PORTLAND — Officials are looking at ways to handle Portland’s first mayoral election with ranked-choice voting, which the city’s voting machines aren’t equipped to handle.

In November, voters will elect their mayor for the first time in 88 years. The uncommon voting system and the vote-counting machines’ inability to tabulate results are adding a wrinkle to an challenging election.

The fact that Portland is looking for a new city clerk — the official who runs elections — adds a major complication to the decision-making process. Options range from renting equipment for as much as $80,000 to the less costly but time-consuming process of hand-counting votes.

With ranked-choice, voters select the person they want to elect, then indicate their second, third and subsequent choices.

If no one has a majority when the ballots are counted, the last-place candidate is dropped and the remaining candidates get any second-choice votes cast for them on the eliminated candidate’s ballots.

That process continues until one candidate has a majority.

Portland’s voting machines are set up only for traditional elections, in which a voter picks one person for each position.

Portland residents adopted ranked-choice voting for mayor in November, when several changes to the city charter were approved, including the change establishing a popularly elected mayor for the first time since 1923.

For 88 years, the City Council has picked one of its nine members to be a part-time mayor.

Portland officials have contacted three companies about helping with this year’s election, including LHS Associates of Methuen, Mass., which handled ranked-choice voting in Burlington, Vt., until that city dropped the system after two elections.

John Sylvestro, the company’s president, said he has had preliminary conversations about handling Portland’s election by supplying the proper voting machines, ballots, memory sticks and other equipment. LHS Associates subcontracts for software that records and tabulates votes and comes up with results.

Sylvestro said his company’s system would provide results on election night.

City officials estimate it would cost $80,000 to use LHS’ system.

Another company would count ballots with the machines that Portland has now and, if no candidate got a majority, use scanners and software to read the ranked choices and determine the winner.

That would cost about $20,000, said Portland’s spokeswoman, Nicole Clegg, but the result probably wouldn’t be known until the day after the election.

The other option would be to hand-count ballots, Clegg said, which would yield a result within a day or two of the election.

That’s the approach favored by Nathan Smith, who was a member of the Portland Charter Commission, which recommended ranked-choice voting.

Smith said the commission knew that the system might require new machines. Opponents of the elected mayor cited that as a reason for voters to reject the charter change. Other objections included the cost of paying a full-time mayor and the lack of a significant enough increase in the mayor’s authority.

Smith noted that the state is developing new standards for voting machines, and said cities and towns might get financial help to buy new equipment if it adheres to the standards.

In the meantime, he said, a hand count would let voters see how ranked-choice voting works and, he hopes, convince them that it’s not a radical change or too complex.

“It really would enable people to watch it and see how it’s done,” he said.

Clegg said the choice is likely to be made after the city hires a new clerk, who can decide which system he or she prefers.

She said a City Council committee will interview candidates for that job this month and is expected to recommend someone to the council next month.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: [email protected]


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