A push to expand ranked-choice voting to all City Council and board of education elections in Portland has once again fallen short of qualifying for the November referendum ballot, city officials said Wednesday.

But activists hope to convince the council to take over the initiative and send it to voters in a future election, possibly in March.

City Clerk Katherine Jones said Wednesday that her office reviewed about 300 signatures that had been resubmitted by backers of the petition drive, but the Fair Elections Portland campaign fell 76 signatures short.

“For some, it’s a matter of interpretation,” Jones said about disputed signatures. “We’re not handwriting analysts. If it’s close, we give it to them.”

Anna Kellar, the chair of the Fair Elections Portland Steering Committee, said the group is not giving up and hopes to persuade the City Council to sponsor the charter change proposal. Kellar suggested the referendum could take place in March instead of in November.

“Fair Elections Portland worked hard to collect more signatures than have ever been gathered to place an initiative on a local ballot in Maine’s history, and the success of our effort speaks to the overwhelming public support for broader implementation of (ranked-choice voting),” Kellar said in an email Wednesday. “The City Council should recognize this and include the question on the March ballot.”

Kellar said Wednesday that there is not enough time for the council to go through the process of taking over the initiative in time for this fall’s election. Passage of the charter change in March could still set up ranked-choice elections in Portland in November 2020.

At least two councilors have said they’re willing to bring it forward, but questions remain about whether they have the legal authority to place the referendum question on the ballot.

Fair Elections Portland collected thousands of signatures over the summer for two charter amendments – one would expand the use of ranked-choice voting and another would require the city to create a municipal clean elections program. Both would have to be approved by a majority of city voters.

The clean elections amendment qualified for the ballot. The ranked-choice voting amendment originally fell short by 410 signatures, but the petitioners were given an opportunity to resubmit signatures if they believe they are valid. Some signatures may have been disqualified because of name changes that don’t match voting records, for example.

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.

Fair Elections Portland appealed the city’s disqualification of about 300 names, while also arguing that the city had originally set the threshold for signatures too high.

Jones honored the group’s request to lower the signature threshold, but the effort still came up short.

“They have been notified,” Jones said. “They came in and wanted to look at them. We showed them how we got our information.”

Jones said the Fair Elections campaign now has two days to ask the “municipal officers,” which is the City Council, to review the petitions. She referred other questions to the city’s legal department, which did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for information.

But Kellar said it’s futile to ask councilors to undertake the arduous task of reviewing the petitions, since she was told that ballots had to be finalized by Sept. 4, so they could be printed in time for the November election. “That would be a time-consuming process,” she said.

Charter amendments are governed by state law. A citizen-initiated change must begin with the collection of signatures from at least “20 percent of the number of votes cast in a municipality at the last gubernatorial election.”

Fair Elections Portland was originally told it needed to collect signatures from 6,816 registered voters in Portland, a total calculated by the overall voter turnout in the 2018 gubernatorial race.

But John Brautigam, an attorney representing campaign, argued that the city should have excluded the 806 ballots that did not include a vote for governor. That would reduce the number of signatures needed by 161.

Jones said Friday she agreed to use the lower signature threshold, since the state excludes blank ballots when determining the threshold for state initiatives. State elections, however, are outlined in the Constitution, which is worded differently than the state law governing municipalities.

Activists have said, if their petition fails, they 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.

Ray said Wednesday that the council would have to provide additional public notice that it’s taking on the initiative and schedule a new public hearing. And that process would extend beyond the deadline for finalizing ballots.

Ray also previously said she was awaiting a legal opinion about whether either or both of the clean elections or the ranked-choice voting charter changes would require the city to establish a charter commission.

The council can move minor charter amendments straight to the ballot for a vote, but more significant charter changes, such as the switch from a council-appointed mayor to a popularly elected mayor, require a longer, more deliberative process that includes establishing a charter commission.

Ray said she had not yet received legal advice about whether the clean elections and/or the ranked-choice voting amendments could proceed to the ballot.

City Attorney Danielle West-Chuhta did not respond to questions sent by email Friday or Wednesday.

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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