Portland Charter Commission election shows fallacy of ranked-choice voting
By Matthew Gagnon
Steve DiMillo is 60 years old, and has lived in Portland all his life. He is the highly visible manager of the iconic DiMillo’s on the Water restaurant in Portland, a family-owned business that is well known by both locals and visitors to the city.
DiMillo made the decision earlier this year to run for an at-large seat on the Portland Charter Commission, a body that is created every 10 years to “review and recommend amendments to the City of Portland Charter.”
He decided to serve on the commission because he wanted to represent the everyday citizens of Portland, telling the Portland Press Herald that he was “going to listen to everybody’s ideas.”
I spoke with DiMillo back in May, and he told me he was also concerned that there wasn’t much diversity of thought in the field of candidates. “I decided to run because I don’t like the direction that [other candidates] want to take this thing in,” he said.
Despite the fact that the commission is somewhat low profile and reasonably non-political, the campaign for seats turned intensely political and highly negative. That was thanks mostly to hard-left interest groups in the city that had been sending mailers attacking DiMillo and three other candidates.
“They said I was a lifelong Republican,” he told me, referencing the fliers, “I’ve been a Republican since 2008, just so I could support my friend Charlie Summers in a primary. I’m an independent, I’m down the middle of the road, everybody is my customer.”
Interestingly enough, it wasn’t just DiMillo’s brand of mildly center-right politics that offended these interest groups. They also targeted decidedly left-wing candidates who were deemed insufficiently progressive.
Democrat Marpheen Chann, a civil rights activist and educator at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine, was one such targeted person, and was singled out because of a supposed refusal to use the commission to “hold police accountable” among other issues.
On Tuesday, voters went to the polls to make their decision. As votes were counted, DiMillo learned that despite all the negative attacks, he had earned enough votes to finish in second place in the first round, with 21.1 percent of the vote, just slightly behind the first place finisher Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef, a progressive Democrat who had earned 22.4 percent of the vote.
There was just one problem: this was a ranked-choice voting election.
The original top four finishers, Sheikh-Yousef, DiMillo, Chann and Ben Grant were an interesting group of people that I think is an accurate representation of what the city of Portland actually is.
Sheikh-Yousef is a community organizer and local Black Lives Matter activist, DiMillo is a moderately right leaning business owner, Chann is a fairly left-wing activist, and Ben Grant is a former chair of the Maine Democratic Party. Seems like the right mix, to me.
And yet, in the end both DiMillo and Grant lost their seats on the commission. After the ranked-choice voting tabulations were made, the final at-large seat winners were Sheikh-Yousef and Chann, as well as two very progressive candidates, Catherine Buxton and Patricia Washburn.
Washburn, a hard-left activist who said she was running for the charter commission “to advance equity and address systemic racism in the city charter,” only received 342 votes — 4.2 percent — in the initial tabulation, and yet ended up “winning” a seat in the end.
On top of that, turnout in this election was a pathetic 14 percent of registered voters. So a seat on a powerful commission will be going to a person who won 4.2 percent of the vote, out of only 14 percent of eligible voters.
This is insane.
In the short time Maine has used ranked-choice voting, every one of the arguments for its adoption has been proven false.
Its supporters said the system would produce majority winners, something we now know is a falsehood. Our politics was supposed to become kinder, and gentler, but it is more bitter than ever. Proponents claimed it wouldn’t benefit one party over another, and yet we have seen that it has universally empowered liberal candidates in Maine. And it was supposed to increase participation in elections, yet, well, 14 percent is all I have to say to that notion.
No matter how you analyze ranked-choice voting, it has failed to deliver on what it was supposed to do while rewarding candidates who have barely any support, and empowering extreme, partisan political activists at the expense of true representations of the voting public. There could not be a worse way to conduct an election.
Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.