Official Seal of Portland Oregon

Proposed Portland Charter Reform is Confusing and Un-democratic

Portland certainly needs a new system of governance, but adoption of the Charter Commission’s proposals would make a bad system worse. One problem is the complicated and untried combination of ranked-choice voting with multi-member districts to choose the members of the City Council.

Should the proposal be approved in November’s election, (Measure 26-228) the city will be divided into four districts with three council members each.  However, voters will only get one vote. Voters will rank their preferences for that vote, such as putting Smith as their top choice, Brown as second and Lee as their third, as long as they care too, up to the number of people running for the office.  To win a seat on the council a candidate will only need to reach the “threshold,” which is 25% of the votes cast, plus one. If Smith is the only candidate who gets more than 25% of the first-round votes, Smith’s “surplus ballots” above 25% are distributed to the other candidates based on the percentage of second rank choices on Smith’s ballots.  

Assume Smith had 400 surplus votes. Election officials will look to see which candidates ranked second on ballots that listed Smith as the “first rank.”  If 50% were for Brown, 30% for Lee, 20% among the other candidates, then 50% of the 400 would go to Brown, 30% to Lee, and so on. If there still are not three people reaching the threshold, then the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated, and the second choices on those ballots will be added to the other candidates totals. Then the surplus votes are again reallocated, and then next small vote candidate is eliminated and so forth until there are three people have reached the threshold or only three candidates are left. These are the winners. Confusing? It gets worse.

Let’s use the numbers from the Mayoral Primary in 2020 as an example of how these rules would affect a city council race. (To be clear, the mayor will be elected using ranked choice, but there will only be one mayor.) But the Mayoral Primary gives a good example from a real election of how this would play out.

There were nineteen candidates. Ted Wheeler got 49% of the ballots, Sarah Iannarone 24%, Teressa Raiford 8%, and the other sixteen candidates getting from 5% to less than 1% of the votes.  Under the proposed system, Wheeler would win a spot outright, and his surplus 24% would be re-allocated. Iannarone was close to 25% and would surely be transferred more than enough second-rank votes to cross the 25% threshold.  Say that brings her to 30%.  Now she has surplus votes: How are those reallocated? From the 3rd rank of people who picked Wheeler first, or from the 2d rank of Iannarone voters? It isn’t clear.  Eventually the process of shifting surplus votes and eliminating candidates with low vote totals would continue until Wheeler, Iannarone and one of the candidates who got no more than 8% of the first-rank votes would get seats on the Council.  If that person was Raiford, then the 8% of people who picked her as first choice would have as much say on the council as the 49% who picked Wheeler.  In fact, the first choice of 49% of the voters would have one vote on council, while the two candidates who were the first pick of no more than 32% of the voters would have two votes.  If you think I’m making this up, read Chapter 3, section 102 of the proposal, which is found on the Charter Commission website under “Phase I.” It is also pasted at the end of this essay.

Remember that ballots postmarked on election day will now be counted, so the number of surplus votes from the first round won’t be known until several days later. This process will be a headache for the election’s office, could take weeks to complete, and will end up with a city council where the less-popular candidates control the council. And just for fun, there is a portion of Portland that is in Clackamas County, which seems unable to even hold a straight-forward election. 

There you have it.  Each district will have three representatives, but citizens only get one vote—and once on the council, even a district’s most popular candidate can be outvoted by the two candidates who got viewer votes.

A related problem is that this system could well lead to a permanent ruling class.  The power of incumbency means that city council members running for re-election are almost guaranteed to retain their position, as they only need 25% of the vote. While your vote still means something, hold your nose, vote no on the proposed change, and wait for the arrival of a more reasonable, workable and fair plan in the near future.

UPDATE OCTOBER 15: I attended a meeting of my neighborhood association in which Melanie Billings-Yun, one of the members of the Charter Commission made her argument for voting YES and Stephan Kafoury and Bob Weinstein made the argument for voting NO. In the question and answer session, I asked Ms. Billings-Yun the question posed in the essay: if extra votes are awarded to someone who didn’t originally poll 25%, and they then get 35% of the vote, how are that candidates “surplus votes” allocated- to the second choice of the person who originally didn’t get 25%, or to the third choice of the person who originally got 49%. She said she didn’t know. I asked who would make the decision. She said she didn’t know. When pushed, she guessed that the elections office would make the decision. So if she is correct about that, we could have candidates selected by a process that is created on the spot–and since Portland has areas in three counties- Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas, we could have three different decisions on how those votes are distributed. That sounds like lawsuits on top of lawsuits to settle an election. Vote No.


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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