A referendum to extend ranked-choice voting to all City Council and Board of Education races in Portland failed to get enough valid signatures to appear on the ballot in November, the city clerk said.

But a separate referendum initiative to establish a local clean elections program did qualify for the ballot and is moving forward, City Clerk Katherine Jones said.

The petitions for ranked-choice voting fell about 400 signatures short of the required number after more than 1,000 were disqualified by the clerk’s office as duplicates or for not matching the names of registered voters. Organizers with Fair Elections Portland, the group pursuing both referendums, said they hope to overturn the city’s ruling and have 10 days to file supplemental information to show at least 400 of the discarded signatures are valid, perhaps because of nicknames or name changes.

If they fail to overturn the clerk’s decision, group leaders said they hope to convince councilors to support putting the question on the ballot anyway.

Anna Kellar, the chair of the Fair Elections Portland Steering Committee, was surprised that the ranked-choice initiative fell short. Kellar said that volunteers had two petitions each and ranked-choice voting was the second petition people were asked to sign, which is probably why it fell short. Portland voters are familiar with ranked-choice voting because it is already used to elect the city’s mayor.

“We actually thought that ranked-choice would be a shoo-in and clean elections would take a little more convincing,” said Kellar, who is also the executive director of the League of Women Voters of Maine and Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.

In a ranked-choice election, voters rank the other candidates in order of preference. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes, the last-place candidates are eliminated and their ballots are redistributed to the other candidates based on the second or third choices. That process continues until one candidate gets a majority.

Portland has been using ranked-choice voting for mayoral elections since 2011 and the voting method was extended by the Legislature to statewide primaries and federal races last year.

Though the ranked-choice campaign came up short, the clerk’s office certified Fair Elections Portland’s other petition. It would ask voters this fall if they want Portland to establish a local clean elections program that would limit private fundraising for candidates that opt to use public money for political campaigns.

If adopted by city voters, Portland would be the first municipality in the state with such a program.

The proposal could establish a program similar one used by state legislative and gubernatorial candidates, who have to collect a certain amount of small donations before qualifying for public funding for their campaigns.

The referendum does not include details, including the amount of financing that should be made available to candidates in district or at-large races. Those details would be left up to the City Council, which would have to have a program up and running by 2021.

The City Council is scheduled hold a public hearing on both referendums on Sept. 4, although the date was set before the clerk’s office rejected the ranked-choice voting petition.

Fair Elections Portland had to collect 6,816 valid signatures of registered Portland voters – or 20 percent of the city’s voters in the most recent gubernatorial election – to get the each measure on the ballot.

Earlier this month, the group announced that it had collected more than 16,000 signatures for both referendums combined, with more than half of those on the clean elections petitions.

Jones, the city clerk, said that city staff go through an extensive process to verify the names on the petitions and confirm the people are registered to vote in Portland, sometimes spending 10 minutes on a questionable or illegible name.

Jones said about 1,000 signatures on the ranked-choice petition were invalid and another 500 were duplicates.

“I know we have done a thorough process,” Jones said, noting that about 20 percent typically come back as invalid. “We go through so many steps to try to give them that signature.”

Fair Elections Portland had to collect an exceptionally high number of signatures to get on the fall ballot, because voter turnout in Portland for the last gubernatorial election was so high. Over 34,000 Portlanders voted in the 2018 gubernatorial election. That’s about 4,000 more than voted in 2014.

Kellar said the signatures were collected by about 100 volunteers, starting in May.

“We really had to go out into a lot of different neighborhoods,” Kellar said. “That was a good thing. We had to involve every segment of the Portland people in the campaign.”

Jones said it’s possible that some people may have signed a petition using their nickname, rather than their legal name; or that there could be a discrepancy between a married name and the voter registry.

Kellar said the group will file a supplemental petition with the city. The group has 10 days to review the roughly 1,000 signatures that were deemed invalid and submit corrections to the clerk. They’d need the city to reverse course on 410 signatures to clear the threshold.

Jones said that because of the holiday weekend the deadline for the group to submit corrections would likely be Sept. 3.

Kellar said she is “pretty confident” that they will get the measure on the ballot.

“We still feel like we did it,” Kellar said. “We want to make sure that all of the signatures from Portland voters are counted.”

City Councilor Belinda Ray said that she would like see ranked-choice voting extended to all races, but it wasn’t immediately clear whether the council could simply vote to put the ranked-choice charter change on the city ballot.

Ray sponsored a charter change last year to increase financial reporting requirements for candidates, but she and city officials have not determined whether a similar process could be used for ranked-choice voting, given that the process began as a citizen-initiative.

“If the signatures that have been gathered are found to be insufficient when the petition process is incomplete, I would be interested in bringing the item forward so the council can decide whether or not to place it on the ballot in November,” Ray said Wednesday. “ I haven’t yet determined if that will be possible, but if it is I will pursue it.”

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