After a nearly 12-hour recount, no winner emerged Tuesday in the at-large race for Portland City Council that ended in a tie last week.

Roberto Rodriguez led by 35 votes in the hand recount Tuesday evening after more than 21,000 votes were counted. The process was scheduled to continue Wednesday at 10 a.m.

As of 4:45 p.m. Tuesday, Rodriguez had 8,547 votes and  Brandon Mazer had 8,512 – with 37 disputed ballots remaining, City Clerk Kathy Jones said.

Rodriguez had led after the initial round of counting on election night – before he and Mazer tied in an instant runoff. City rules specify drawing lots to determine a winner in races that end in a tie and Mazer was declared the winner Thursday after his name was drawn from a bowl.

On Tuesday, Rodriguez appeared to be heading for the win, since nearly all of the disputed ballots would need to go to Mazer for him to take the lead. With the disputed ballots still outstanding, Mazer had lost 17 votes during the recount and Rodriguez had picked up 18.

But there was another complication, the discrepancy between the number of votes the city counted after the election and the number the campaigns tallied during the recount.

Jennifer Thompson, the city’s interim corporation counsel, initially said around 5 p.m. that there was a 20-30 vote discrepancy between the counts of the campaigns and the city. It became necessary to recount the slips of paper from each box before moving forward to examine the disputed ballots.

After that was done, city officials suggested that the machines could have overcounted by 36 votes on election day and said they were confident every valid vote had been counted during the recount.

“The city’s position is that we have all of the ballots and they have been counted,” Thompson said. “It will be up to the candidates to tell us if they agree.”

ATTORNEYS PLOT PATH FORWARD

Just before 8 p.m., it became clear that the election would not be resolved Tuesday. Attorneys for both candidates planned to meet that night to discuss a path forward, reconvening the recount process on Wednesday morning.

Mazer said he still wanted more information about the vote discrepancy.

“It’s been a long road,” Mazer said. “I was hoping we would have a decision tonight. Given some of the questions that are still out there – we’re all tired, we’re going to look at our options and make a final decision for tomorrow.”

Rodriguez said it seemed fitting that it would take an additional day to determine a winner.

“It’s been a long and grueling campaign, so another day seems like part of the theme,” he said. “Counting ballots did not look like a fun way to spend the day but it was an important way to spend the day. We said we wanted to make sure every vote was counted and today we set out to accomplish that.”

Both campaigns will have to sign off on the recount results before taking up how to proceed with the 37 disputed ballots.

The recount came after the rare instant runoff tie last week led to Mazer being named the winner over Rodriguez Nov. 3 in a drawing of lots in front of City Hall. That was a dramatic, though technical moment preceding the inevitable recount, since only the loser could request a recount – after the winner was named – and Rodriguez did so promptly.

Last week’s election is believed to be the first time in U.S. history that a ranked-choice election ended in a tie.

Tuesday’s recount of 21,484 ballots took place on the Eastern Waterfront at Ocean Gateway. It began just after 9 a.m. with both candidates present at the start. By around midday, an optimistic City Hall spokesperson said the recount was likely to be completed that day.

NERVOUS AND EXCITED

Mazer watched the entire recount in person. He said that morning that he’d met with his team of counters for a training session on Monday and was both nervous and excited about the recount.

“It’s out of my hands now, so I’m trying to stay calm and collected,” he said. “It’s incredible, regardless of the outcome. We’re going to be a part of history.”

Rodriguez said in social media posts on Facebook and Instagram on Tuesday morning that recounts often result in vote changes. Last week, he predicted he would win, since he had more first-place votes than Mazer, who made up ground during the instant runoff.

“I am committed to every vote being counted, as that is the promise of democracy, an ideal I served in the Army to uphold,” he wrote. “The recount today is an important measure for extremely close elections and they almost always result in vote changes. We have an incredible team (on-site) to count and make sure every Portland resident’s votes are counted. My team and I will support a transparent and rigorous recount as I want a result that provides the confidence we are all demanding.”

The votes being reviewed included 4,226 inactive ballots, which means either the ballot did not contain a vote for any candidate still in the race or was an overvote, with two candidates marked in the same round. Nearly 2,100 ballots were inactive in the first round of voting.

In that first round, Rodriguez, a 42-year-old school board member and urban farming business owner who was favored by progressive groups, received 273 more first-round votes than Mazer, a 35-year-old attorney and planning board chairman who was backed by Mayor Kate Snyder. The instant runoff that followed ended in an exact tie, with Rodriguez and Mazer each receiving 8,529 votes.

Shortly before 8 a.m. Tuesday, as the sun splashed through the glass-walled waterfront conference center, Jones, the city clerk, and her staff wheeled in three cartloads of ballots contained in locked metal boxes. Jones took inventory of the 35 bright red boxes as attorneys for both campaigns looked on.

CAMPAIGNS STAFF RECOUNT

Each campaign brought 10 people to conduct the recount, which was overseen by the city clerk. Shortly after 8 a.m., a city staff member directed ballot counters to lock up their cellphones and personal items before crossing the line to begin the count.

At around 8:20, each counter was asked to sign in, with counters for each campaign sitting across from one another.

On each table, there were three bins – for Mazer, Rodriguez and the other two candidates who ran for the council seat. Jones explained that counters would first focus on first-place votes, placing each in an appropriate bin. The ballots would be placed in piles of 50 by one counter and verified by the other counter.

After that, the counters would work their way through the other bins, placing valid votes in later rounds of voting into the appropriate bins.

Jones said that any questionable ballots would be taken by city clerks to the attorneys representing the candidates for a final determination.

Attorneys for each side huddled with their respective teams of counters before the hand count began.

Originally, there were four candidates running for the at-large seat on the council. Prior to last week’s instant runoff, Rodriguez led the at-large contest with 5,553 votes or just over 29 percent. Mazer had 5,280 votes or nearly 28 percent. Travis Curran had 4,776 votes or 25 percent. And Stuart Tisdale had 3,480 votes or 16.6 percent. About 8 percent of  Portland ballots did not choose any candidates in the at-large race.

This was the second recount in the last year in Portland. Last November, the People First Portland campaign requested a recount after one of its four referendums lost by less than 1 percent. That recount took place in the Portland Expo and it took nearly two days to hand count more than 39,000 ballots. In the end, the recount confirmed that the measure was defeated and the vote margin grew from 222 to 273.

This council election appears to be the closest since 1999, when Ethan Strimling lost the four-way race to incumbent Philip Dawson by 24 votes on election night. In that case, 35 votes were disputed, because voters had marked the line for a write-in candidate without filling in a name.

The dispute went to the City Council, which voted 5-3 to award the disputed votes to Strimling because his name appeared above the write-in line.

Dawson filed a lawsuit, one councilor said that he would like to reconsider his decision, and Strimling announced that he would withdraw, citing the public perception of a stolen election.

Thompson, the city attorney, said that in this council race, the city would follow state law for appealing election results if necessary. That would entail the losing candidate filing an appeal in the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.


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