PORTLAND, Maine — An election consultant hired by the city of Portland to help implement the new ranked choice voting system in the Nov. 8 mayoral election said the system aims to balance each candidate’s core support with his or her widespread support, and is resistant to voter manipulation.

Portland voters adopted the new voting program as part of a slate of charter changes approved at the polls last year. Also among those changes was the re-establishment of a popularly elected mayor position after 88 years in which the mayor has been chosen by the City Council.

There are 15 mayoral candidates who will be on the ballot, and one, Erick Bennett, who has declared himself a write-in candidate after the city clerk’s office determined his nomination paperwork did not include the requisite 300 signatures of registered city voters.

“The question has come up: Can you game the system?” posed Caleb Kleppner of TrueBallot Inc. during presentations on the subject Thursday at City Hall. “The best, most calculating voter in the world will vote exactly the same way as the directions indicate — exactly the same way as somebody who doesn’t know anything about the system.”

Kleppner gave the first of two presentations on ranked choice voting Thursday afternoon to members of the local media. A second presentation was scheduled for Thursday night for interested members of the public.

Under the ranked choice voting system, voters can rank their choices from first all the way down to however many choices are available. If any candidate receives more than 50 percent of the first-place votes, he or she wins the election.

If nobody gets more than 50 percent, the last-place finisher in the field is dropped and the second-place finisher on that candidate’s ballots is given first-place tallies. The votes are then counted again, and if the newly reapportioned votes aren’t enough to elevate any of the remaining candidates beyond 50 percent, the process is repeated.

Kleppner said the system is better than a points-based system — in which all the first-place votes are worth a certain value, the second-place votes are worth slightly less, and so on — because it forces a candidate to still maintain a high number of first-place votes to win the overall race. Under a points-based system, he argued, a candidate could win an election without earning a single first-place vote if he or she built up enough points from seconds, thirds and fourths.

“If you want to win a ranked choice election, you need to have enough first-place votes not to get eliminated,” he said. “You cannot win a ranked choice election if you’re everyone’s second choice. You need enough first place support to stay in the race.”

To the question of how a voter should approach the ballot, Kleppner said: “You should rank candidates until you’re indifferent about the remaining candidates. You should keep ranking them until you just don’t care who wins among the candidates who are left.”

Kleppner showed those in attendance several ways in which a ballot could be filled out and how those ballots would be counted. The computers that scan and tabulate the ballots, he said, will skip over unfilled placements. Therefore, he said, if a voter simply picks one candidate as his or her 15th choice and marks no other places, the computer will count that as a first-place vote for that candidate, because it is the first individual for whom any type of support is indicated.

On the night of Nov. 8, City Clerk Kathy Jones will have preliminary results, which will indicate how the candidates are ranked according to all of the voters’ first choices. If any of the candidates garners more than 50 percent at that point, he or she will be named the winner of the race.

If none of the candidates have more than 50 percent after first count of the ballots, TrueBallot representatives the following day will conduct however many additional rounds of vote redistributions on Wednesday necessary to determine a winner.

City spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said Thursday the city is paying TrueBallot $20,000 for its services, which include developing a ballot layout and helping with the Nov. 9 counts if necessary.

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.