Portland, OR - Charter Reform

Should Portland Change 
How City Commissioners Are Elected?

A summary of options from the Equal Vote Coalition

Groups like City Club, PDX Forward, and the Equal Vote Coalition have been engaging with the community over the last few years about redesigning City of Portland elections to be more fair, representative, and equitable. On the table are alternative voting reforms and also options for redrawing the district lines themselves. Below is a brief overview of a few options for districting and voting reform worth learning more about. The decisions for district reform and for voting reforms are interconnected and should be considered together. 


Current System: City Commissioners are currently elected city-wide (at-large) in single-winner "positions."


Pros: Maximum selection of candidates to choose from.

Cons: Having large fields of candidates in elections where voters are unable to show preference order or level of support is a recipe for failure. The current system is a perfect storm for massive vote-splitting, and unrepresentative outcomes should be expected. Voters need to statically vote for candidates they think are "electable" in order to avoid wasting their vote, which further magnifies existing disparities and the influence of money in politics.

No local representation. At-large jurisdictions and larger districts in general are harder to canvass, which is a barrier for grassroots campaigns. Tends to elect most candidates from wealthier and less diverse neighborhoods, (historically the West Hills.) Harder to hold any one councilor responsible or accountable. At-large elections were banned in the Voting Rights Act because they were historically used to ensure that candidates in racially diverse neighborhoods who could have won in their communities are blocked from winning city-wide. Choose-One Plurality voting often elects unrepresentative winners due to vote-splitting.


Options for Change: Single-winner, Simple Multi-Winner, or Multi-Winner Proportional elections?


Single-Winner Districts: 

Single-winner elections are by far the most simple and transparent. Each district would be relatively small, candidates would need to live in each district, and elections would likely have less candidates than other options. This may result in less options, but also does the most to eliminate the need for primaries. 

Multi-Winner Bloc Voting: 

Would be used in multi-member districts to ensure that each part of PDX would have a couple or a few representatives. 

Bloc voting is the default for multi-winner elections. You just repeat the process for the single-winner voting method until all seats are filled. Ensures majority preferred winners who best represent the voters in each area. 

Multi-Winner Proportional Representation:

Would be used in multi-member districts to ensure that each part of PDX would have a couple or a few representatives. 

Proportional Representation (PR) voting methods all offer broader representation. PR elects candidates in proportion to the amount of support that they have in the electorate. For example, if a faction had the support of 1/5 of the voters, their candidates would win one out of the 5 available seats. Lower thresholds required to win allow minority factions to win a seat even if they do not have majority support. The types of PR under consideration are all non-partisan. 

Proportional Representation voting methods would lead to electing more people from minor political parties or other groups which don't have majority support, particularly if people prioritize that group's identity and vote as a block. PR may lead to electing more women and people of color, though local statistics suggest that other factors like at-large elections and money in politics are likely the main barriers to equity for Portland City Council currently and historically. 

While helping improve diversity of representation, PR can also lead to electing and giving a platform to small antagonistic or polarizing factions. Proportional Representation was one factor which may have contributed to the rise of the NAZI party. The lower numbers required to win can favor candidates who are opposed by well over a majority and can make it much harder to vote a bad candidate out of office. 

Single and Multi-Winner Hybrid:

A common option used in city elections around the country is to combine the approaches above so that half of the seats (or so) are elected from single-winner districts, and the other half are elected at-large.


Leading Voting Methods for Single-Winner Elections: 


The Current “Choose-One-Only” Plurality Voting Method 

Pros: This is the simplest voting method and it’s familiar for voters. 

Cons: “Choose-One-Only” Voting is only accurate in elections with 2 candidates. It is highly prone to vote-splitting and the “spoiler effect”, and can elect a candidate who was opposed by most voters. In order to avoid this, voters have a strong incentive to strategically vote for the candidate on their side who they think can win. “Choose-One-Only” elections have a strong implicit bias towards the candidates who raise the most money, have establishment backing, and gain favor with the mainstream media. All these factors combine to magnify the influence of institutional racism and big money in politics. 

Ranked Choice (RCV, IRV):

Rank candidates. First choice votes are counted and candidates are then eliminated in rounds where your vote will transfer to your next choice if your next choice is still in the running. 

Pros: Has a long track record and name recognition. One election only, no primary in most cases. Preference voting ballot results in more positive campaigns.

Cons: Results are only slightly better or on par with a primary + top 2 general election on most metrics. Only mitigates vote-splitting. Not all rankings are counted. Significant numbers of ballots are not counted in the deciding round in competitive races. Less accurate than all other alternative voting reforms on the table, especially in larger fields of candidates. Complex to tabulate. Honestly ranking your favorite first can backfire in competitive races. 

​STAR Voting: 

Score candidates from 0 up to 5 stars. The two highest scoring are finalists. Your ballot goes to the finalist you preferred. 

Pros: Tops the charts for accurately electing representative winners, no matter how many candidates are in the race. Offers an equally weighted vote so the system does not have implicit bias in favor of some candidates or voters. Great accountability, even if your favorite can't win your vote makes a difference and helps prevent your worst case scenario from winning.. Better resiliency against strategic voting. No new voting machines needed. No wasted votes or vote-splitting. No primary needed. Can be used with single or multi-member districts. 

Cons: STAR Voting is one of the newer reforms on the table and has not been used for municipal elections yet, though it was used for the Independent Party primary and for statewide elections by the Democratic Party of Oregon in 2020. 


Leading Voting Methods for Multi-Winner Elections: 


Multi-Winner Bloc STAR Voting:

Just like single-winner STAR Voting, but repeated until all seats are filled. 

Pros: Produces the same types of consensus winners as single-winner STAR Voting, ie. even if your favorite can't win, your vote helps you elect a candidate that you prefer. Allows for a broader pool of candidates in each multi-winner district. Tabulation uses addition and can be done using existing voting machines. This is a good compromise offering proportionate geographic representation as well as less polarizing winners who better represent minority factions. We do not recommend at-large city-wide elections, but Multi-Winner STAR could be a good option for smaller multi-member districts. This could be a good stepping stone if PDX wanted to switch to Proportional Representation at a later date. 

Cons: This is not a proportional representation system. Bloc voting of any kind should not be adopted unless geographic representation is otherwise ensured by districting. 

Single Transferable Vote (STV)

​The proportional version of Ranked Choice Voting. Candidates are elected in rounds like with single winner IRV, but once a winner is selected, a quotas worth of their strongest supporters are designated as represented and those ballots are removed entirely from subsequent rounds electing further winners. 

Pros:  Used in places like Ireland and Australia. Has resulted in 3rd parties winning and holding some seats. 

Cons: STV uses a complex algorithm over many rounds. The algorithm is similar to the single-winner RCV algorithm, can waste votes, and has some implicit biases. Voters who cast identical ballots may not be treated equally and honest voting can backfire, though to a lesser extent then in single-winner RCV. Using STV for multi-winner elections likely means using the problematic RCV system for single-winner elections like Mayor. STV was once used all over the country and has since been repealed in all but one city.

Proportional STAR Voting:

The Proportional Representation version of STAR Voting. The highest scoring candidate in each round wins. Once a winner is selected, a quotas worth of their strongest supporters are designated as represented and those ballots are removed entirely from subsequent rounds electing further winners. 

Pros: Proportional 5 Star Voting uses the same 5 star ballot as single-winner STAR Voting. The algorithm is shorter and simpler than that used by STV and is fully proportional without wasting votes. Proportional STAR pairs well with single-winner STAR Voting, so voters could have accurate elections for both single and multi-winner races using the same ballot. 

Cons: As with all proportional representation methods there are trade-offs between decreased accountability and more diverse representation. Like with STV, the low thresholds required to win can result in winners who are opposed by the majority, and can make it much harder to vote bad politicians out. 


​Check out the full report from City Club on Portland's ​current commissioner form of government here: https://www.pdxcityclub.org/new-government/



STAR Voting:  http://starvoting.us                          

Equal Vote Coalition:  http://equal.vote

Center For Election Science:  https://www.electionscience.org/voting-methods/the-limits-of-ranked-choice-voting/

Ranked Choice Voting: https://www.rankedchoicevoting.org/