November 13, 2011

Our View: Brennan, ranked-choice voting both winners

Portland can have confidence in its new mayor and the system used to count the votes.

The results are in and Michael Brennan is not the only winner in Portland's mayoral election: The other is ranked-choice voting.

The new system of counting ballots, which attracted a high degree of skepticism from people in and around Maine's biggest city over the last year, got its trial run Tuesday and Wednesday, and it was the skeptics who were proven wrong.

A field of 15 candidates was whittled down to a three-way race, and Brennan, the candidate who proved to have the broadest appeal, ended up the winner. He will go into office next month with a majority of voters at his back.

This was exactly how the charter commission told us it would work, and despite a few equipment glitches that slowed down the final count Wednesday, it played out as predicted. Portland voters can be confident that their voices were heard and the process was fair and transparent.

Not all the predictions in this race proved so accurate.

Ranked-choice voting, we were warned, would be confusing, and people would stay away from the polls or fill out their ballots incorrectly. In fact, Portland had a better than 40 percent turnout, sky-high for an off-year municipal election, far exceeding the 25 percent turnout predicted by the City Clerk's Office.

Few voters reported any problems figuring out how to mark their ballots despite the huge field. Some ranked all 15 candidates, some just picked one while others expressed an opinion on a handful. Those were all valid votes that were reflected in the final count.

Ranked-choice voting, we were warned, would be easy to game. There would be exotic campaign strategies that would give fringe candidates a way to jump into the lead and steal the election. Based on Tuesday's results, the opposite was true. The three front-runners, Brennan, Ethan Strimling and Nick Mavodones, ran well-financed, traditional campaigns that mixed direct mail advertising and media buys with old fashioned door-knocking, looking for support. The three finished in first, second and third place in the initial vote count and stayed in that order until Mavodones was the 13th candidate eliminated Wednesday, putting Brennan over the 50-percent-plus-one-vote threshold. (He ended up with 56 percent.)

In fact, not one single candidate changed position during round after round of vote allocation each time the low-vote-getter was eliminated and their votes redistributed.

This, some are arguing, proves ranked-choice voting is a waste of time and money. But that ignores something else that didn't happen in this race: Without ranked-choice voting this would have been a very different campaign.

If they were just seeking to have the most votes on Election Night, the candidates would have targeted a number of voters, identified their supporters and made sure they turned out to the polls. In this case, about 5,000 votes from nearly 20,000 cast would have been enough.

A candidate with a hot-button neighborhood issue could have run away with the election without ever meeting a voter from another part of town. Under the ranked-choice system, candidates were forced to engage with each other and talk to each others' voters.

The result was an interesting conversation about Portland and its future that would not have happened in a "turn-out-your-base" election. That debate helped clarify the job description for Portland's mayor, and it will make life easier for Brennan when he shows up for work.

Portland residents can be confident that they have a political leader chosen by a majority vote who will represent all of them at home, in Augusta and in Washington. They can be confident that the process worked.The result was an interesting conversation about Portland and its future that would not have happened in a "turn-out-your-base" election. That debate helped clarify the job description for Portland's mayor, and make life easier for Michael Brennan.

 

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