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Wednesday, March 16, 2011


New voting system may require old counting system

In November, Portland citizens voted to create the position of a popularly elected mayor for the first time in 88 years using a system of rank choice voting (RCV) that advocates say ensures a winner who reflects the will of the majority of the electorate. .

But the new election system, which asks voters to pick their first, second, and third choices, may force the city to use an old vote-counting practice – counting the votes by hand.

Portland’s vote tabulating machines cannot process ballots based on RCV without a major upgrade, forcing the city to either rent newer equipment or count next November’s mayoral ballots by hand.
With Linda Cohen stepping down from the job of city clerk in January, the decision will have to wait until a replacement is found as the clerk handles all election matters within the city.

“We’re in a holding pattern,” said Nicole Clegg, city spokesperson.

The clerk's office has explored a few options, but Clegg said the city will wait until a new clerk is hired to make a final decision. “There are a variety of different ways you can do this that run the gamut from $80,000 to rent ballot boxes, software, memory cards and ballots to a few thousand [dollars] for a hand count,” she said.

Currently the cost for a city-wide election is $60,000, including staff at the polling places, according to Clegg.

“We’ve contacted three different companies that offer three different approaches, two of which would involve using existing ballot boxes,” said Clegg. One company would tally votes with Portland’s existing machines and use scanners and software to read the ranked choices if there is no clear winner, at a cost of $20,000.

The city could also opt to hand-count ballots, a process which would yield results one to two days after the election.

But the vote-tallying process doesn't have to be as expensive as Clegg suggests, said John Silvestro, president of Massachusetts-based election services company LHS Associates. Depending on the number of candidates vying for the job of Portland mayor, the company could either upgrade the city’s existing equipment or rent out a set of machines for election day.

“It’s all based on the size, layout and complexity of the ballot. Machines can be upgraded for a small ballot with only a few candidates. If there are only three choices there is a chance we could upgrade the [machine’s] firmware, but if there are 10 choices, it can’t be done,” said Silvestro, citing the a lack of memory space on the city’s existing machines.

In meetings last June, Charter Commission member Nathan Smith said the machines “could be programmed to handle [ranked choice voting],” according to minutes on the city’s website, estimating that the cost of reprogramming would be $30,000.

But seeing as November’s mayoral election will be the first opportunity for a non-city councilor to hold the position in 88 years, Silvestro said a simple upgrade might not suffice.

“I can’t give an estimate until I meet with somebody in Portland, but if the information the [interim clerk] provided is correct, it could be as low as $10,000 plus cost of ballots,” said Silvestro. The cost is largely determined by the number of candidates in the race and the number and populations of the city’s voting precincts.

“If the information was incorrect, it could go as high as $30,000 plus the ballot, but I would say it would never be higher than $50,000,” said Silvestro. “The expensive part comes in that you need to print whole different set of ballots to use separate machines [and] those can run 20 to 25 cents a piece.
Some elected officials said they expect a crowded field of candidates come November, and doubt any one candidate will earn the 50 percent of the vote necessary to prevent the race from being decided on second and third place choices.

“I think it would be surprising if someone took 50 percent plus one vote in the first round, I think it’s likely we would have to go to a second of third round before we’re able to find someone with a clear majority,” said Dave Marshall, a Portland city councilor.

“I wouldn't be surprised if we have 10 to12 [candidates] on the ballot,” said Ben Chipman, District 119 state representative and a member of the Charter Commission which pushed the elected mayor/RCV voting measure.

For Portland’s first go-around with RCV, Chipman said he favors a traditional hand count of the votes — a system he said would not only save the city money, but add a air of transparency to what, for some, in an unnervingly newfangled system of voting.

“I’ve encouraged the clerk's office to do a hand count because I think it’s really important we don't have anyone suspicious about how votes are counted since it’s our first time doing it,” said Chipman.
“RCV is not an easy thing to explain or understand, so I think it’s absolutely critical that we have the first RCV that's being done anywhere in Maine be counted by hand and I think it’s the probably easiest way out of issue of costs,” he said. “The last thing we want is to have a cloud of suspicion cast over the results.”

Portland Green Party chair and former Charter Commission member Anna Trevorrow also said she supported the idea of a hand count in November to acclimate voters to the new system.

“It’s old fashioned, but it’s tried and true,” said Trevorrow, who extols the educational benefits of the hand count system. “When you go through the process, that's when you start to understand how the system works. It would get people familiar with system and help them to understand how we arrive at the outcome,” she said.

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