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Westbrook voters to decide on local ranked-choice balloting

Westbrook city officials have worked closely with Portland on the plan, which voters will weigh-in on in at the polls this November.

Westbrook voters will weigh-in next month on implementing ranked-choice voting for local elections.

City Clerk Angela Holmes worked closely with Portland officials to put a proposal before voters tailored to Westbrook’s needs, according to Portland City Clerk Kathy Jones.

“Portland and the state helped us figure out how we wanted our language to look if voters wanted to adopt it,” Holmes said.

If approved at the polls Nov. 2, ranked-choice voting would be used in the mayor’s race and to elect city councilors and other local elected officials when there are three or more candidates for a seat and no candidate has won more than 50% of the vote.

Under the system, voters have the option of ranking the candidates in the order they prefer. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the popular vote, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and that candidate’s supporters’ second choices are then counted. The process continues until one candidate receives more than 50%.

Jones said she and Holmes worked to avoid instances in Westbrook where someone with a small number of votes wins a seat over someone well in the lead, as was the case during a Portland Charter Commission election in June. In that election, a candidate who received only 4% of the vote heading into the ranked-choice runoffs ended up defeating a candidate who had the second-highest number of votes out of the 21 candidates in the initial count.

Jones said Holmes knew that to stave off any problems, she should include a provision to use proportional ranked-choice voting when there are multiple candidates in one race – as Portland residents had to do in the charter commission election. In proportional ranked-choice voting, a candidate wins when they hit a certain threshold of votes, 50% plus one.

“The problems the state and Portland went through, they’ve figured out the best way to handle things, which is great, and we get the benefits and their knowledge,” Holmes said. 

The City Council voted unanimously Aug. 3 to put the referendum on the ballot, with Councilors Gary Rairdon and Elliot Storey absent. Previously, Rairdon and Storey had been critical of municipal ranked-choice voting, with Rairdon saying he preferred a “one-vote” system.

Jones said the most important piece in executing ranked-choice voting is voter education, to avoid any confusion.

Portland residents who spoke with the American Journal Tuesday said they did not feel confused by ranked-choice voting and, if anything, they said it had little impact on their voting experience.

“For me, I think it is good and useful, but I didn’t think it changed much and I didn’t really notice any difference,” Katie Greene said.

Christopher Moore said local ranked-choice voting was “a major win for democracy and representation.”

“I don’t think the criticism that it is too confusing is necessarily true … or a legitimate reason to preclude a vote-counting method that promotes proportional representation, provides the voter with greater democratic choice and elevates candidates who would otherwise be marginalized,” Moore said.

Jeff Rommel disagreed. While he supports the idea of ranked-choice voting, he said overall it doesn’t fit with municipal elections because most residents don’t put enough research into a spate of candidates. Their votes outside of the main candidate they support are guesswork, he said.

“People aren’t willing to do their research and there isn’t enough thought on that,” Rommel said. “It is confusing and doesn’t seem right here.”

Former Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling said even having lost the 2019 mayoral race to Kate Snyder, when ranked-choice voting was in play, he sees only benefits from it. Snyder garnered 39% of the votes in the first round, while Thibodeau and Strimling followed with 28% and 25%, respectively. Travis Curran fell behind with 7%.

“Ranked-choice voting in Portland has made our democracy more reflective of the role of the people,” Strimling said. 

In Portland, Strimling said, the number of progressive candidates elected to the Charter Commission reflects Portland voters.

Our council has been, I believe, out of touch with where the regular everyday majority of Portland voters stand, and since ranked-choice voting has been put into place, we now have broader representation in terms of diversity and more reflective of the (people’s) values,” he said.

According to Holmes, data going back to 2013 shows that ranked-choice voting would have been used, if available, in four Westbrook races: for Ward 4 councilor in 2013, mayor in 2016 and 2019 and councilor at-large in 2019.

Jones thinks ranked-choice voting is a good fit for any municipality that wants to implement it, but there is a cost.

The current price of ranked-choice voting software, which is the same software used by the state and Portland, would add $25,000-$30,000 to the city’s costs per election, Holmes has said previously, including the contract company’s fees for tallying the ranked-choice votes.

Even if ranked-choice voting does not come into play in a particular election, Jones said, the contractor must prepare for it beforehand and dedicate staff on Election Day in case it is needed.

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

All residents will vote Nov. 2. at the Community Center gym at 426 Bridge St.

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