Portland voters have a lot to consider in this election, including two proposals aimed at improving the election process itself – clean elections and proportional ranked-choice voting.

Question 3 and Question 4, both brought forward by the Portland Charter Commission, haven’t drawn the controversy or big spending that other referendums have. But proponents say they’re still important and are hoping they don’t get lost among the 13 ballot questions.

“I think there’s a lot of support for (clean elections),” said Anna Kellar, executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections and the League of Women Voters of Maine and campaign manager for Fair Elections Portland, a group supporting Question 3.

“It’s a common sense idea that already resonates with people,” Kellar said. “We’ve seen it work at the state level, so why shouldn’t we have that for Portland too?”

Clean elections, which would create a mechanism to publicly finance candidates running for local office, isn’t a new idea in Portland. Fair Elections Portland gathered thousands of signatures in 2019 to put a charter amendment on the ballot. City officials, however, said that the question was a large enough change that it would require a charter commission to study the issue.

Voters created that commission in 2020, and clean elections is one of eight questions it is now bringing to voters. Kellar said the proposal originated from citizens who were growing concerned about the amount of money being spent in Portland elections.


“These are significant positions and we want people to be able to run for them without being wealthy or well-connected or feeling like they have to take money from anyone – landlords, businesses, special interests who might then have more access to those councilors,” Kellar said.

Question 3 would limit the amount of private funds a participating candidate may raise and sets certain requirements, like mandating they participate in a city-sponsored forum or voter education event.

Some details, such as the exact limit on private funds and how much public funding candidates would receive would be determined by the City Council, which would be tasked with establishing and funding the clean elections program. The charter commission has estimated it would cost about $290,000 a year, which includes staffing in the city clerk’s office.

The program would also ban corporate contributions to candidates and contributions to ballot question committees from foreign donors. The foreign contributions provision drew some concern last spring from the commission’s attorney, who questioned its constitutionality. A different attorney signed off on the proposal in the commission’s final report, which required certification that the provisions do not violate state or federal laws.

A group called Protect Maine Elections is seeking a similar ban on foreign government spending on state referendum campaigns and this week submitted a petition to the Maine secretary of state aimed at putting the initiative on the November 2023 ballot.

Catherine Buxton, who served on the charter commission and worked on the clean elections proposal, said limiting foreign contributions is one way to rein in spending on ballot questions – which have attracted a majority of the spending in the city this election cycle.


The City Council would be tasked with coming up with specific rules around foreign spending, but Buxton said the “hope is it would get at these multinational corporations that are trying to sway our politics.”

“I think clean elections is a broadly popular and bipartisan concept across the state and I’m excited to see it implemented here in Portland, especially given the tenor of this campaign cycle,” Buxton said. “People are ready and willing to change the way we spend on elections.”

Maine established the Maine Clean Elections Act in 1996, a voluntary clean elections program for state level offices including governor and state lawmakers, and voters in 2015 passed a citizen initiative to improve and strengthen it.

In the Maine House, 160 candidates, or 57%, are participating in clean elections this year. In the Senate, 54 candidates, or 75%, are clean elections candidates, according to the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices. None of the gubernatorial candidates is using the program.

Also on the ballot in Portland is Question 4, which establishes proportional ranked-choice voting for multiseat races. Traditional ranked-choice voting is used when three or more candidates are running. Voters can rank candidates in order of preference, and if no candidate gets more than 50% of the votes cast, the last-place candidate is eliminated and their votes are redistributed to their voters’ second choices. That process carries on until one candidate wins more than 50% of the vote.



Proportional ranked-choice voting is used when multiple candidates are running for multiple seats, like last year’s election for four at-large seats on the charter commission, a race that drew 11 candidates. Instead of setting the threshold of support at 50%, proportional ranked-choice voting sets a lower threshold based on the number of candidates seeking the open seats.

Proponents say this system better ensures that minority voices have a say in multiseat races. Critics, however, say the process is confusing and isn’t as democratic because it doesn’t require a majority of votes for a candidate to be elected.

The charter commission was unanimous in its support for clean elections while the final language for proportional ranked-choice voting passed 9-2. Former charter commission member Zack Barowitz, who wrote a dissenting opinion on it in the final report, said the method is complex and “all but requires the hiring … of a specialized expert.”

Barowitz also wrote that a system that favors minority representation isn’t necessarily a good thing, as “it might also favor extremist candidates whose views are far outside the plurality of the electorate.”

Pat Washburn, who won her seat on the charter commission last year with just 4% of the vote in the first round, was among the commissioners who supported the proposal, even though she likely wouldn’t have been elected if it were in place.

“It’s a small fix for an unusual situation,” Washburn said. “It was one that impacted us (as a commission), and we felt that implementing proportional ranked-choice voting in situations where many people are running for multiple seats would better represent the views of all voters.”

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