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.”

Cancelling student debt: Another bad idea from the “free stuff” crowd

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,” Charles Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities. Thousands of Oregon college graduates in the class of 2019 probably felt the same way.

After years of hard work, they had finally earned their degrees. But 54% graduated with student loan debt. The average debt – $27,542. If it was any consolation, they were not alone. About 45 million Americans (13.7% of the U.S. population) are dealing with federal and/or student loan debt that totals about $1.7 billion.

But fear not, debtors, liberal politicians have been falling all over themselves with plans to help bail you out.

In May 2020, Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) called upon House Speaker Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to prioritize long- term relief in any future COVID-19 response in the form of at least $30,000 in one-time student loan debt cancellation for all federal student loan borrowers 

In September 2020, U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) introduced a resolution  outlining a plan for the next president to use existing authority under the Higher Education Act to cancel up to $50,000 in individual federal student loan debt for Federal student loan borrowers.

Before the Nov. 3, 2020 election, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris called for student loan forgiveness of up to $10,000, and if a student found a job that paid less than $125,000 after graduation, all their student loan debt would be forgiven.

And then there are all the progressive think tanks, unions and special interest groups lined up behind the debt cancellation idea.

In November, a coalition of 236 mostly progressive groups, including the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, sent a letter to President-elect Biden calling on him to cancel student debt using his executive powers on the first day he takes office. Casting their lobbying as a racial justice issue, the letter said, “The ​disproportionate impact​ of student debt on borrowers of color exacerbates existing systemic inequities and widens the racial wealth gap.” 

The progressive Roosevelt Institute, adopting the “No crisis should go to waste” philosophy,  is calling for the cancellation of student, housing, and medical debt as part of a massive covid-recovery plan. Framing student debt as “a product of and a contributor to our country’s shameful racial wealth gap,” the Institute wants student loan forgiveness to go hand in hand with a commitment to funding tuition-free public colleges and universities.

That’s what the most ardent advocates of student loan cancellation are really pushing for – free college, with somebody else, usually simply called “rich people,” covering the cost.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) argued on Nov. 17, 2020 that forgiving student loans would be the “single biggest stimulus we could add to the economy” in these difficult times. And the New York Times said, “Both sides of the debate acknowledge that tackling the $1.7 trillion in student debt nationwide, which is spread among more than 43 million borrowers, would go far toward jump-starting the economy.” But a lot of economists don’t agree. 

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget says the stimulus benefits would be minimal and aimed at those who least need the help. Total student loan debt may be atrociously high, but borrowers often pay back their loans over 10, 15, or even 30 years, so debt cancellation would increase their available cash for injection back into the economy by only a fraction of the total loan forgiveness. “Stimulus dollars that are spent rather than saved provide a stronger boost to near-term economic output,” the Committee has said. 

Continuing current student debt relief policies, including deferring payments and interest, are preferable, as well as income-driven repayment programs under which monthly payments are determined based on a borrower’s income, not the amount of debt. After 20 to 25 years, the remaining debt is forgiven.  

Recently released data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that the national default rate (A federal student loan is considered to be in default if payment is late by 270 days) for FY2017 was 9.70%.  Massachusetts had the lowest loan default rate – 5.83%; Mississippi had the highest –  15.19%.

Oregon had 6,477 borrowers, 10.71% of the total, in default. The Oregon schools with the highest default rate, 7.80%, were Eastern Oregon University and the Pacific Northwest College of Art. The Brookings Institute is predicting a “looming student loan default crisis” that could see 40% of student loan borrowers nationally in default by 2023.

Yes, some of this debt has accrued because of lax government lending standards. As the Wall Street Journal reported on Nov. 23, 2020. “The government lends more than $100 billion each year to students to cover tuition at more than 6,000 colleges and universities. It ignores factors such as credit scores and field of study, and it doesn’t analyze whether students will earn enough after graduating to cover their debt.”

But subsidizing people who run up large college loan debts penalizes those who took their responsibility seriously and acted responsibly, James B. Meigs wrote in City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a free-market think tank. That leaves a lot of people feeling like chumps, he says. “…the chumps of modern America feel that the life choices they’re most proud of—working hard, taking care of their families, being good citizens—aren’t just undervalued, but scorned,” Meigs wrote. As Jeff Jacoby, a Boston Globe columnist put it, “…a massive bailout of borrowers would be unfair to countless families that saved and worked to pay for college, to say nothing of those who responsibly repaid their loans.”

Then there’s the “moral hazard” of cancelling student debt. It might encourage students to continue running up risky big loan balances on the assumption that their debts will be forgiven at some point. That would cause a distortion of borrowing decisions, making them insensitive to the ability to repay. 

Of course, what if higher education institutions see that it makes sense to continually raise prices because the government will absorb any losses down the road. But that’s another problem.

Would #NeverTrump Stalwarts Now Support Sweet Cakes?

nevertrump

Liberals like those who condemned the owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa are now giving a shrug to NeverTrumpers who are discriminating against Trump supporters by refusing to associate with them or patronize their businesses.

The liberals’ unlikely hero in all this today is Phoebe Pearl, a member of the famous dance troupe the Rockettes.

“Finding out that it has been decided for us that Rockettes will be performing at the Presidential inauguration makes me feel embarrassed and disappointed,” Pearl said in an Instagram post today. “…please know that after we found out this news, we have been performing with tears in our eyes and heavy hearts #notmypresident”.

Online comment sections lit up with endorsements of Pearl’s post.

“Proud that you stand up for your views/ beliefs especially to all those trumpies who are always on attack mode ready to become the vicious evil fake definitely not Christians judgmental psychos,” was posted by truthisabitch.

 Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby praised the Rockettes in an article titled, Freedom of Association Isn’t Just for the Rockettes.

“The right to discriminate — to choose with whom we will and won’t associate — is vital to human liberty,” he wrote today. “No one should be forced to play a role in a celebration they want nothing to do with, or to hire themselves out to clients they would prefer not to serve. A liberal baker who declines to create a lavish cake decorated with the words “Congratulations, President Trump” is entitled to as much deference as a black baker who declines to decorate a cake with the Confederate flag…”

Pearl’s post follows actions by other NeverTrumpers asserting their intentions to discriminate against Trump supporters.

HeatStreet, a conservative leaning news website, reported in early December that some Wash., DC homeowners were removing their Airbnb listings so they wouldn’t be put in the position of renting to “…the residents of flyover country.”

“I have a visceral reaction to the thought of having a Trump supporter in my house,” said one Airbnb host. “No amount of money could make me change my mind. It’s about moral principles.”

Television chef Anthony Bourdain said he wouldn’t patronize a restaurant at the newly opened Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. “I will never eat in his restaurant,” Bourdain said. “I have utter contempt for him, utter and complete contempt”.

Designer Sophie Theallet gained some notoriety when she flamboyantly announced on Twitter that she would not dress or associate with Donald Trump’s wife Melania when she becomes first lady. She also called on other designers to follow her lead, saying “Integrity is our only true currency.”

Is all this a liberal double standard?

In 2013, Aaron and Melissa Klein, the owners of Sweet Cakes bakery in Gresham, OR refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding of a lesbian couple because of the Klein’s Christian beliefs against same-sex marriage.

In early 2015, then State Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian made a preliminary finding that the Kleins discriminated against the lesbian couple on the basis of their sexual orientation.

In July 2015, Avakian ordered the Kleins to pay $135,000 in damages to the couple for emotional and mental suffering they experienced because the Kleins had refused to sell them a wedding cake.

Liberals enthusiastically endorsed Avakian’s decision.

“The Kleins are religious zealots, and not very bright,” wrote one supporter of the decision. “They should stick to baking cakes, and leaving their religion in the back room and/or at home and at church. When one opens their doors to a commercial enterprise, they don’t get to tell people to —- off based on purposeful discrimination.”

“A sign saying “no lesbians are allowed to purchase wedding cakes in my store,” is every bit as discriminatory as a person verbally saying “no lesbians are allowed to purchase wedding cakes in my store” and the business in question should be held accountable,” Mat dos Santos, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, wrote in an opinion column in The Oregonian.

The federal government, while asserting that you can’t discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin, doesn’t prohibit discrimination based on a person’s political bent. So the NeverTrumpers aren’t breaking the law when they support the ability of businesses to ban politically offensive customers, but how is that position morally different from the position the Kleins took?

Do the liberal NeverTrumpers denying services to Trump supporters now want to reverse Avakian’s decision or should they be held to the same standards as the Kleins?