I don’t know about you, but I’m buying a jumbo bucket of popcorn for next week’s Portland mayoral election.
“Get here early – to claim your spot,” advised City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg on Thursday. “It will be very dramatic.”
Not to mention time-consuming.
This much we can predict about the 15-candidate contest to become Portland’s first elected, sort-of-strong mayor: By the time it ends sometime Wednesday, the ranked-choice voting process by which the winner gets elected will be as much a topic of discussion – maybe more so – than who that winner actually is.
The curtain actually opens as usual Tuesday evening, when most if not all of the candidates will gather in watering holes around downtown Portland to watch the returns, thank their supporters and bellow such battle cries as “It’s still early” and “We’re encouraged by what we’re hearing” and “It’s going to be a long night.”
They’ll have that last one right.
As in any election, the mayoral wannabes will get a running tally on who has the most first-place votes. But unlike other elections, they won’t have a clue what those numbers actually mean.
Why not? Because no one – not even perceived front-runners Michael Brennan, Ethan Strimling or Nick Mavodones (OK, Jed Rathband, you too) – is expected to get anything close to 50 percent of the total votes cast. Hence those Election Night parties will end, as Clegg put it, with a less-than-climactic “to be continued …” at 8 a.m. in City Hall’s State of Maine Room.
That’s when TrueBallot Inc., the Washington, D.C.-based election services firm hired by the city for $20,000 to crunch Portland’s thousands of number-filled ballots, will fire up its computer and – presto! – turn a 20-something-percent plurality into a 50-percent-plus-one majority.
“There’s going to be scanning (of each and every ballot) going on for three or four hours, tops,” said Caleb Kleppner, a vice president for TrueBallot, who will oversee the operation. “And there’s going to be reviewing, which may be hours.”
And then, at long last, the real show starts.
Technically speaking, it all could be over in seconds: As complicated as ranked-choice voting sounds, the computer (we hope) will instantaneously eliminate the last-place finisher, distribute his or her votes to the various second-place finishers on that person’s ballots, repeat the process again … and again … and again … until His/Her Honor crosses the 50-percent finish line.
“In fact, when we run the software, we’re going to press (the proverbial button) once and it’s going to run through all the rounds,” Kleppner said. “But when we present the results to the public, we’re going to go round by round.”
Welcome to Survivor Democracy – complete with high-fives and fist bumps among those still standing while, as Clegg so tactfully put it, the latest in a growing line of Biggest Losers “runs off in tears.”
Now all of this assumes the system – with its complex hardware, its not-always-perfect ballots, its utter newness – actually works. For yet another layer of potential drama, let’s drop in on the city of Aspen, Colo.
“There was a huge amount of dissatisfaction with IRV (instant ranked voting) here,” said Marilyn Marks of Aspen in a telephone interview Thursday. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t know how bad it was going to be.”
Marks ran against three other people for mayor of Aspen in May 2009 – the first and only time “America’s Canary City” (I’m not making this up) used ranked-choice voting to select its top politician.
After four elimination rounds, Marks lost – coming in second to current Mayor Mick Ireland in a computerized runoff also conducted by TrueBallot.
Marks, insisting she wasn’t a sore loser, went on to sue the city over its refusal to let her examine electronic copies of each and every ballot cast in the election. Just this fall, the Colorado Court of Appeals overturned a lower-court ruling and agreed with Marks that the digitized images are in fact public records.
Marks also claims the 2009 election was rife with errors and malfunctions. TrueBallot’s Kleppner counters that Marks, a thorn in his company’s side if ever there was one, doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
But here’s the takeaway: A year ago this week, the good citizens of Aspen had no difficulty achieving a majority on whether to keep ranked-choice voting. Sixty-five percent voted to scuttle it.
(For the record, the same thing happened in Burlington, Vt., where ranked-choice voting for mayor was tried once in 2009 and then got the heave-ho in 2010.)
Marks actually emailed municipal officials here in Portland back in May to warn that her city’s experience was “nothing short of disastrous.”
But City Hall spokeswoman Clegg insists that if all goes according to plan, whatever may or may not have happened out there won’t happen here.
“I think we have spent a lot of time trying to anticipate anything that could happen,” Clegg said. “We’ve invested a lot of time and energy into developing rules. We’ve spent a lot of time on voter education to make sure people know how to complete the ballot.”
She can say that again. When Kleppner came to City Hall earlier this fall to explain to the media and others how the system works, he transformed the long list of candidates into so many fictional superheroes to explain who conquers whom – and how.
Not to be outdone, WCSH-TV’s Caroline Cornish deftly laid out the process this week with an assist from her collection of Beanie Babies.
All of which portends that this will be anything but a ho-hum election. We’re talking political theater here – and possibly a marathon performance at that.
“It depends on turnout. It depends on how smoothly things go,” said Kleppner. “But I certainly hope I’m not having dinner in City Hall.”
Maybe I should bring Raisinettes.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: