City Councilor David Morse, right, proposes exploring whether Westbrook residents would want to use ranked-choice voting in municipal elections. Screenshot / Westbrook Community TV

The Westbrook City Council will be looking at whether to use ranked-choice voting in local elections and wants local input.

Councilor David Morse has proposed exploring local ranked-choice voting based on the fact that Westbrook residents have voted in favor of it for federal and state elections and because he thinks it would make voters feel invested in elections and city leadership.

“If 70% of the voters didn’t vote for the person who gets elected, you feel like you don’t get a stake in what’s happening,” Morse said. 

The change would cost about an additional $30,000 per election. City Clerk Angela Holmes said ranked choice voting would have been applicable in four elections between 2013 and 2019, including two mayoral races.

“I started thinking about it for the city back in 2019 because we had multiple city-level races that year that had more than two candidates. Particularly, the mayor’s race with four,” Morse said. “In 2016, they also had four. The one before that had three.”

The 2016 and 2019 mayoral races, Morse said, the winner didn’t have a lot of voter difference between candidates.

Morse noted that in the 2016 election, Mike Sanphy won the mayor’s race by 1% over the other candidate with 35% of the total vote, and the 2019 race again saw close margins.

“RCV is only used in elections where there are three or more candidates, and in situations where no candidate has won by more than 50% of the votes,” Holmes said in a memo addressed to the council.

Using ranked choice voting, voters may rank the candidates in the order they prefer. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the popular vote, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and that candidate’s supporters’ second choices are then counted. The process continues until one candidate gets more than 50%.

Morse said ranked-choice voting could help legitimize election wins, as residents wouldn’t look at a mayor who received only 35% of votes and feel that that candidate won because of the circumstances, like a third or fourth candidate pulling votes from the second-place winner, for example.

Morse said the change could have voters feeling like they had a true “stake in the outcome.”

“When you have these multiple races you don’t have to worry about if I vote for this person, how will that affect the outcome,” Morse said. “In the end, the winner will have a majority. This last 2019 mayoral election – this isn’t sour grapes as my candidate I endorsed won – but it would have been great if people could have gone to the voting booth and ranked their choices.”

How exactly the ranked-choice voting would work in the city would depend on what the City Council decides, but as proposed it would impact school committee, city council and mayoral races, but not smaller municipal races, such as for Portland Water District representative, that are on the ballot every six years.

Holmes said it wouldn’t be difficult to implement.

We’ve done it with statewide races and have an educated voter population and people know about it now, so education and outreach would not need to be as intense as it would otherwise,” she said. “Portland has already done this municipally so we can learn from how they’ve handled things in the past.”

Holmes said that the current pricing of ranked-choice voting software, the same as software used by the state, would add $30,000 to the city’s costs per election because of the additional workload for the contracting company as well as costs associated with the additional printing.

Do (our) voters want to do it for municipal races, how much do they want to do it? How strong is that desire and is it worth $30,000 to voters each time? The answer may be yes,” Holmes said.

According to Holmes, data going back to 2013 shows that ranked-choice voting would have been used, if available, in four races: the Ward 4 councilor in 2013, the 2016 mayor’s race, the 2019 mayor’s race and a 2019 Councilor At-Large seat.

While Morse hasn’t necessarily endorsed ranked-choice voting for the city, he said he hopes the council votes to move it forward to full discussions with resident input to see if it is wanted or viable.

Ranked-choice voting will be discussed by a Council committee at a meeting to be announced. If approved there, it would go to the City Council in the future for a vote.

Westbrook voters were in favor of using ranked-choice voting in federal and state elections during Maine’s 2016 referendum, 5,657-3,958.

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