Political analyst on Portland race: ‘Rare’ that 3rd place candidate moves up to win in RCV

Brian Duff, an associate political science professor at University of New England, attended graduate school at University of California at Berkeley, in a town where he said ranked choice voting has been used for years.

And following politics, he said he’s become very familiar with the new system Portland’s using to determine it’s first popularly elected mayor since 1923.

With that in mind, Duff, who visited City Hall today to check out the ranked choice computing process going on here, suggested Portlanders can expect to be anointing either Michael Brennan or Ethan Strimling when the final tabulations are finished this afternoon.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but Portland voters were allowed to rank candidates from No. 1 all the way down to No. 15 if they so chose, and only the first choice votes were counted on Election Day.

Today, second choice votes from lower ranked candidates will be reallocated to higher ranked candidates until one of them emerges with more than 50 percent of the votes.

Brennan and Strimling came into today ranked first and second, with 5,240 and 4,390 first choice votes respectively. Current City Council-appointed Mayor Nicholas Mavodones finished the Election Day count in third with 2,938 – statistically, he’s still in the mix, but Duff said the odds are very strongly against a jump from third place to first in the Day 2 tabulations.

“Almost always in ranked choice elections, it comes down to two candidates,” Duff said. “It’s pretty rare that even the third candidate doesn’t get their votes kicked out. That’s the thing about ranked choice voting. It’s not a radical restructuring of the electoral system. It’s almost always essentially a two-candidate race in the end.”

Beyond that, he went a step further to say Brennan’s in prime position with second choice votes to be counted.

“Usually, it’s the one who gets the most first place votes who wins the election,” he said. “One exception to that was in Oakland, where Jean Quan got the second most first place votes but came out as the winner” in the 2010 mayoral race over Don Perata.

Duff said opponents of ranked choice voting argue it would be more effective if the top two vote getters on Election Day are subjected to a run-off election on a separate date, because voters would have time to review both candidates again.

But Duff said such a process can be expensive, and argued the follow-up election day often fails to attract traffic. He also reiterated a common argument in favor of ranked choice voting, which is that voters can be comfortable voting for their true favorite no matter how distant a long shot he or she is to win, because if that person is eliminated in subsequent “instant runoff” rounds, the voter’s second choice comes into play.

Ranked choice voting “enfranchises members of minority groups or ideological minorities, because they can cast their vote for who they like best without worrying about wasting their votes,” Duff said.

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Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

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