Portland’s Charter Reform Proposal: An Elaborate, Unworkable Mess

Proponents of Portland’s charter reform proposal (Measure 26-228) try to make it sound so simple and straightforward; just a good government initiative that will transform the city.

Not so. The proposed radical change in how city officials would be elected is a convoluted jumble that few probably comprehend. 

The current system is simple: the person with the most votes wins.

Under the reform proposal, not one but two voting systems would be employed. 

First, the Mayor and the Auditor would be elected at-large using a flawed method of ranked choice voting (RCV) known as instant runoff voting.

This is how the reform proposal describes the system: 

 “If no candidate receives a majority of the vote in the initial round, subsequent rounds are counted in which (i) candidates retain the number of votes counted for them in the first and any subsequent rounds that already occurred; and (ii) the candidates having the fewest votes are successively eliminated in rounds and their votes are counted as votes for the candidates who are ranked next on the ballots that had been counted for the eliminated candidates. The process of eliminating candidates and transferring their votes to the next-ranked candidate on ballots repeats until a candidate has a majority of the vote.”

Got that? 

In RCV, voters need to have a high level of information about all the candidates 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. 

If you only vote for the candidate you prefer and don’t rank all the rest, you are effectively disenfranchised if your candidate doesn’t come in first in the initial ballot count.

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 you really don’t like. In RCV, your vote for a candidate you dislike can actually help that candidate move up. 

Jeff Jacoby, an award-winning columnist for the Boston Globe, calls the RCV process “democracy on the Rube Goldberg model”, where  ideas that supposedly simplify people’s lives wreak havoc instead.

“Perversely, (ranked choice voting) enhances the influence of the candidate who comes in last when the ballots are first counted, by shifting that candidate’s voters to their second choice.,” Jacoby says. “Just as perversely, the system pushes voters to decide on who their third-, fourth-, and even fifth-favorite candidates are — or face the prospect of their vote being nullified if multiple rounds of tallying are required.”

Things get even weirder when you apply RCV to an election for multiple positions.

As noted earlier, not one but two voting systems would be employed under Portland’s charter reform proposal. In the races for mayor and auditor, there would be only one final winner in each. In the district council races, each of four districts would be electing three Councilors to create a 12-member city council, guaranteed to lead to gridlock at times because of the even number.. 

The Councilors of each district would be elected using a proportional method of RCV known as “single transferable vote” (STV). In this system, voters rank the candidates and if a candidate gets more votes than needed be elected the extra, or surplus, votes get transferred to he voter’s next choices. The charter reform proposal is so convoluted it takes almost 300 words to explain how it would work (See below for complete text)

Under this system, a candidate running for a seat in a multimember district could win a position on the Council with as little as 25% + 1 of the vote. One consequence could be a Councilor able to remain in office by consistently satisfying just that smaller segment of eligible voters.

Because STV is a complex system, understanding it demands a high degree of literacy and numeracy. It can also heighten the power of small minority coalitions and fragment political parties because it can cause members of a party to compete against each other as well as against their ideological opponents.

Although organizations such as the City Club of Portland, the League of Women Voters of Portland and the ACLU of Oregon have endorsed the reform proposal, it’s hard to understand why given that its complexity potentially endangers its legitimacy in the eyes of the general public.

Charter reform proponents cite a Portland Governance & Electoral Reform Survey conducted in March 2022 by Baltimore, MD-based GBAO, which does survey research and strategic consulting for Democratic and progressive campaigns, that showed strong support for RCV and multimember districts.

The polling questions did not, however, explain the intricacies of how RCV would work with multimember districts and application of the single transferable vote concept.

Probably realizing that all this is confusing as hell, the charter reform proposal calls for voter education. “The City must conduct periodic voter education campaigns to familiarize voters with the ranked choice voting methods described above,” the proposal says.

Try explaining all this in a 30-second tv spot, a tweet or a digital ad.

Good luck with that.

__________

Charter reform’s explanation of how “single transferable vote” (STV) would work: 

“Councilors of each district are elected using a proportional method of ranked choice voting known as single transferable vote. This method provides for the candidates to be elected on the basis of a threshold. The threshold is determined by the number of seats to be filled plus one, so that the threshold is the lowest number of votes a candidate must receive to win a seat such that no more candidates can win election than there are seats to be filled. In the initial round, the number of first rankings received by each candidate is the candidate’s vote count. Candidates whose vote counts are at least the threshold are declared elected. Votes that counted for elected candidates in excess of the threshold are called surplus. If fewer candidates are elected in the initial round than there are seats to be filled, the surplus percentage of all votes for the candidates who received a surplus are transferred to the next-highest ranked candidates in proportion to the total numbers of next-highest rankings they received on the ballots that counted for the elected candidate. If, after all surpluses have been counted in a round, no additional candidates have a vote count that is at least the threshold, the candidates with the lowest vote counts are successively eliminated in rounds and their votes are counted as votes for the candidates who are ranked next highest on the ballots that had been counted for the eliminated candidates, until another candidate has a vote count that is at least the threshold or until the number of candidates remaining equals the number of seats that have not yet been filled. The process of transferring surpluses of elected candidates and eliminating candidates continues until all positions are elected.”

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