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Portland getting 1st elected mayor in 88 years

By David Sharp
Associated Press / October 23, 2011

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PORTLAND, Maine—There's a bumper sticker seen in Maine's largest city that says, "Keep Portland Weird." So it seems fitting that the first mayoral election in 88 years will be atypical: All told, there are 15 candidates in an election that marks Maine's first use of a ranked vote system.

And the colorful cast of candidates will have to wait until the day after the election to learn who won because an outside party will crunch the numbers.

"It's not your traditional campaign," said the current mayor, Nick Mavadones, who decided to run even though he opposed the referendum that established an elected mayor.

In the past, the office of mayor was a position that rotated among the members of the City Council.

The melting pot of candidates includes a Spanish teacher, a Somalian refugee, a firefighter, three former city councilors and a couple of former state lawmakers.

In addition to Mavadones, candidates include Hamza Haadoow, the Somalian who wants to unite the city; Jill Duson, the city's first African-American mayor; and Jed Rathband, who led the referendum campaign to create an elected mayor. The other candidates are David Marshall, Michael Brennan, Markos Miller, John Eder, Charles Bragdon, Peter Bryant, Ralph Carmona, Richard Dodge, Jodie Lapchick, Ethan Strimling and Christopher Vail.

The nonpartisan mayoral race is the result of a recommendation by the Portland Charter Commission, which supported the idea of a popularly elected mayor while keeping a city manager for day-to-day operations. The mayor will be paid $65,400.

"An overwhelming majority of the commissioners felt that Portland's political and governance needs had evolved to the point where a largely ceremonial mayor, one of the nine city councilors chosen for a one-year term, was not sufficient for the complexities and demands of our city," the commission said.

The city's 64,000 residents narrowly approved the commission's recommendations. Then came a string of candidates, far too many to engage in traditional pre-election debates.

Part of the election's quirkiness is the process. To avoid the expense of runoff elections, the charter commission proposed the use of ranked choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting.

On the ballot will be 15 names, and voters will be allowed rank their choices from 1 to 15. The ballot is too complicated to be understood by the city's voting machines, so only first-place votes will be announced on the night of the election, said Caleb Kleppner, vice president of TrueBallot Inc.

The final outcome of the race won't be known until the following day when the ballots are scanned and all of voters' rankings are extrapolated, Kleppner said.

"Just because you have the most votes in the first round doesn't mean you win the election," he said.

That was true in Oakland, Calif., and in Burlington, Vt., where candidates with the most first first-place votes ended up losing close races because other candidates were picked more often for second or third place.

The number of places using ranked choice voting is small but growing.

In addition to Oakland and Burlington, it's used in San Francisco and Cambridge, Mass.; Kleppner said. It's also used in elections in Australia and Ireland, he said. Perhaps the best-known example of ranked-choice voting is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which presents the Oscars. It was previously used in Aspen, Colo., says the advocacy group FairVote.

Part of system's appeal is that it produces a majority vote without the need for a runoff election, which happens often in conventional elections with multiple candidates, Kleppner said

The system works in cities like Portland that don't have partisan races but do have highly educated and reform-oriented residents, said Sandy Maisel, political science professor at Colby College.

Some say it's appropriate. Although the "Keep Portland Weird" bumper sticker originated in Portland, Ore., the original Portland on the East Coast enjoys a certain level of eccentricity with its vibrant arts scene and quirky mix of fishermen and lawyers on the waterfront.

And, of course, the campaign wouldn't be complete without a few unusual ideas espoused by candidates, one of whom wants the city to consider a system of streetcars and another who proposed having civic-minded teenagers help out by shoveling snow and carrying seniors' groceries.

While the candidates seek out votes, many residents are confused about the ranked-voting system as well as the role of the mayor since the city manager will still run day-to-day operations, said Cheryl Leeman, a city councilor who opposed having an elected mayor and the new election system.

But residents will find their way, and the city will eventually work out any kinks in the new system, Leeman said. "Portland is pretty resilient," she said.