Proposal for new Portland council would mark another step forward

The proposal, which combines multi-member districts and ranked choice voting, would lead to more civil campaigns and less polarization

October 25, 2022 5:30 am

In 1998, Oregon voters essentially voted against an attempt to make it more difficult to get ballot measures approved. (Lynne Terry/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Oregon has long been a leader in progressive reforms to elections and government. In the early 20th century, Oregon was the first state to adopt the citizen initiative and presidential primaries, and one of the first two to allow citizen recall of public officials. In the 21st century, Oregon became the first state to move to full by-mail elections and to adopt automatic voter registration.

Measure 26-228, a proposed change to the way Portland elects its City Council and runs its government, carries on this tradition of forward-looking reform. As students and scholars of elections and government, we believe it represents a major step beyond our unrepresentative and dysfunctional system of today.

The election system being proposed is commonly called “proportional ranked choice voting” or “single transferable voting.” In this system, voting is simple. Voters rank as many candidates as they like. The tallying method takes into account all their choices, not just their top choice.

No longer will we have to hold our nose and vote for a more “electable” choice.

No longer will we elect our council in low turnout, unrepresentative May primaries.

And because three members are elected from each district, we will have three voices in a council representing the views of our part of Portland.

In earlier commentary, Tim Nesbill argued against the charter.
Proportional ranked choice voting is used in American cities, local jurisdictions and countries around the world. Combining multi-member districts and ranked choice voting produces more civil campaigns and less polarization. The districts are much less prone to gerrymandering, and the system would produce a council that is far more reflective and representative of our city.

Multi-member districts expand our voice and avoid many of the negative outcomes associated with single-member, “winner-take-all” elections. Candidates want to be your first, second or third choice. They have less incentive to appeal to a small base of voters, and elected councilors have every incentive to collaborate.

The biggest driver of voter turnout is having viable candidates who get voters excited and who represent their points of view. Study after study demonstrates this. Proportional ranked choice voting opens up the system and, because there are three winners in each district, makes it much more likely that a candidate of choice will be available to different groups of voters.

As to faith and confidence in elections, research also shows that if you vote for a winning candidate, you’re much more likely to have confidence in the legitimacy of the election system. This is a big advantage of proportional ranked choice voting over any single member district system: There are more winners per district in a small number of larger districts, and more voters would express a preference for one or more of the winning candidates.

Finally, we believe that a City Council that represents more voices would improve policy outcomes. Laws are better when everybody gets the chance to weigh in on drafting them. Even if a minority bloc on the council couldn’t pass their own ordinances, their concerns would be heard by other councilors and incorporated into lawmaking. When voters from the minority bloc see that their voices are heard and represented, they would be more likely to trust the process and outcome of city lawmaking.

Portland can once again be a leader in creating a more responsive and representative election system that avoids the political polarization that has caused so many problems and division. We can be the City that Works again. While no government system is perfect, measure 26-228 is a tremendous improvement on the current system.

Two other authors contributed to this commentary: Paul Manson is assistant professor of political science and research director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College, and Jay Lee is research associate in the democracy program at Sightline Institute. Manson can be reached at [email protected] and Lee at [email protected].

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Paul Gronke
Paul Gronke

Paul Gronke is a professor of political science and director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Portland. Gronke studies American politics, specializing in convenience and early voting, election administration, public opinion and elections. He can be reached at [email protected].