Sol Mora: “Charter reform package breaks down barriers for communities of color.”
The Civic Engagement Manager for the Coalition of Communities of Color says the proposal reflects what Portland's communities of color want.
To understand how the Charter Commission arrived at its proposed reforms, you must first understand the commission’s close collaboration with the Coalition of Communities of Color (CCC).
In 2021, the City of Portland contracted with the CCC to lead the Charter Commission’s community outreach and engagement process.
The proposed reform package is a direct result of that input, says CCC’s civic engagement manager Sol Mora.
No other organization has been more involved in Portland’s charter review process than the Coalition of Communities of Color (CCC).
In 2021, the City of Portland contracted with CCC to lead the public engagement and outreach process for the Charter Commission’s work.
CCC’s outreach has primarily targeted communities who have been historically left out of City Hall decision-making, although the organization has also conducted broad outreach to the general public. In partnership with twelve culturally-specific community organizations, CCC conducted a series of community listening sessions focusing on historically disenfranchised communities. That input was then reported back to the Charter Commission.
This model was a brand new approach for the City of Portland.
According to Sol Mora, CCC’s civic engagement manager, previous public input processes involved city representatives showing up and, as Ms. Mora puts it, “extracting” input from communities of color without subsequent follow-up.
This time, she says, Portlanders of color have been able to map the trajectory of their input from start to finish. Participating communities can see their input reflected in the reform package, and CCC is currently organizing workshops teaching communities to testify in support of the changes they called for.
Rose City Reform sat down with Ms. Mora to hear what results she thinks the reform package will deliver for Portland’s communities of color.
How do you think the proposed reform package will change representation for communities of color?
It’s a comprehensive package that breaks down barriers for candidates and communities of color.
The current winner-takes-all voting system has very significantly underrepresented voters of color, unhoused Portlanders and low-income Portlanders.
In Portland, the majority of voters are white. In a system where candidates need 50% or more of the vote to win, the majority is able to elect every seat to City Council. To be elected, candidates of color must then rely on white voters. That's something that has not always worked for Portland’s communities of color.
Proportional ranked choice voting breaks down barriers for candidates of color so that voters of color can elect candidates of their choice and build coalitions with likeminded people that represent them and share their values.
Watch this video from Australia to understand how “proportional ranked choice voting”, also known as “single transferable vote” (STV), works in practice.
Multi-member districts also answer the question of geographic representation, which the community is calling for.
Finally, districts will reduce the financial barrier that candidates currently experience, because they no longer need to campaign to the entire city to have a viable chance of getting elected.
Why are four districts that each elect three representatives better for voters of color than twelve districts that each elect one person?
My position on this has been greatly influenced by research from the MGGG Redistricting Lab [at Tuft’s University]. MGGG analyzed different voting methods and districting options to see which model would give Portland’s voters of color the best chance of electing candidates of their choice.
MGGG found that multi-member districts with at least three members per district was the golden number that allowed voters of color to secure fair representation. That research has been very influential to the Charter Commission’s package of reforms.
The research also looked at single member districts. Because of Portland's extensive history of displacement and gentrification, in which communities of color have been pushed out of their historical neighborhoods, Portland’s voters of color are spread out across the city.
Because of that, you can't draw districts in which they are the majority. In a model where you only have one representative for each district, white voters would be able to elect every seat to city council in every single case.
With lower thresholds to get elected, are you worried about fringe candidates being able to get seats, like members of white supremacy groups?
Our current voting system already benefits whiteness. I think one of the starkest examples of that is that in the past century, only five people of color have served on Portland’s City Council.
What’s advantageous about multi-member districts is that by design, they rely on candidates building coalitions amongst one another. That design puts fringe candidates at a disadvantage.
We’ve already had to come together repeatedly in Portland to ensure that white supremacist and white nationalist groups that are staging violent demonstrations are denounced.
I’m less worried about the possibility of white supremacist fringe candidates getting into office than I am focused on how this will help ensure candidates of color getting a seat at the table.
Do you think that the reform package will result in material changes for east Portland?
There’s a great example that came out of our listening sessions. Someone from east Portland was talking about how their community wanted to install streetlights for safety. They rallied together as a neighborhood and were finally able to communicate their needs to the city. The streetlights were installed – but on the wrong side of the street.
That's just one small example of what's happening on a larger scale. Sometimes issues are addressed, but they're not addressed in ways that are responsive to the communities that live there. Having representation for east Portland will lead to policies that address issues like sidewalks, roads and infrastructure.
What do you think CCC has taught the City of Portland about engaging communities of color?
I’m genuinely thankful that we've been able to present this model of what engagement can look like. I hope that the City will incorporate it moving forward because what we heard from the community was: “I've never been invited to any type of process. I didn't know that I could call the city for help.”
Communities aren't being met where they are, and they're not being met with education that is accessible or that feels appropriate to their community.
The charter reform package will improve representation for communities of color, but there are outstanding issues that can’t be addressed with charter reform.
I hope the CCC’s work serves as a model that inspires candidates to go out and meet communities where they are, at their small businesses and places where they're already convening and gathering. Those are the places that will feel most comfortable to those communities and will result in the highest amount of participation.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Limited time left to weigh in before final Charter Commission vote.
This week, the Charter Commission will release draft language for its proposed charter amendments. Stay tuned for my next post, which will analyze those drafts.
Before the Charter Commission’s final vote on June 14th, the commission will hold four public hearings where the community can weigh in on the proposed changes. After the month of May the Charter Commission will no longer accept public comment.
Watch the hearings or sign up to testify.
Want to learn more?
Here’s the MGGG research that Ms. Mora references in the interview:
Read my interview with Charter Commissioner Robin Ye on why the Charter Commission wants multi-member districts.
Read my interview with Professor Michael Latner explaining proportional representation.
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