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Portland Press Herald

District 27 special election highlights current system's flaws
March 20, 2002
By Jack Beaudoin

Michael Brennan has it. Sally Vamvakias wants it. Neither deserves it - not yet.

I'm talking about the all-important District 27 Senate seat, which opened up when widely respected Republican Sen. Joel Abromson died in January.

Brennan, the Democrat, apparently won a five-way contest to replace Abromson, but his squeaky margin (now just 11 votes out of the nearly 8,000 cast) hangs in the balance, now that a Senate panel has been told that the Maine Constitution gives them permission to ignore the results.

Vamvakias' Republican supporters are urging the panel to count about three dozen absentee ballots that arrived in the mail after the polls closed on March 5. Local election officials, who are bound to obey the Legislature's dictates, were not able to count those ballots because state law clearly says absentee ballots have to be in before the polls close.

According to former Maine Chief Justice Daniel Wathen, however, senators aren't bound by the laws they write. The constitution says the Senate is the sole judge of the "elections and qualifications of its own members," so they are unrestrained by the restrictions on counting absentee ballots - or any other ballots, for that matter.

I'm not going to argue with Wathen, who's never been wrong before - unless you count that funny little idea he had about running for governor. But I don't think the constitution's framers ever imagined the Senate rewriting election rules retroactively. That is, both houses of the Legislature, acting as the judges of the elections and qualifications of their members, previously decided the matter of tardy absentee ballots. If lawmakers want to reconsider that decision, that's fine - but only for future elections, not ones that have already been held.

If the Senate does accept the late absentee ballots, Brennan supporters have their own beef. Some might have had absentee ballots ready to mail on March 5, but realized that the U.S. Postal Service wouldn't get them to officials on time.

But I digress. The reason neither Brennan or Vamvakias deserves the District 27 seat - which represents parts of Portland, Long Island and Falmouth - is that neither of them won a majority of votes cast. The original tally gave Brennan 3,284 votes and Vamvakias 3,264 votes. That means each won 41 percent. It also means that 59 percent of the electorate didn't want either one or the other.

That's because there were three other candidates in the mix. Portland City Councilor Philip "Jack" Dawson ran without a party and won 1,083 votes. Kelly Thompson Fernald of the Green Independent Party got 201 votes and Mark Cenci, the Libertarian candidate, collected 119 votes.

Cenci was, hands-down, the most interesting of the group - and probably the smartest. He's run for office before, his agenda is underwritten by thoughtful analysis and he's philosophically consistent without being stubborn.

But he has a hard time attracting voters who should be supportive of his small-government-is-best politics. The reason: Under the current system, the conservative who voted for Cenci essentially helped to elect Brennan.

The same is true for liberals whose hearts are Green but who vote for Democrats. Thompson Fernald had neither the political or legislative experience Brennan claimed, but offered an agenda that included a single-payer health insurance system that most Portland residents supported in a nonbinding referendum. Voters for Thompson Fernald may have cost Brennan outright victory.

A friend of mine recently e-mailed me about the U.S. Senate's vote on fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks. "Time for rebellion!" he exhorted. When I wrote back suggesting that he abandon the Democratic Party and join the Greens, the rebellion was short-lived. "I'd be playing into the hands of Republicans," he replied.

It's sad to think that fear was the reason that there was no clear winner in the District 27 seat. Sad, first of all, because we should be able to vote for our favorite candidate, not the least objectionable one. And sad, too, because a simple election reform could help ensure that the winner of a race has a clear majority of the votes - something that neither Mike Brennan nor Sally Vamvakias will be able to claim this time around.

The reform I'm writing about is the run-off election. I've noted in the past that places like Miami and New York - cities with more voters than can be found in the entire state of Maine - use run-off elections in which two rounds of voting are held to declare a majority winner. More recently, San Francisco voters approved an instant run-off ballot. Voters in Alaska and Vermont are considering adopting the same.

While critics say it's complicated, the instant run-off ballot is simple for voters. They choose not only their favorite candidate, but rank others in order of preference. If no candidate wins a majority, the last-place finisher is eliminated and his or her votes are redistributed based on the voters' second choice. It simulates a second run-off election without the cost or expense.

In District 27, Cenci, Fernald and Dawson would have been eliminated and their votes redistributed between Brennan and Vamvakias based on the preferences of the voters - at least those who voted on time.

I don't know about you, but I'd rather the voters choose their officials. Not senators from other districts.

Jack Beaudoin, an editorial writer, can be reached at 791-6481 or [email protected]

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