Activists trying to expand ranked-choice voting to all municipal elections in Portland submitted new documents Friday challenging the city’s rejection of their referendum effort.

In addition to contesting the city’s decision to disqualify about 300 signatures, the advocates say the minimum number of required signatures was set too high by the city and should be reduced.

Fair Elections Portland was informed Monday that its petition to expand ranked-choice voting to City Council and Board of Public Education races fell 410 valid signatures short of the city’s threshold for the November ballot. The ranked-choice method, which allows voters to rank candidates by preference, has been used in Portland’s mayoral races since 2011.

In a ranked-choice election, voters rank the candidates in order of preference. If no one wins a majority after the first tally, election officials eliminate the last-place finisher and redistribute that candidate’s votes based on each voter’s second-choice ranking. This process continues – with non-viable candidates being eliminated from the bottom up and their votes reallocated – until someone hits the magic threshold of 50 percent plus one vote.

The group has until Sept. 3 to resubmit disqualified signatures it believes are valid, such as signatures using a nickname or unmarried name.

On Friday, the group appealed about 300 signatures that it believes should be considered valid. The activists also argued that the city set the threshold for valid signatures – 6,816 – higher than it should be because of how it interpreted state law. The combination of lowering the threshold and adding about 300 more valid signatures could clear the way for the question to go on the ballot in November.

“There was an outpouring of support for the broader implementation of RCV in Portland, and we thought it was crucial that every voter in the city has a chance to weigh in come November,” said Anna Kellar, chair of the Fair Elections Portland Steering Committee.

The group’s challenge may face an uphill battle. Maine’s top election official, Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, said Friday that he agrees with the city’s original interpretation of the rules governing the charter amendment process, including the minimum number of signatures.

However, Portland City Clerk Katherine Jones said Friday afternoon that she intends to honor the group’s request to reduce the signature threshold, based at least in part on how the state sets signature thresholds for citizen initiatives.

Municipal charter amendments such as the proposed change in Portland’s voting process are governed by state law, which says petitions must have at least enough valid voter signatures to equal “20 percent of the number of votes cast in a municipality at the last gubernatorial election.”

The question is whether that means 20 percent of the total ballots cast during the 2018 election or 20 percent of the total number of votes cast for candidates in the race for governor. A total of 34,082 Portland voters cast ballots in that election, but some of them left the governor’s race blank. Only 33,276 cast votes for one of the people running for governor.

Portland initially required at least 6,816 valid signatures based on total ballots cast in the election, but the petitioners argue the threshold should be 6,655  based on votes for gubernatorial candidates.

“I have honored (their) request to remove the blanks from the gubernatorial race, which now puts them still short by 249 signatures,” Jones said in an email Friday afternoon.

Dena Libner, communications director for Democracy Maine, a collaboration between the League of Women Voters of Maine and Maine Citizens for Clean Elections that is pursuing the charter amendment, said in addition to disputing the threshold, the group reviewed roughly 1,000 signatures deemed invalid by the city and resubmitted about 300  for a second review.

John Brautigam, an attorney representing Fair Elections Portland, sent a letter to the city clerk that said the city should follow the state’s lead and use only the votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial race, rather than total turnout, for calculating the threshold for citizen petitions. He pointed to the signature threshold for the current people’s veto petition, which was set at 63,067.

“It excludes blank ballots,” Brautigam said. “The statewide vote tally from the 2018 gubernatorial election makes it clear that the secretary of state did not consider the 15,346 blank ballots as ‘votes’ when calculating the signature threshold.”

Dunlap, however, said different rules apply to each process. He said the rules for people’s vetoes, outlined in the state constitution, clearly say that the number of signatures “shall not be less than 10 percent of the total vote for Governor cast,” whereas the charter amendment cites “votes cast in a municipality at the last gubernatorial election.”

Dunlap believes the city’s initial interpretation of the state law is correct. “It would be 20 percent of the voter turnout,” he said.

If the petition efforts fail, activists are still hoping to place the measure on the November ballot by having a city councilor bring it forward. So far, City Councilor Belinda Ray and Mayor Ethan Strimling have said they’re willing to do so.

However, Ray said the council is awaiting a legal opinion about whether such a move is possible. Councilors can bring forward minor charter amendments for the ballot. But Ray said the city’s legal staff is looking into whether an amendment that began as a citizen’s initiative and falls sort of the signature threshold can be picked up by the council. In addition, while minor charter amendments can be moved straight to the ballot for a vote, more significant charter changes require the city to establish a charter commission.

City Attorney Danielle West-Chuhta did not immediately respond to questions Friday.

While the ranked-choice referendum is uncertain, Fair Elections Portland successfully gathered enough signatures to ask voters this fall if they want Portland to establish Maine’s first municipal clean elections program that would limit private fundraising for candidates that opt to use public money for political campaigns. The proposal could establish a program similar to 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 City Council is scheduled to 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.

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