Ranked-choice balloting is wild card in mayor's race
Candidates will be 'guinea pigs' in a campaign where no one is really sure what will work, an analyst says.
By Edward D. Murphy firstname.lastname@example.org
PORTLAND - The chance to be the city's first elected mayor in generations is attracting a long list of candidates who also will have the distinction of being the first Maine politicians content to be a voter's second or third choice, thanks to ranked-choice voting.
Ten candidates have registered with the city so far, meaning they are free to raise money and build a campaign organization.
Nominating papers, which will require signatures of at least 300 Portland voters, will be available July 1 and must be returned to the city clerk between Aug. 15 and Aug. 29.
The ballot is expected to get even more crowded in the coming weeks, with candidates attracted by the full-time job -- it will pay about $66,000 a year -- the four-year term, some limited powers and the ability to set precedents.
"We're looking for our George Washington, someone who can take the position and transform it," said Jim Cohen, a former councilor and mayor who was on the charter commission that drafted the rules making the mayor position subject to ranked-choice voting. Voters ratified the charter in November.
Cohen said supporters believe an elected mayor is needed to provide leadership and establish a long-range vision for the city. Currently, mayors are city councilors who are chosen by their peers and hold the largely ceremonial post for one year.
Cohen is now involved in a group called Portland Tomorrow, whose members have developed a list of criteria they'd like to see in a mayor. Cohen reiterated that he's not running.
The organization also plans to publicize the ranked-choice election method, under which voters will mark their ballots not only for the candidate they'd like to see win, but also rank the rest in order of preference.
If no candidate gets a majority of first-place votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is dropped and the second choices of those voters are added to the first-choice totals for all other candidates. It's possible that the new totals would require a change in the order of finish.
If no one has a majority after one candidate is dropped, the new last-place candidate is dropped and his or her second-choice votes are added to the first-choice totals. If any voter's second choice is a candidate who's already been eliminated, the voter's third choice gets the vote, and so on.
The process continues until one candidate gets more than 50 percent. Voters need not rank all the candidates, but that would reduce their say if the runoff process continues for more than a round or two.
Michael Brennan, a former state legislator who recently announced his mayoral candidacy, said the ranked-choice approach will mean less negative campaigning.
In a conventional race with so many candidates, one might go on the attack, hoping to galvanize supporters and get perhaps a quarter or a third of the vote, likely enough to win with 10 or more names on the ballot, he said.
"In this race, you can't do that, or at least you can't do that successfully," he said.
The large field will probably separate into a group of front-runners, all jockeying to stand out while not turning off the other candidates' supporters, said Edward S. O'Meara Jr., managing principal for public affairs at Garrand, a Portland communications company.
Ranked-choice voting, he said, means the candidates in this year's race are "guinea pigs," where no one can really be sure what will work.
"You don't necessarily have to get more votes, but you need to be a very strong number two or everybody's number three," he said. "It's uncharted territory."
Maybe for Maine, but San Francisco has had ranked voting -- also known as instant-runoff voting, because it ends up with a winner getting more than 50 percent of the vote -- since 2004.
Francis Neely, an associate professor of political science at San Francisco State University, said exit polls he conducted have indicated that four out of five voters like the method. But in the first two races run under the system, 30 percent to 40 percent went to the polls not realizing they would be asked to rank candidates.
Neely said San Francisco's system allows voters to rank up to three candidates and it produces some strange campaign tactics. In the last election, he said, a sign on a bus stop had the names and pictures of three candidates for the same position, basically asking voters to allocate their three votes among that trio, regardless of who was picked first, second or third.
"It's not an 'either-or' thing," he said.
In every San Francisco election, the candidate who finished first in the initial round of ballot counting has gone on to win, Neely said. But in Oakland, which adopted the system more recently, a candidate who finished third in the initial count ended up winning.
The winner had specifically courted supporters of other candidates for their second- and third-choice votes, he said.
David Marshall, a councilor who is running for mayor, said voters he talks to are looking forward to choosing a mayor, even though the election is still nearly six months away.
As for ranked-choice voting, "people are trying to get a handle on it, but they're generally excited about it and think it's a system withhttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif legitimacy," he said.
Marshall said he thinks it would be a good system for other offices, such as Maine's governor, which often ends up with a winner selected by less than a majority because of independent and third-party candidates.
But that is likely years off, he said, and only if Portland's system proves successful and other cities and towns in Maine adopt it.
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: