November 4, 2011

Bill Nemitz: Mayoral vote easy as 1-2-3. Or not …

By Bill Nemitz

I don't know about you, but I'm buying a jumbo bucket of popcorn for next week's Portland mayoral election.


You can learn more about all the candidates in the Portland Mayor Race 2011 special section.

"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.

(Continued on page 2)

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