Portland voters will soon begin casting ballots to decide the fate of the school budget and elect nine charter commission members who could recommend big changes to the structure of city government.

The roles of the elected mayor and the appointed city manager, as well as the composition of the City Council, could all be up for review by whoever wins seats on the commission.

Voters will find most of the same precautions implemented last year to slow the spread of the coronavirus, including the use of outdoor ballot drop boxes that were installed for the presidential election. And officials say they are prepared to use ranked-choice voting to determine the winners of charter commission contests, including a nine-way race for four at-large seats that will require multiple instant runoffs.

City Clerk Kathy Jones said all 11 voting precincts will be open to voters on June 8. But absentee voting won’t begin until the City Council has approved the school budget, a vote on which is scheduled for May 10, she said.

If the budget is approved for the ballot as expected, the city will distribute absentee ballots and open the lobby of Merrill Auditorium for early in-person absentee voting on May 11, Jones said. In-person absentee voting will be available from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. until June 4, she said, with the exception of June 3, when in-person absentee voting will be extended to 7 p.m.

“As of right now we will not be opened on a Saturday,” she said.

Jones said voters are able to request their absentee ballots now by either calling the clerk’s office (874-8677) or by filling out an absentee ballot application form available on the city’s website and returning it to City Hall by mail (389 Congress St., Portland ME 04101), faxing (874-8612) or email.

The city announced Wednesday that it has launched a new online request form on the city’s website.

Jones said she expects a similar turnout to last summer’s primaries, in which 32 percent of the city’s 60,000 voters cast ballots. She said last summer, the city received about 14,000 absentee ballots and roughly 6,000 ballots were cast in person on election day. “Typically, this would be a school budget referendum and it usually doesn’t produce a large turnout,” she said.

But in addition to the school budget, voters will be electing nine individuals to serve on the charter commission using ranked-choice voting.

Although ranked-choice voting has been used in the city since 2011, this will be the first time the city will be using the method to elect people for multiple at-large seats in the same race.

There are currently 11 people running for four at-large seats on the commission. Jones said voters should rank their favorite candidates in order of preference, just like they would in any other ranked-choice election.

Determining the winners is where things get a little complicated.

In a traditional election, the four candidates with the most votes would win the seats. But Portland’s ranked-choice voting rules require candidates for all local offices to receive more than 50 percent of the vote to win a seat. Under that system, last place candidates are removed and their votes redistributed until a winner receives a majority.

Jones said the city will essentially be conducting four separate instant runoffs, or one for each seat. The first candidate to surpass 50 percent of the vote during the first runoff will win one seat. Then that person is effectively removed from the race and another runoff of all of the ballots will determine the second winner – and so on until all four seats are filled.

Chris Hughes, a policy adviser for the Ranked Choice Resource Center, a national group of ranked-choice voting experts, said the software used to conduct instant runoff elections is programmed to remove the winner after each round. It’s something the software already does when it removes the lowest vote-getter and reallocates that person’s votes to other candidates, he said.

The software knows this candidate is not in the contest anymore,” he said. “All that’s happening in the counting process is that each ballot is getting read to make sure it’s getting counted for the candidates who are ranked on that ballot who are still in the running for a seat.”

Hughes said the process Portland will use – known as multiple pass instant runoff voting – is not common among the U.S. communities that have implemented ranked-choice voting and is known in some cases to lead to “lopsided” election results that can completely shut out a minority voting block.

That’s because the majority voting block effectively gets to choose the winner for all four seats. Hughes said there are two ways to ensure broader representation – either convert at-large seats into district seats, or use a proportional ranked-choice voting method.

Most communities that use ranked-choice voting alter the rules for at-large races with multiple candidates and switch to a traditional proportional voting system. The threshold for winning is reduced to below 50 percent depending on the number of candidates.

Hughes said that system means each voter’s ballot is used to elect one of the seats, allowing less represented groups to have more of a say in future rounds.

Portland does not have that option, however, because the city’s charter says the winner must receive over 50 percent of the vote.

Jones, the clerk, said she expects to have election results available on June 8, though the city routinely faces delays associated with traveling out to Peaks Island to get its voting results.

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