Municipal Clerks Prepare For Historic Ranked-Choice Election

Jun 8, 2018

The ranked-choice voting system is forcing candidates to think about how they are campaigning, and it will also make voters think twice about their choice. But perhaps no group has more to think about than municipal clerks, the people who will conduct next week's vote.

Whether you touch a screen, fill in an oval or put an X in a box, the way you vote changes next week. And that means changes for people like Sandra Fournier. "It's very stressful,” she says.

Fournier is town clerk in Eagle Lake in far northern Maine. She also will be responsible for conducting elections in some of the nearby, unorganized townships.

"And, of course, during, on election day we, we have to deal with a lot of different factors, as it is.”

Fournier says she has to find space for poll watchers, she must train and monitor poll workers, and clerks are often the first line in enforcement for the laws that limit what candidates and their supporters can do and say around polling stations. But not all clerks are worried.

"This is the sort of thing that I find really exciting,” says Angela Holmes, city clerk in Westbrook.

"Making sure that people who want to vote are able to vote and express their opinions,” says Holmes. “This is the democratic process. This is why I do what I do...elections are always exciting."

It's Secretary of State Matt Dunlap's job to make sure the clerks understand ranked-choice voting and their role in it.

"Well, we do a training every year for clerks and we have it in some central location,” says Dunlap. “It will be supplemented by some regional trainings. So we did that back in May. We spent a couple of days in Bethel, we went down to the Sunday River resort and we worked with several hundred clerks. "

Several hundred clerks – one in every city and town in the state. That number presents its own challenge. For instance, Fournier is worried about the extra time and expense to do the second, third, however-other-many rounds of ranked-choice counting that might need to be done.

But Dunlap says she needn't have worried. His staff will take care of that.

"As we built the rules around conducting ranked-choice voting elections, we've been really careful to make it as easy for town election officials as possible,” Dunlap says. “Where you see that most clearly is where they are tabulating only the first place votes on election night. So, basically, they're running the election the way they always have."

The state will also pick up the extra expense, which Dunlap has said could run to as much as $400,000 -dollars.

Fournier does have something else she worries about, though: questions from voters:

“I'm expecting, on election day, to be bombarded; this is not something that's going to be normal for them” says Fournier.

That, says Dunlap, puts them and other poll workers in a tricky spot.

“You don't want to get into answering questions about candidates because you can't influence a voter,” he says. “So we've been developing some materials, like posters and whatnot, that can be put up in the polling places so that people can see exactly what a valid or invalid vote would be. Without putting the ballot clerks in the position of trying to answer some of those questions and possibly getting drawn into whether or not they should be voting for question 1 or whether or not they should be voting for a particular candidate.”

Holmes, for one, is appreciative.

“The Secretary of State's office has been phenomenal in providing public resources,” she says. “They did a little animated video which is a great way to get the quick scoop on how ranked choice voting actually works. And we've directed a lot of people there."

Fournier says, nervousness aside, she too finds next week's historic vote exciting.

“I'm excited, because I'd like to see how this process actually can result in, maybe, a total change in a candidate that you wouldn't have normally seen with how the previous have been done,” she says. “And, at the same time, it is historic, because this is new ground for Maine.”

This story was originally published June 7, 2018 at 3:38 p.m. ET.