Portland city officials said Wednesday that votes cast for school board incumbent Sarah Thompson will be counted, even though she has announced her withdrawal from the two-way race.

Officials say Thompson cannot formally withdraw from the at-large race for school board because candidates are required to sign a document saying they will not withdraw. If Thompson wins, she would have to resign and the seat would remain empty until the June election, the city said.

The announcement is contrary to the city’s handling of the June charter commission election, when the city clerk’s office accepted formal withdrawals from two candidates and informed the public that votes for them would not be counted.

City Hall spokesperson Jessica Grondin said the difference between the two elections is that Portland’s city charter specifically regulates races for mayor, City Council and school board, while charter commission elections are governed by state statute.

“We’re just trying to go by the rules,” she said.

Grondin could not immediately say why the city used ranked-choice voting for the charter commission election – a process that the charter explicitly allows only for mayoral, council and school board races.

Grondin said the city clerk’s office informed Thompson that she could not formally withdraw from the race before she made her announcement earlier this month, and that Wednesday’s announcement came because City Hall had been receiving questions from the public.

“These are things that are out of our control,” Grondin said. “She signed papers saying that she would not withdraw.”

Thompson, who has served on the board since 2006, announced on Oct. 5 that she was dropping her re-election bid because of the increasingly divisive political environment.

Her announcement led most people to believe that her opponent, Nyalat Biliew, who finished third in a three-way at-large race last year, would be the de facto winner in an uncontested election.

Biliew said in a written statement that she was not aware that Thompson could not formally withdraw from the race until Wednesday’s announcement. She said the city should have provided this information to her and the public immediately after Thompson’s announcement.

It’s “disturbing” that the city waited until five days before the election – and after thousands of absentee ballots had already been cast – to clarify the process, she said.

“Instead voters and volunteers operated under the false assumption that Thompson had legally withdrawn and that the race was now uncontested,” she said. “Volunteers worked on other campaigns, donors donated to other causes, and six thousand voters have already voted. How many of those voters, assuming that the race was uncontested, did not fill in a bubble? Because of the City’s negligence and delay, those voters have been disenfranchised.”

She added, “I ask my opponent, School Board Member Thompson, to join me in calling for a review of the process, to ensure that electoral procedures are being applied clearly and evenly.”

If Thompson wins the race and then resigns, candidates seeking to fill that seat would be able to pull nomination papers in January.

The city’s release comes a week after it clarified how the city’s local referendum on new homeless shelters would be decided.

Danielle West, the city’s corporation counsel, originally told councilors during a public meeting that if they offered their own proposal to regulate the size and locations of new homeless shelters to compete with a citizen referendum, then the ballot would have to include a third option: to reject both proposals.

In response to questions from councilors, West said in late August that she believed the winning option would need only a plurality – or the most votes – to win.

Grondin informed the Press Herald on Oct. 12 that the winning option would, in fact, need to receive a majority of votes. In other words, if none of the three gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the city’s shelter rules would remain unchanged, as would occur under Option C on the ballot.

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