Placing seventh with only 4 percent of the vote in an 11-way race, Pat Washburn assumed she would not win one of the four at-large seats on the Portland Charter Commission, so she hit send on an email shortly after 9:30 p.m. Tuesday night with a statement conceding defeat and went to bed.

Hours later, she was as stunned as everyone else when an unusual ranked-choice runoff – combined with an energized progressive base in an off-year election  – ushered Washburn into office along with a slate of candidates who promised to seek deep structural reforms in city government.

“I honestly thought that with 4 percent of the vote, there was no way I could make it, so this was a pleasant surprise,” Washburn said Wednesday morning. “I’m a big fan of ranked-choice voting.”

Washburn’s surprising, come-from-behind win cemented a solid progressive majority on a 12-member commission that could recommend changes to the basic form and power structure of city government. And it continues a string of progressive wins in Maine’s largest city, going back to last November, when activists successfully passed four citizen referendums enacting rent control, raising the minimum wage and increasing affordable housing requirements, among other things.

The elected members of the charter commission are Shay Stewart-Bouley in District 1, Robert O’Brien in District 2, Zachary Barowitz in District 3, Marcques Houston in District 4, Ryan Lizanecz in District 5, and Marpheen Chann, Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef, Catherine Buxton and Washburn serving at-large.

They will join three members appointed by the City Council: Efficiency Maine Deputy Director and former school board member Peter Eglinton, ACLU of Maine Policy Counsel Michael Kebede, and former City Councilor Dory Waxman, who also is founder of Common Threads of Maine and owner of Old Port Wool and Textile Co.

Tuesday’s outcome clearly raises the hopes of Portlanders who want change in City Hall.

All of the elected commissioners, with the exception of Chann, campaigned on giving the elected mayor more power over city operations and creating a locally funded clean elections program that would provide a public financing option for municipal candidates. Chann said he supports clean elections, but wanted to see the state program expanded. And most of the elected commissioners support extending voting rights to noncitizens.

The race also dramatically showed how ranked-choice voting can upend multi-seat races, allowing one voting bloc to shut out minority voting blocs, limiting the diversity of perspectives. And it showed the benefits of candidates banding together as slates in a multi-seat race: all four members of the Rose Slate were elected to the commission after campaigning as a team.

Progressives ran the table in part by inserting partisanship into a nonpartisan race and by tapping into nationwide demands to address racial and economic inequities.

Portland has long been a Democratic stronghold and has shifted further to the left in recent years. The Portland Democratic City Committee ran a get-out-the-vote effort that highlighted two Democrats in tough races, while drawing attention to the political affiliations of candidates in other races. And the Maine Democratic Socialists of America for a People First Charter spent over $15,000 boosting progressive values and candidates, while urging voters to oppose Republicans and other candidates who didn’t commit to the same goals.

Steven DiMillo, who finished second after the first-round tabulation and received 1,500 more first-place votes than Washburn, said he was shocked to learn that he did not win a seat on the commission. He blamed his loss on the injection of partisanship into the race, noting that People First described him as a lifelong Republican. He was an independent up until 2008 when he switched to support his friend, Charlie Summers’, congressional campaign, he said.

DiMillo also thinks voters didn’t understand what they were voting on.

“I got five times more votes than she did and I’m out and she’s in and it’s because of ranked-choice voting,” he said. “I thought that folks would pay attention and put some balance on the commission and not make it all lopsided.”

All told, 8,884 voters cast ballots, a 14 percent turnout. While low compared with previous elections, the turnout was nearly twice as high as the 2009 charter commission election, when 3,519 voters cast ballots, a 7.7 percent turnout.

Off-year elections to approve school budgets have historically drawn just a couple thousand voters, although 19,579 Portlanders voted in last June’s election, which included the state legislative primaries.

HOW RANKED CHOICE WORKED

Portland has been using ranked-choice voting since 2011, but Tuesday was the first time the voting method was used in multi-seat race.

Ranked-choice voting was originally confined to electing only the mayor, but was expanded to all council and school board races last summer. However, a provision in the city’s charter requiring a winner receive more than 50 percent of the vote remained in place, limiting how the city could approach an instant run off in a multi-seat race.

In a typical ranked-choice election for a single post, the last-place finisher is removed and that person’s votes are redistributed. The process continues until one candidate exceeds 50 percent of the vote.

The only way to meet that 50 percent threshold in Tuesday’s race for the at-large seats was to conduct four separate runoffs and remove the winner’s name after each round. So, when someone’s first choice was declared a winner, their ballot remained in the pool and their second choice became their first and so on. The system allows each voter to have a say in who is elected to each seat.

That method, known as multiple pass instant run off 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, according to Chris Hughes, a policy adviser for the Ranked Choice Resource Center, a national group of ranked-choice voting experts.

Hughes said multi-pass instant runoffs were common in Australia up until 1948, when the country switched to a different runoff system, because one party was dominating the elections.

“If there’s a well-organized majority, that group can win every single seat and totally exclude representation for everybody else,” he said. 

In Portland on Tuesday, the process effectively allowed the progressive voting block to move to a new candidate in each runoff. Washburn eventually exceeded 50 percent support as other candidates were removed from the race. DiMillo could not.

In traditional multi-seat elections, voters only get one choice and top vote-getters win seats. That typically prevents a single voting bloc from winning all the seats.

A compromise used by some ranked-choice voting communities is called a proportional runoff. The threshold to win in a multi-seat race is set at less than 50 percent based on the number of candidates seeking the open seats. Everyone’s vote is only counted once, allowing minority parties to receive representation, Hughes said.

Allowing a proportional instant runoff in Portland, however, would require a change to the city charter.

ROSE SLATE, NEW POLITICS

In addition to interest groups that endorsed slates of candidates, Stewart-Bouley, Sheikh-Yousef, Buxton and Washburn formed the Rose Slate, which they described as a multiracial and multigenerational group of first-time, feminist candidates.

It was called the Rose Slate, because the rose is a symbol of liberation and a stereotypical symbol of women. The rose is also the symbol of the Democratic Socialists of America, though candidates said they did not make that connection deliberately.

As a slate, the candidates coordinated their messaging and spoke to the same issues, while also offering support and sharing resources, including canvassing with and for one another.

Washburn credits the slate for lifting her up to victory.

“I think it did have a big effect,” she said. “We were all out there in our different ways supporting one another. We were doing something different. People respond to a positive attitude and a collaborative attitude, especially for the charter commission where we’re all going to have to work together.”

Stewart-Bouley agreed. The Peaks Island resident earned 65 percent of the vote after the first tabulation, avoiding a runoff in a three-way race.

“I think it was extremely powerful,” she said of the slate. “The nature of what’s been going on in this country over the last four or five years in terms of politics, people are tired of folks seeing each other as adversaries and enemies. People are ready to see some humanity injected back into our political processes. So the I think the idea of the slate not only resonated with us as candidates, but with voters.” 

Stewart-Bouley said she is mindful that the commissioners will have to work on behalf of all Portland residents, even though each candidate has their own ideas for how city government should be run.

“We all seem to be on the same page about wanting to be thoughtful and reflective of all of Portland not just one segment of Portland,” she said. “We, as this collective body, do share similar thoughts, but we are going to have to be mindful that ultimately what ever we come up with will have to go to the voters.”

POTENTIAL CHANGES

The commission will have a year review the charter and develop recommendations. Any changes would need to go back to voters for approval before taking effect.

There does not appear to be many limits on what can be included in a city’s charter. Recommended changes can be presented as a single revision, or as a series of separate proposals for voters to consider on their own merits. And it will be up to the commission to decide whether to present the changes on a November ballot, when there’s higher turnout, or at an off-year election.

The previous charter commission, formed in 2009, presented voters with three questions: one pertaining to the elected mayor, another pertaining to the schools and a third dealing with technical revisions. The commission also considered, but did not offer to voters, proposals to grant voting rights to noncitizens, changing the composition of the city council, clean elections or residency requirements for election wardens and clerks.

Eric Conrad, a spokesperson for the Maine Municipal Association, said the association defers to municipal attorneys on questions regarding city charters. However, state statute does not appear to limit what a municipality can include in a charter, as long as it’s legal and constitutional.

Correction: This story was updated at 8:12 a.m. on June 10, 2021 to correct the name of the organization that former City Councilor Dory Waxman founded.

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