Voters cast ballots at St. Pius Church Tuesday, Nov. 3. A record 42,097 people voted in the election that included local, state and federal offices as well as six citizen referendums. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — After long lines at the polls, an historic number of absentee ballots and ranked-choice voting being used for municipal elections for the first time, City Clerk Kathy Jones was relieved this week that the hectic Nov. 3 election is over and pleased with how the process bore out.

“There were big lines everywhere first thing in the morning, but once we got through that things quieted down,” Jones said.

In total 42,097, or 67%, of the registered voters in the city participated in the election, including close to 31,500 via absentee ballot.

“Things went really smoothly in all the polling locations,” Jones said. “There were no issues or concerns. Everyone was pleased with the result of how the election went.”

There was a slight hiccup, however. Because of a tabulating error in which the number of total votes was input as the number of absentee votes, the unofficial results released by the city initially incorrectly reported the tallies for City Council and school board races.

Jones said it was a simple human error and not due to a malfunction of the high-speed tabulators the city rented for the election.

“We just put the wrong numbers in. It didn’t have anything to do with the machines or someone sneaking in ballots. It was just a miscommunication in the vote total,” she said.

The error, which was fixed by the time official results were released, did not change any race results.

The unofficial tallies made it seem that ranked-choice voting had changed the outcome of the at-large school board race. The unofficial results had Yusuf Yusuf finishing second to Stacey Hang after all the in-person and absentee votes were counted, heading them into the ranked-choice runoff. That was not the case, however. According to the official results, Yusuf captured the most votes across the city, although he did need the ranked-choice runoff to gain the majority of votes.

With ranked-choice voting, in a three-way race for example, voters rank their first-, second- and third-place choices. Votes are counted until one person has more than 50% of the vote. If no one receives more than 50%, the person with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated and the second-choice votes on those ballots are counted. The process continues until a candidate receives more than 50%.

Although the ranked-choice voting system has been in place since 2011 for mayoral races, this was the first election in which it was in effect for local races. In March, voters across the city overwhelmingly passed a measure that allowed ranked-choice voting to be used to elect candidates for City Council and school board. The system has been used in state races since 2018.

Hang said “it was tough” to see her race go through ranked-choice voting, a system she doesn’t agree with.

“I don’t support it in any way, shape or form. We don’t always like 100% of the candidates, but you go with the one you think will fulfill what you are hoping for,” she said.

The at-large school board race was not the only race that was determined by ranked-choice voting. Mark Dion’s victory in the District 5 council race and April Fournier’s victory in the at-large council race came through ranked-choice voting.

Anna Kellar, of Fair Elections Portland, who helped to spearhead the effort to use ranked-choice voting for local elections, was pleased the system determined three races in last week’s election. Kellar expects it to factor heavily in future elections as well.

“We’ve been seeing City Council and school board races with three or more candidates the last few years and I expect that to continue. What I hope is ranked-choice voting results in more interest in running and more choice for voters,” Kellar said.

Ron Schmidt, a professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine, said “a lot of people are paying attention to Maine’s experiment with ranked-choice voting.”

This election Maine became the first state in the country to use ranked-choice voting to choose a president.

“Ranked-choice voting gives candidates incentive to reach out to a broader swatch of people instead of just relying on their base,” he said.

Back in 2018, the system changed the outcome of the 2nd Congressional race, swinging the election in Jared Golden’s favor although Bruce Poliquin initially earned a higher percentage of the votes.

“It is not transformative,” Schmidt said of the system, “but it does have an effect on the way people campaign. The hope is with ranked-choice voting, campaigns will be less negative in the future.”

Mark Brewer, a professor of political science at the University of Maine at Orono, said a number of large cities, including San Francisco and Oakland in California, have long used ranked-choice voting for local races and New York City will as well beginning next year.

“Plurality is still the most popular system, but the attention ranked-choice voting is getting and its use is increasingly growing, but maybe not as quickly as the attention it is getting,” Brewer said.

Brewer said other states are looking to follow Maine’s lead and adopt it for certain races, but none have as of yet. It was on the ballot in Massachusetts, but failed when 54% of voters rejected the measure.

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