PORTLAND – Voters’ rejection of an instant runoff system for electing the mayor in Burlington, Vt., shouldn’t change efforts to adopt the system in Maine’s largest city, say members of the Portland Charter Commission.

Burlington residents voted to repeal their system last week, 3,972 to 3,669. That system was viewed as a model for Portland’s mayoral election under a revised charter.

The system is designed to ensure that no candidate can win without the support of a clear majority of voters.

After endorsing the idea of having voters, rather than city councilors, elect the city’s mayor, the Portland Charter Commission voted 9-1 last month to endorse the new election system. Portland would be the only municipality in Maine to use the system.

The fact that Burlington repealed the system after two electoral cycles shouldn’t change the charter commission’s direction, some members said Monday.

“I do know the system worked when they used it to elect people there,” said Nathan Smith, a member of the group that’s reviewing the city’s charter. “We’ll probably take a look at the circumstances there, see if there’s anything to be learned.”

Pamela Plumb, chair of the commission, said Burlington was a good model for Portland and showed how the system could work. The fact that voters rejected it also shows it can be “very controversial,” she said.

“Does that mean we shouldn’t do it here? I don’t think so,” Plumb said. “I think we need to learn from and understand what has happened in Burlington.”

The instant runoff system, also called ranked-choice voting, isn’t used widely. Communities that employ it include Minneapolis, San Francisco, Aspen, Colo., Takoma Park, Md., the state of Alaska and Pierce County, Wash.

It’s essentially a series of runoff elections, tallied in rounds. On ballots, voters rank candidates in order of preference by filling in the first-choice box next to their favorite candidate, the second-choice box next to their second favorite, and so on.

After the polls close, the first-choice votes are counted for all candidates. If no candidate gets a majority, the ballots are recounted with the last-place candidate eliminated.

The second-choice votes on ballots won by the eliminated candidate are redistributed to the remaining candidates.

In later rounds, if a second-choice candidate has already been eliminated, voters’ third-choice votes are redistributed. The process repeats until one candidate has a clear majority.

In Burlington, there are Democrats, Republicans and Progressives on the City Council. In last year’s mayoral election, the Republican candidate finished first in the first two rounds. But the Progressive candidate won the election in the third round after gaining most of the second-choice votes of Democrats and independents.

Kurt Wright, the Republican who lost that race, was involved in the campaign to repeal ranked-choice voting in Burlington. The campaign argued that elections had become so confusing that they disenfranchised poorer and less-educated voters.

Those who wanted to keep ranked-choice voting told the Burlington Free Press newspaper that the repeal vote was more a referendum on the mayor who won last year than a sign of dissatisfaction with the voting system.

“It struck me that the circumstances surrounding that whole issue were politically pretty charged,” said Smith, from Portland’s Charter Commission.

Plumb said the issue boils down to a difference in political philosophy regarding how a populace wants its elections run.

Some believe the mayor should be elected with a majority of votes, to reflect a mandate. Others feel the person with the most votes should win, regardless of the percentage, she said.

“I think it’s a philosophical choice,” said Plumb. “Does (Burlington’s repeal) force us in Portland to change our mind about what we want to put out? No, it doesn’t.”

Richard Ranaghan Jr. was the only member of the Charter Commission to vote against instant runoff voting.

“The whole premise of voting is plurality, not majority. We elect people every day with a plurality,” said Ranaghan. “I don’t see any reason to change it.”

The vote in Burlington reinforces his position, he said.

 

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

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