Portland’s Proposed Ranked Choice Voting Reform Isn’t The Solution To Portland’s Dysfunction

Portland’s current government is a mess, for a lot of reasons.

In November, Portland voters will have an opportunity to vote on one proposed solution, presented as the following question: “Should City Administrator, supervised by Mayor, manage Portland with twelve Councilors representing four districts making laws and voters ranking candidates?”

Portland’s City Council now consists of a mayor and four commissioners, all of them elected at-large, with all of Portland’s voters eligible to vote in the race for each seat.

The proposal from Portland’s Charter Commission would remove the mayor from the council and expand the council to 12 members, three each from four geographic districts of equal population, each of which would be elected using ranked choice voting. An independent commission would determine the four district boundaries after the vote on the ballot question. 

With only 8% of Portland voters saying the city is headed in the right direction and 82% of Multnomah County residents being either somewhat or very worried about the future of their part of the state. there may be an inclination to support a radical change out of sheer frustration. But the commission’s solution isn’t the answer.

Expanding the City Council to 12 members is likely to make it more unwieldy, not less. Though, thankfully, the Charter Commission was somewhat restrained, not choosing an even bigger expansion, such as the 51-member City Council with which New York City is blessed.

The particular weakness of the commission’s proposal, though, is its reliance on a needlessly complex new system of ranked choice voting (RCV). In setting on this proposal, the Charter Commission shows itself to have been populated by naive zealots advocating change for change’s sake.

There are lot of ways to organize and count votes. Most of us are used to the simple proposition that the person with the most votes wins. 

“This system is the norm from grade school elections for class president to congressional elections, “Jeff Gill and Jason wrote in a Statistical Science article about voting. “However, not only is this merely one of many possible “democratic” procedures. it is also not the only system currently used in political life in the United States and around the world.”

RCV is one of those voting options.

In RCV, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If there are a lot of candidates, as there might be under the Charter Commission’s proposal, voters need to have a high level of information about all of them in order to choose preferences. You can’t just vote for the person and ideas you like. You must also educate yourself about all the other candidates in order to elevate, or dismiss, the ones you don’t.

Voters in RCV can identify their first choice, the next best and so on as they work their way down the list. If one of the candidates gets more than 50% of the first-choice votes in the first count, that candidate wins. If nobody gets a majority, there’s an “instant runoff” where the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and voters who had chosen that candidate as their first choice have their second choice counted instead. This process continues until one of the candidates gets more than half of the vote. 

Yep, it’s complicated. Too complicated. And prone to undesireable results.

For example, don’t assume RCV will always select a majority winner. In cases of what’s called “ballot exhaustion,” a voter’s preferences are eliminated so none of them are carried forward. In other words, the candidate who ends up with a majority of votes is elected with only the remaining ballots, rather than all the original ballots, meaning a winner can have fewer than half the votes of the original ballots.

The Center for Election Science says RCV’s weakness is particularly noticeable in competitive elections where more than two candidates have significant support. 

The center cited a Louisiana election in which there were three candidates. The vote mainly split between the three candidates, but it led to the elimination of the more moderate candidate who would have won in a two-candidate race against either of the other two. That sent the two more controversial candidates to the second round. 

“…with competitive elections there’s a tendency to squeeze out the center candidate,” the Center said, “which would favor more extreme candidates …”

There are even situations with RCV where ranking a candidate higher can hurt that candidate and ranking a candidate lower can help that candidate. This occurrence, happened in a 2009 election in Burlington, VT.

There, conservatives ranked their favorite candidate first and it got them their least favorite candidate as the winner. Had these conservative voters instead tactically placed their favorite candidate as second, then they would have gotten a much better outcome.

Bear with me as I explain. 

In the 2009 Burlington mayoral race, there were five candidates. The counts resulted in the following:

1st Round2nd Round3rd Round (Final)
Kiss (Progressive)2585 (29%)29814313
Wright (Republican)2951 (33%)32944061
Montroll (Democrat)2063 (23%)2554
Smith (Independent)1306 (15%)
Simpson (Green)35 (0.4%)
Write-Ins36 (0.4%)
Votes in Burlington, VT Mayoral election

According to the preferences stated by the voters on their ballots, however, if Democrat Montroll had gone head-to-head with either Progressive Kiss or Republican Wright (or anybody else) in a two-man race, he would be mayor. 

Montroll would have been favored over Wright 56% to 44% (a 930-vote margin) and over Kiss 54% to 46% (590-vote margin), majorities in both cases. 

In other words, in voting terminology, Montroll was a “beats-all winner” and a fairly convincing one. However, in this RCV election, Montroll came in third! And Kiss beat Wright in the final RCV round with 51.5% (252-vote official margin).

Confusing, yes, but real.

Another troublesome and risky situation can arise if a voter’s preferred candidate is neither a clear loser nor a clear winner. In such a case, ranking your favorite as first risks getting a bad candidate elected. And that bad candidate gets elected by RCV eliminating a superior compromise candidate too early.

Voters in this in-between state can either rank their favorite first and risk a bad candidate winning or not rank their favorite first, depriving that candidate of  much-needed support. Both of these outcomes are bad.

RCV can also founder when voters, because they are unfamiliar with all the candidates or simply by choice, vote only for their preferred candidate, ignoring the opportunity to rank the rest. 

The fact is, the more people a voter ranks the longer a ballot works for the voter. If there are five people on a ballot, you vote for only one and that one is eliminated in the instant runoff, your ballot is exhausted and has no impact on the race. It simply won’t factor into the final outcome.

On the other hand, pressure to rank all the candidates can lead to support for somebody the voter despises. In RCV, your vote for a candidate you hate can help that candidate move up. 

The fact is RCV is a solution in search of a problem. It’s simply too complex and unwieldy for voters to be asked to vote it up or down as part of a wide-ranging rearrangement of Portland’s city government.

Vote “No” on the Charter Commission’s proposal on the November 8, 2022 ballot..

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