Portland's Biggest Winner: Democracy with Ranked Choice Voting

by Rob Richie, Dorothy Scheeline // Published November 16, 2011

This month, I had the privilege of witnessing the first-ever ranked choice voting (RCV, or “instant runoff voting”) election in Portland (ME). I spent a week in the city helping with voter education about RCV, conducting a one-day survey of early voters and answering media and candidate queries at the RCV ballot-count.

Portland had a remarkable introduction to RCV despite challenging circumstances, starting with 15 candidates for mayor and no city budget for voter education. But nearly all of the candidates lauded the process, the media largely embraced the system after some initial skepticism and voters showed every indication of liking RCV and benefiting from the kind of campaign it generated.

Just a year ago, Portland voters adopted a charter amendment to have a mayor directly elected by voters with RCV. FairVote’s Rob Richie was among those who had testified to a charter commission earlier in the year about why RCV made more sense than a plurality vote for mayor. The commission was prophetic to anticipate so many candidates and recommend a system that handled voter choice so effectively.

This year, as the city looked forward to having its first directly elected mayor in nearly a century, a large number of candidates starting to run, including several current and former state legislators and city councilors. Ultimately a few candidates started to break from the pack as they secured endorsements, participated in numerous debates. A ranked choice voting poll by the Maine People’s Resource Center found that the frontrunners were former state senators Michael Brennan and Ethan Strimling and current mayor Nick Mavodones, with Brennan more effective at securing second, third and other high rankings from supporters of other candidates.

In the actual election, Michael Brennan led with 26% of first choices, followed by Strimling with 22%, Mavodones with 15%, and the remaining 37% of the vote spread among the remaining candidates. You can see the flow of the count  on our website.

I could analyze the number of runoff rounds and talk about vote transfers and the 99.83% rate of valid ballots. I could talk more about ballot design and voter education. But what shouldn’t be missed in the fray of post-election coverage here in the great state of Maine is the glorious five minutes of pure democratic spirit that everyone in the State of Maine room experienced when the round-by-results results of the election were presented before everyone's eyes.

In what other instance would you have every single candidate in the race, their supporters, the media, community members that were just curious, all in one room, waiting to hear the results? As election administrators presented the round by round results, the type of excitement and anticipation in the room was like Christmas morning. For those five minutes, there wasn't any politicking, just democracy in action.  And, as captured in this local television news story, when Brennan was identified as the winner, the room erupted with congratulations, and acceptance of the results from all the candidates and their backers.

This election really embodied the attitude of Maine people—friendly, cordial, and full of depth and caring. Mayor-elect Brennan made an impromptu speech right after the results were announced, praising the process and citing how he and his 14 fellow candidates were participants in a historic election. You can get a feel for the spirit in the room from this television news report on the election.

The largest local paper, the Portland Press Herald, has been skeptical about tying election of a mayor to RCV, but wrote a glowing editorial entitled “Brennan, ranked-choice voting both winners”:

Without ranked-choice voting this would have been a very different campaign. If they were just seeking to have the most votes on Election Night, the candidates would have targeted a number of voters, identified their supporters and made sure they turned out to the polls. In this case, about 5,000 votes from nearly 20,000cast would have been enough. A candidate with a hot-button neighborhood issue could have run away with the election without ever meeting a voter from another part of town. Under the ranked-choice system, candidates were forced to engage with each other and talk to each others' voters. The result was an interesting conversation about Portland and its future that would not have happened in a "turn-out-your-base" election. That debate helped clarify the job description for Portland's mayor, and it will make life easier for Brennan when he shows up for work.


Especially in a year where we have seen so much partisan vitriol on the national level, the fact that this type of election that is more about community than personality is definitely historic. And, as the paper observed the next day, the high quality candidates who ran have contributed a range of good ideas for the city that should help focus policy in the coming years.

Such outcomes show that ranked choice voting is not just a math exercise. Although it’s an effective means to handle more than two choices, it can be much more. Repeatedly, we are seeing RCV winners being the candidates who do a particularly effective job at reaching out to voters, often with direct contact involving community debates, local events, and door-knocking. One Portland candidate, David Marshall, said he knocked on 20,000 doors. He didn’t win, but it was ballots from his supporters that provided a particularly strong boost to the new mayor’s win total.

Our one-day survey of 122 early voters underscores some of these values. They reported that they were more engaged in this election than usual, felt the candidates were more civil than the norm and were far more likely to vote for the candidates they most supported without worrying about whether they could win.

Being in Maine was notable also for a the statewide vote on “the People’s Veto,” a ballot measure decided by a resounding landslide to keep Maine’s 38 year old same day voter registration law  -- definitive evidence of pro-democracy attitudes in the state.

Looking to the future in Maine, the future seems bright for RCV. The state has a history of multi-candidate races for governor, with only one of the last five races won with more than 50% of the vote. With the example of Portland, we expect the state to have a vigorous debate in the years ahead about the best way to promote majority winners – and a governor who effectively reaches out to voters across the state.