Proponents of changing the way city officials are elected in Portland were dealt another setback Wednesday night when the City Council voted not to put either of their initiatives on the November ballot.

An initiative to extend ranked-choice voting to all city races fell short of the number of signatures needed qualify for the ballot. The city attorney found that a second initiative, to create a municipal clean elections program, constituted too significant a change to be made via referendum, and instead could require the formation of a charter commission.

“This is not what more than 7,000 Portland voters signed for,” said Anna Kellar of Fair Elections Portland, which proposed the changes. “There is no doubt in our minds that creating a voluntary system of public funding does not require a charter commission. … We are not stopping fighting until clean elections is on the ballot for voters to decide.”

Councilors could decide at their next meeting whether to ask voters if they want to create a charter commission, or propose another way of putting the question to voters in a future election. But councilors expressed little interest in forming a charter commission, which would not be limited to reviewing a clean elections program and could make other changes, including to the elected mayor’s position.

Portland would be the first municipality in the state to have a local clean elections program.

The proposal would establish a program similar to one used by state legislative and gubernatorial candidates, who have to collect a certain number of small donations to qualify for public campaign funding.


The proposal did 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.

City Attorney Danielle West-Chuhta said that because the proposal would require the council to allocate funding annually for a clean elections program, it would constitute a fundamental change to the balance of power in the city.

“As a result, the proposed substantial change constitutes a charter revision and is the type of fundamental change that a Charter Commission must review,” West-Chuhta wrote in a memo to councilors.

City Councilor Pious Ali encouraged the council to offer the clean elections question as a charter amendment, even though that would run contrary to West-Chuhta’s legal advice and could expose the city to a potential lawsuit. But only Mayor Ethan Strimling voted in support of that.

“I understand this does require us to spend money,” Strimling said. “For me, a charter revision is more significant than requiring the city spend money.”

Other councilors decided to follow the legal advice of the city’s attorney.


City Councilors Belinda Ray and Justin Costa said they would look for a way residents could vote on a clean elections program without establishing a charter commission.

“I don’t think there’s a lot that would need to be tweaked with the language,” Ray said. “That’s another route.”

The Fair Elections Portland campaign is being run by Democracy Maine, a collaboration between the League of Women’s Voters and Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.

The group also sought to extend ranked-choice voting to all City Council and Board of Public Education races.

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.

Advocates fell short of gathering the required signatures to ask voters in November to expand ranked-choice voting in Portland and asked the council to put the question to voters in March.

The council is expected to take up that request at a future meeting.

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