Advocates are calling on Portland to be more transparent after a City Council race ended in a tie following ranked-choice runoff this week, a result not announced publicly for roughly 12 hours after the city first ran the tabulation.
Planning board chair Brandon Mazer was declared the winner in the at-large council race Thursday morning after election officials drew slips from a bowl. The city announced Wednesday afternoon that the race had ended in a tie, with Mazer and former school board chair Roberto Rodriguez both receiving 8,529 votes after a ranked-choice runoff. Rodriguez is asking for a recount, which will likely render Thursday’s bowl draw irrelevant.
The improbable initial tie after a ranked-choice runoff highlights the need for greater transparency from the city, advocates say. Portland initially ran a ranked-choice tabulation late on election night, but did not release those results publicly until Wednesday afternoon, after it had re-run its algorithm and notified candidates.
In this case, Portland seems to have followed its own rules about ranked-choice voting and there is no evidence that the city’s count was erroneous, said Anna Kellar, executive director of the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan group that works on voter outreach and election oversight and has advocated in favor of ranked-choice voting.
But Kellar said the group would have liked to have seen officials “go beyond what’s in their own rules” and complete the count in public, particularly given the oddity of the result. Public tabulations have been standard at the state level, as former Secretary of State Matt Dunlap allowed the public to witness the process for ranked-choice runoffs in congressional and legislative races over the past few years.
“Taking the time to do those steps publicly really helps build trust,” Kellar said.
Portland has used ranked-choice voting in mayoral elections without issue since 2011, longer than the state has, noted Jessica Grondin, a city spokesperson. She said that, while City Hall is open to the public while results are tabulated, officials have not taken steps such as live-streaming in past elections because the method has not been controversial in Portland.
This time, city officials alerted the public late into election night that ranked-choice would be necessary before running the initial tabulation, she said. After that, the city sent a media release saying results would not be available until Wednesday morning. In the morning, officials ran the tabulation again before alerting candidates of the tie.
Counting ballots, of which the ranked-choice voting tabulation is a part, should be a public proceeding, said John Brautigam, legal counsel to the League of Women Voters. Rumors about the outcome of the election circulated in Portland after the candidates were briefed Wednesday morning. In retrospect, the city might have been able to mitigate that, Kellar noted, if officials informed the public of the tied outcome earlier and run Wednesday’s follow-up tabulation in a more public manner.
The three candidates remaining in the race after the first round of voting did not make an issue of the process on Wednesday, with Mazer and Rodriguez in particular focused on the next steps of the random drawing and likely recount.
Portland officials should consider amending the rules to ensure the process would play out in public in the future, Kellar said, also noting that Westbrook, where residents voted Tuesday to adopt ranked-choice voting for municipal elections, could also learn from the situation and set up a more transparent process of its own.
Mathematically, ranked-choice voting should make it less likely that a tie would happen, said Rob Richie, the CEO of FairVote, a national organization that advocates for ranked-choice voting, as run-off rounds create more possible scenarios. Out of more than 400 ranked-choice elections that have played out in the U.S., he is not aware of any other where two candidates ended with an equal number of votes.
He said it was important for the city to conduct a recount, which Rodriguez, officially the runner-up, plans to request. Portland holds recounts in public, Grondin noted, including last year, when the city held a recount at the Portland Expo on a local referendum.
This time around, if the city council recount finds even one vote different from the initial count, either Rodriguez or Mazer will be declared the winner with no randomness involved.
“That’s a closer investigation of voter intent,” Richie said.
BDN writers Nick Schroeder and Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.