from TrueBallot, which was awarded a $20,000 contract by the city, will take over.

She said the Washington, D.C.-based company plans to bring six scanners and a projection screen to the State of Maine room in City Hall to conduct the runoff the day after the election. The company will be able to inspect and scan about 6,000 ballots an hour.

“The longest part of this is the scanning and the reviewing,” Jones said.

Caleb Kleppner, of TrueBallot, said digital photos will be taken of each ballot. That image, as well as how the computer tallied the vote, will be reviewed by a human to make sure it is counted correctly.

Kleppner said the review will catch ballots where someone may have incorrectly marked a vote, crossed it out and made another preference clear. While the computer might call that vote invalid, staff will be able to decipher voter intent.

“If the computer misinterprets the image for any reason, that’s when the election judge will tell us how it will be counted,” he said. “It will take as long as it takes.”

Jones declined to predict voter turnout, other than to say it could be high. The city ordered 48,500 ballots, including 11,000 absentee ballots. As of late last week, 600 absentee ballots had already been cast, she said.

Kleppner said once all of the ballots are inspected and scanned, the software will conduct the runoffs “in a matter of seconds.” Results will be displayed in percentages and bar graphs to show people what is happening, he said.

The software will eliminate the lowest voter-getter and attribute the second choices on those ballots to the remaining candidates’ totals. If no one gets a majority, another runoff is conducted, where the lowest voter-getter in that round is eliminated, and their second choices are distributed to the remaining candidates.

“The candidates are being eliminated in the order of their unpopularity,” Kleppner said.

The instant-runoff process will continue until someone has a majority of the total votes in any round.

“The only way you’re going to be looking at someone’s fifth choice is if they ranked the five least popular candidates,” Kleppner said. “You’re more likely to hit a more popular candidate early in your rankings.”

Jones said if a voter marks more than one candidate as their first choice, the ballot will be voided.

Proponents say the ranked-choice system makes it easier for people to vote for lesser-known candidates without feeling as though they are throwing away a vote.

Schmidt said instant-runoff voting gives candidates an incentive to stay positive, form coalitions and compromise. But that becomes more difficult with a field as large as Portland’s.

“It makes it harder to form those coalitions,” he said.

Opponents of the process say ranked-choice voting is confusing. Some say it produces a winner through a “false majority,” where voters do not truly know who the top contenders are in any given round.

Ranked-choice voting may also create a situation where the person who received the most votes (though not a majority) in the first two rounds could actually lose the election in a subsequent round.

That was the case in the 2009 mayoral race in Burlington, Vt. Residents reacted by petitioning and ultimately repealing the ranked-choice system.

Kleppner said his company is experienced at dealing with large fields of candidates. He said it’s rare that someone who gets the most first-place votes doesn’t end up winning the election. In Australia, where instant runoff voting has been common for decades, that has only happened 5 percent of the time, he said.

Ultimately, Kleppner suggested voters not over-think the process.

“It’s a pretty simple process,” he said. “You rank your candidates in order of preference.”

Jones and Kleppner said people should rank as many, or as few, candidates as they feel comfortable ranking.

“We tell everybody to rank until they have no preference,” Jones said.

But Schmidt, who lives in Portland, said he is ranking all 15. He had some simple advice for voters.

“Do your homework,” he said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings

Sidebar Elements

The sample ballot for the Nov. 8 mayoral election  in Portland.

For more information

More information about ranked-choice voting can be found online at PortlandMaine.gov/voter/voter.asp. Pamphlets are also available in the City Clerk’s office at Portland City Hall.