Westbrook voters will be asked to decide in November whether ranked-choice voting should be expanded to municipal elections.

It’s a measure that sprang from a grassroots effort as interest in the alternative voting method has grown nationally.

The City Council voted 5-0 Monday to put the proposed charter amendment on the Nov. 2 ballot after a small group of citizens organized a successful petition drive to extend ranked-choice voting beyond certain state and federal elections, where it already happens under state law. Two councilors who opposed the measure were absent for the vote.

Samantha Bassett organized the unofficial petition drive that was held in March 2020, just before the coronavirus shutdown, when she set up a table at the polls during the presidential primary. She and several other residents collected more than 700 signatures from supportive voters, many of whom said they thought the city already had ranked-choice voting in local elections.

“I just think we should have ranked-choice voting at all levels,” Bassett said in an interview this week. “You don’t have to pick one person or vote against the person you don’t want, which is often the case these days. That just seems like a ridiculous way to elect leaders, especially as we get more polarized.”

Sometimes called instant-runoff voting, the method allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, by marking first, second and subsequent choices. Voters are not required to rank candidates. If no candidate in a race receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the first tabulation, ballots are recounted in rounds to eliminate the lowest-ranked candidates until one candidate receives a clear majority exceeding 50 percent. Tabulation is done by computer with paper ballots as backup.

“I think a majority of councilors recognize that people should have a say in whether Westbrook has ranked-choice voting at the local level,” said Councilor David Morse, who brought Bassett’s proposal forward.

If approved, ranked-choice voting would be used in Westbrook’s mayoral, City Council and school committee races.

EFFORT REFLECTS NATIONAL TREND

Westbrook’s effort reflects a growing national interest in ranked-choice voting, which gained traction in 2016 when Maine voters approved the voting method in a referendum that won 52 percent of the vote. After overcoming many legal and logistical challenges, Maine finally implemented the measure in 2018. It remains the only state to fully implement ranked-choice voting, which it uses for state and federal primaries, and federal elections, including presidential races.

Portland, Maine’s largest city, adopted ranked-choice voting for mayoral races in 2011 and expanded it to city council and school board races in 2020. This year it was triggered to determine the winners of a charter commission race that included 23 candidates for nine district and at-large seats.

“Based upon the feedback from the Secretary of State’s Office and from the Portland City Clerk’s Office, the implementation of RCV now works very smoothly,” Westbrook City Clerk Angela Holmes wrote in a memo to the council.

“However, it does require greater staff time and dedication, which may result in some temporary modification to other duties performed in the City Clerk’s office around election season,” said Holmes, who has helped train other municipal clerks in using ranked-choice voting for state and federal elections.

After reviewing voting results in recent local elections with more than two candidates, Holmes concluded that ranked-choice tabulation would have been called for in several races, including mayoral elections in 2016 and 2019, when the winner received 35.8 percent and 30.9 percent of the vote, respectively.

If voters approved ranked-choice voting in local elections, it would cost at least $30,000 per municipal election, which generally take place two out of every three years, Holmes said. She budgets about $43,000 annually for elections now.

The additional money would be used to rent computers and software needed for runoff elections and print ballots with multiple pages. The city also would be advised to have a representative of the software vendor on site for elections, the cost of which was unknown, Holmes said.

MAINE AT FOREFRONT

Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows said ranked-choice voting “does work very smoothly for us” and seems to work even smoother at the local level, where electorates are smaller and results can be tabulated sooner. Bellows said she was unaware of any other municipality in Maine that was actively pursuing ranked-choice voting at the local level.

Bellows has testified or given presentations this year in Oregon, Alaska and Minnesota about Maine’s success with ranked-choice voting. Alaska voters approved a ranked-choice voting measure in 2020 that won a superior court challenge last month, and several other states have county or municipal jurisdictions that have either approved or implemented the voting method, including New York City, according to ballotpedia.com.

“We have found that (Maine) voters appreciate the option to rank the candidates they support, while also being able to indicate their subsequent preferences should their first pick not have as much support as other candidates,” Bellows told Oregon legislators in March.

“While negative campaigning hasn’t completely disappeared in Maine yet, I think we have seen more instances of candidates giving each other praise for things they admire about each other, or candidates telling voters who their second choices will be when they cast their ballot,” she added.

Bellows said ranked-choice voting “continues to be very popular” among Maine voters since it was first approved via statewide referendum and upheld in a subsequent referendum.

“Voters can vote based on principle rather than trying to vote strategically based on who they think has the greatest chance of winning,” Bellows said in her testimony.

TRANSPARENCY A KEY

Bellows told Oregon legislators that a public education campaign, thoughtful ballot design and a transparent tabulation process were critical to helping Maine voters understand and accept a new voting method.

She noted this week that transparency appeared to be missing in tabulating the ranked-choice results of New York City’s recent mayoral election, which drew criticism for being confusing and possibly disenfranchising some voters.

As for ranked-choice voting being popular among Mainers, it faced significant opposition at the start and still does, especially from the Republican Party.

Matthew Dunlap, who was secretary of state before becoming state auditor this year, waded through numerous political and court challenges before implementing the new voting method in 2018. Both he and Bellows are Democrats in a state government currently controlled by their party.

“The good news is, Westbrook doesn’t have to go through all that,” Dunlap said. “If it passes, it will be pretty simple for them to do.”

Indeed, some Westbrook residents oppose ranked-choice voting, although none spoke against the ballot measure at three recent public hearings, city officials said. Bill Holmes sent an email to councilors.

“I write to encourage you to OPPOSE the current Rank Choice Voting proposal before the council,” Holmes said. “Our Constitution provides for ‘one person, one vote.’ RCV would essentially allow voters to ‘change’ their vote if the candidate they voted for is not successful.”

Council President Gary Rairdon and Councilor Elliott Storey, who were absent for Monday’s vote, also opposed the proposal.

CONCERNS OVER SECURITY

At a previous meeting, Rairdon said he found it “bizarre” that the council was acting on a proposal from “one individual” and that he had heard from many constituents who oppose it. Storey said Wednesday that he believes elections are already “not secure” and ranked-choice voting “opens up the system to more manipulation.”

Several residents spoke in favor of ranked-choice voting at the public hearings or sent emails to the council.

“(Ranked-choice voting) has proven itself effective in Maine,” Cary Tyson wrote. “It discourages overly negative campaigning, provides greater choice for voters and is a fiscally conservative approach.”

Morse, who pitched the proposal to his council colleagues, said he declined to bring it forward until Bassett had rallied support in the community and gathered over 700 signatures. But the idea that Westbrook should have ranked-choice voting in local elections had been “floating around” in his mind for a while.

“I just want to make sure people have a chance to vote for who they really want to be elected,” Morse said, “and that we wind up electing leaders who have a true majority.”


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