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Will Portland become a poster child for voting reform?
If the Charter Commission’s proposal passes, the answer could be yes.
Many Portlanders thought the big story coming out of the charter review process would be the repeal of Portland’s antiquated commission form of government.
Instead, a bigger story has emerged, possibly with regional and even national implications.
If voters say yes in November, Portland could spearhead one of the most comprehensive municipal voting reforms in the nation.
If you’re like me, until recently, you had never heard of ranked choice voting. And then, suddenly, it was everywhere.
Ranked choice voting is a voting method that lets voters rank candidates by order of preference on the ballot. It’s also a national trend that has caught fire in the last few years, propelled by a movement funded and organized by groups like FairVote and The Institute for Political Innovation.
Fifty-five jurisdictions are expected to use ranked ballots in their next election. Fifty-two of those jurisdictions are cities.
This November, the Charter Commission wants Portland to join the club.
Proponents say ranked choice voting combats polarization.
Ranked choice voting activists believe the voting method could be cryptonite for polarization.
Because ranked choice voting provides for instant runoffs based on voters’ rankings, proponents say it elects leaders with broad support, rather than hard line candidates who play to fringe views for the sake of winning primary elections.
“I think the modern polarization of the national political sphere is one of the major driving forces behind the ranked choice voting movement,” says Colin Cole, policy director of the racial justice organization More Equitable Democracy.
“Most voters don't agree with any one politician on everything. In our modern era, we like to have choices and express ourselves in nuanced ways. Requiring someone to choose just one single candidate out of twenty running, when you have a much more nuanced view as a person – there's a weird disconnect there.”
Portland could get two new voting methods.
The Charter Commission wants Portlanders to say yes to two new voting methods.
Ranked choice voting would be used to elect the mayor and the auditor. But because ranked choice voting can only elect one seat per election, it wouldn’t work for Portland’s city council elections.
As you may recall, the Charter Commission wants to divide Portland into four geographic districts that would each elect three city council seats.
That’s why commissioners also want to implement single transferable vote, a voting method borrowed from countries like Ireland and Australia, which uses ranked ballots to elect multiple seats.
By electing the seats in each city council district via single transferable vote, the threshold for being elected to Portland City Council would be lowered to 25%+1 of the district vote.
Ranked ballots would look the same regardless of which method were used.
Single transferable vote benefits communities of color, Cole says.
Colin Cole says single transferable vote would enable Portland’s voters of color to get representation as a group even when the district majority is white.
Because Portland is less racially segregated than many other cities, it’s not possible to draw a district in Portland where voters of color are the majority, according to Cole.
“Single transferable vote is where we see huge potential and huge effects from a voting rights perspective, from a racial justice perspective and from a depolarizing the American political climate perspective,” he says.
Portland would become trailblazer.
No other large metropolitan area in the United States currently uses single transferable vote for city council elections.
Colin Cole thinks Portland could become a model for other cities.
He says the fact that Portland’s reform effort has evolved out of community conversations, rather than being brought as a ballot initiative by a democracy reform organization, is likely to inspire community groups and charter commissions in other places to study Portland’s example.
“I think that makes folks look at the idea a lot more seriously, knowing that ordinary people like it, and not just wonky democracy reform organizations,” he says.
American cities have tried proportional representation before.
Portland’s proposed city council system would be a form of proportional representation, a political system that is popular worldwide but has never gained significant momentum in America.
However, there was once an appetite for proportional representation in the United States.
“We used to use this system in about thirty cities across America,” says Jay Lee, research associate at the think tank Sightline Institute, who has written about the history of proportional representation in the United States.
New York City, Cleveland and Cincinnati were among the cities that implemented proportional representation during the first half of the 20th century. Their city councils grew significantly more diverse during this period, Lee says.
“The reason many of these places got rid of the system is because it worked. And one of the major reasons it was taken away is because voters started electing black candidates and candidates preferred by black voters. Portland has the ability to be a front runner in bringing back proportional representation,” he adds.
At least one charter commissioner is skeptical of single transferable vote.
Most charter commissioners appear to support voting reform as proposed, but some have reservations. Charter Commissioner David Knowles has voiced concerns about single transferable vote.
“I think this is a gift for incumbents that means underperforming incumbents will get not one chance to remain in office but three chances,” he said in a recent work session.
Commissioner Knowles thinks the voting method could end up working against the Charter Commission’s goals of increasing diversity and leadership on the council.
“A voting system that favors incumbents will create a roadblock for getting new voices on the council—a priority outcome that the Charter Commission created for itself at the beginning of its work,” the commissioner later told Rose City Reform.
However, the Charter Commission appears poised to pass the reform package with a supermajority. This means the amendments would bypass City Council and go directly to the ballot.
Then it will be up to Portlanders to decide whether Portland takes the leap and enacts one of the most consequential municipal voting reforms in the nation.
Want to learn more about ranked choice voting and single transferable vote?
Both voting methods allow voters to rank candidates by order of preference, both count ballots in rounds, and both allow for the transfer of votes between a voter’s ranked candidates.
The following videos show how the methods can work in practicality. Just remember that methods can vary between jurisdictions, and these examples may not be identical to the systems that Portland might use.
More from Rose City Reform:
Oregon Capital Chronicle: One plan to reform Portland city government aims for more diversity - but may not get it.
FairVote: Where ranked choice voting is used.
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