Although Maine is poised to become the first in the nation to use ranked-choice voting in statewide races Tuesday, Portland has used the voting method twice already to choose a mayor.

The first time was in 2011. It took 14 instant runoff rounds to winnow a field of 15 candidates to a winner who had more than 50 percent of the vote. And not once did the initial order of the candidates change.

But in 2015, an instant runoff didn’t come into play at all, because the winner received a majority after the first round of counting in the three-way race.

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Those involved in both elections agreed that knowing voters would be ranking their candidates forced them to reach out to more voters and think twice about going negative, because it was important to appeal to an opponent’s supporters, whose backing would be needed in an instant runoff.

“We dramatically expanded the universe of people we reached out to and I think that’s a good thing in terms of campaigns,” said Michael Brennan, who in 2011 became Portland’s first popularly elected mayor in nearly 90 years through ranked-choice voting.

That year, some candidates openly endorsed one another, which is occurring this year with Mark Eves and Betsy Sweet teaming up in the Democratic primary for governor.

Four years later, Brennan was unseated by Ethan Strimling. Although voters ranked their candidates, no runoff was required because Strimling received 51 percent of the vote after the first round.

“Mike and I hold the record for being part of ranked-choice voting” in Maine, Strimling joked about the two elections they had been involved in.

‘A POSITIVE EXPERIENCE’

After Portland’s first ranked-choice election in 2011, FairVote, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that supports ranked-choice voting, conducted a survey of 122 voters. It found that 94 percent of those people fully understood ranked-choice voting and 66 percent said ranking the candidates was easy or very easy.

However, 52 percent ranked between two and five candidates in the 15-way race. And about 12 percent voted for only one person, which is referred to as bullet voting.

To help voters mark their ballots correctly, election officials left rulers in the voting booths and made magnifying glasses available for elderly and visually impaired voters.

Portland City Clerk Kathy Jones was only six months into her job when election night came around, but it went off smoothly. She said allowing the public and candidates to observe the ballot processing and instant runoff helped build confidence in the new system.

“For Portland, it’s been a positive experience,” Jones said.

‘VERY NERVE-RACKING’

Election nights are typically restless affairs for politicians, but ending the night without knowing who was the final winner made it particularly so.

Although Brennan had an 850-vote lead heading into the instant runoff, which took place the day after the election, he had no way of predicting the final outcome.

“It’s very nerve-racking,” Brennan said. “This was all new. I didn’t fully understand what to look for in terms of indicators for how things were going.”

Strimling agreed. After the first round of votes had him trailing Brennan, Strimling expressed confidence that it was indeed possible for him to come out on top, even though such cases are rare.

“Every election night is a sleepless night – win, lose or draw,” Strimling said. “Going into the instant runoff, you’re looking at the numbers trying to figure out how this will all play out.”

Staff was back at City Hall at 8 a.m. the day after the election, scanning the more than 20,000 ballots cast. The process took all day. (Jones noted that the city has new tabulators that do not require staff to hand-scan each ballot.)

But when the instant runoff finally began around 8 that night, candidates and a hearty crowd of onlookers packed into the State of Maine Room to watch each runoff round as it was displayed on a large screen. Candidate names were listed down the left side, and the finish line, marking 50 percent of the vote, was down the right.

“It’s exciting if it’s moving your way, and you feel a growing sense of anticipation that you may in fact win,” Brennan said. “It looked pretty much like a horse race with the bar graphs moving.”

It took eight rounds before the vote tabulations began to make any significant moves, primarily because those who finished at the bottom of the ballot didn’t get many votes to begin with.

Onlookers gasped after the votes of David Marshall – who finished fourth behind Brennan, Strimling and City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones Jr. – were allocated, giving twice as many votes (999) to Brennan as to Strimling (465).

“You’re welcome,” Marshall said, when he turned to Brennan that night.

The room fell silent for the final round of voting. Although Strimling and Brennan each received about 1,200 of Mavodones’ votes, Brennan’s early lead put him over the top.

The whole process took about 15 minutes, but it could have gone much quicker.

MAJORITY VS. PLURALITY

While ranked-choice voting produces a majority winner, it can be a majority of a smaller pool of voters.

For example, 19,728 valid ballots were tabulated in the first round in 2011, but that number had dropped to 16,234 by the final round, meaning nearly 3,500 voters did not rank the candidates deep enough to be included in the final tally.

So while Brennan received nearly 56 percent of the votes counted in the final round, it was only 46 percent of total votes cast in the initial round.

Even so, Strimling said ranked-choice voting helps create more of a mandate than a plurality system. He noted how Gov. Paul LePage was hounded by Democrats for only having received about 38 percent of the vote in 2010. Getting a majority through ranked-choice voting would have blunted that criticism, he said.

Strimling also noted how ranked-choice voting would have likely affected the overall outcome, since many voters were torn between Democrat Libby Mitchell and independent Eliot Cutler.

“As an elected official and knowing you have the majority of the electorate, it gives you more weight and strength to enact an agenda, and as a voter it allows me to really think through each candidate,” Strimling said. “You wanted to make sure (voters) knew you as deeply as possible because ranking you second or third could be almost as important as ranking you first.”

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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