Portland, ME

Does equality under the law apply to all three options on the Portland Homeless Shelter ballot?

Mackenzie Andersen

It's not just about the homeless shelter anymore! It's about fairness in the electoral process.

Michal Matlon / Unsplash

According to the headline in NewsCenter Maine

Path towards 200-bed Homeless Services Center in Portland clears hurdles following referendum

The subtitle says The ballot measure looking to reduce capacity of emergency shelters in the city to 50 beds failed, receiving 31% of the vote

Point made!

Shelters limited to fifty beds in a room failed so that the project allowing 200 beds in a room can move ahead!

And therein lay the crux of the matter.

One might think from the headline that it was a two option- or a yes or no vote- such as a simple question: " Do you want to limit the number of beds per room to fifty?"

Yes or No?

But that was not the case, as reported later in the story:

Unofficial election results for the City of Portland show option A received 31%, option B received roughly 28% of the vote, and option C received 41% of the vote. Both options A and B would have required more than 50% of the vote to be enacted.

Given the principle of equal justice under the law, if there are multiple options, all are treated equally under the law.

However, Central Maine News reports that the majority rule applies only to Options A & B,

But, the majority measurement is taken between the totals of A, B & C.

Aleksandr Kadykov Unsplash

If the 50% majority is a measurement taken between two options, A or B. then the fifty-bed option is the winner.

When there are three options in a contest, which must be won by a majority vote, then there is no winner if none of the options receives a majority vote.

There were three options on the ballot. None won.

Even NewsCenter Maine acknowledges that in order to justify its own headline, which clearly recognizes that the real contest was between small shelters with fewer beds in a room and larger shelters with 200 or more beds in a room, a different set of rules must be applied to Option C than are applied to Options A & B.

According to Justin Beth of Portland for Smaller Shelters, the Smaller Shelters Committee lobbied to get Option A on the ballot. If it were only Option A on the ballot, It would have been a simple yes or no question.

But then Options B and C were added. Option B is consistent with the wording of Option A by defining the number of beds in a room but raising that number to 150.

Option C changes the terms by not identifying the number of beds allowed in a room.

C: Neither of the two (2) proposed Amendments to the Portland City Code above,

Option C is inconsistent because it does not mention the number of beds. Its wording can be subject to misinterpretation by the least sophisticated voter as meaning- no shelter- or no beds in the shelter. However since it includes the word "amendments", it identifies that it is talking about the number of beds in the unamended version of the proposal, without actually mentioning a number of beds in the option choice. If it were stated consistently using the same terms as the other two options (the number of beds), it could not be taken to mean "no shelter".

An arguable intention of presenting Option C as a voting option is to prevent Option A & B from reaching a majority. If Option C were treated by the same terms as the other two options, no option received a majority vote and all options, including the 200-bed option was defeated. That usually calls for another vote between the two options that received the most votes, not a go-ahead with Option C.

According to the interpretation put forth by NewsCenter Maine, even if Option C had received the least number of votes, it would still be declared the winner because Option C is the unamended law. Option C was treated as both a voting option and the default if none of the three options (including Option C) receive a majority vote. Options C had two pathways to win whereas Options A & B had only one, Option C could win by receiving a majority vote and it could win if none of the three options received a majority vote. The only way Option C could lose is if one of the other two options got over 50 % of the vote between all three options. Option B made the possibility of Option A succeeding more difficult. Arguably, It really was always a battle between the people who have been homeless or who work directly with the homeless and the developers. It was always between Option A and Option C, as the headline and subtitle of NewsCenter Maine states.

It is no longer just about the homeless shelter, it is about fairness in elections.

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