The last article showed how people of color in Oregon aren’t fully represented on city and county councils or on school boards. Happily, many American cities have shown that switching to multi-winner elections using a proportional voting method can make more votes count and improve representation for people of color. Unfortunately, local jurisdictions don’t always have an easy path to change to a better voting system. An Oregon Voting Rights Act, which we expect to be introduced in the 2019 legislative session, could open options for local jurisdictions to set their own houses in order and improve representation for local voters.
Local jurisdictions’ power to change their own rules
General law cities and counties
An Oregon Voting Rights Act could give general law (a.k.a. code law) cities and counties the authority to choose single-winner, ranked-choice voting. They already have the power to switch to multi-winner, ranked-choice or cumulative voting.
Oregon’s 130 general law cities and 27 general law counties can change their electoral methods by amending their ordinances with a simple majority vote by the people or from the council. State law may prohibit these general law cities and counties from using single-winner, ranked-choice voting, because state law (ORS 254.065) says the candidate with the most votes wins, whereas single-winner ranked-choice voting requires the winner to receive a majority of votes. State law appears to allow for multi-winner ranked-choice or cumulative voting because it says the three candidates with the highest numbers of votes will win (ORS 221.120(2)).
Charter cities and counties
Oregon’s 111 charter cities and 9 charter counties can change their voting system by amending their charter. They don’t need additional authority from a Voting Rights Act (VRA), but the possibility of a VRA lawsuit could encourage them to do something about their lack of racial representation. The options and requirements for amending the charter depend on the jurisdiction.
- In every charter city and county, the people can amend the charter through a ballot initiative. (Most allow a simple majority, but the city of Gresham has a 60 percent threshold.) However, gathering the signatures to get on the ballot and then running a successful “yes” campaign requires resources and organization.
- Three charter cities (Corvallis, Gresham, and Portland) and seven charter counties (Benton, Clatsop, Hood River, Lane, Multnomah, Umatilla, and Washington) periodically convene charter review commissions. The commission may recommend amendments to the council, the council may choose whether to put the recommended amendments on the ballot and if a majority of people vote in favor, the amendment goes into effect.
- The easiest path to amending the charter is for a majority of the council to vote to change it. But, as best as we can determine, no charters allow for charter amendment through a council vote.
Oregon’s 220 school districts have much to gain from a Voting Rights Act. Right now, elections default to at-large races (ORS 332.124), including for 15 large districts with more than 9,000 students each. The district may choose to nominate by zone (ORS 332.128) to reserve seats for candidates who live in a particular district, or they may choose to elect by zone (a.k.a. district, ORS 332.126). School districts cannot choose to use proportional methods.
School board elections for the largest school districts are held during primary elections in odd years. Most seats (59 percent) on large school boards are unopposed. Incumbents almost always keep their seats if they run again—93 percent. Changing to multi-winner elections and rescheduling them for higher-turnout, even-year general elections could improve the representativeness of Oregon school boards.
Oregon Voting Rights Act
An Oregon Voting Rights Act could allow all charter cities and counties, as well as all school districts, to change to a fairer electoral method by a vote of the elected officials. And, since elected officials are not always eager to change the system that elected them, an Oregon Voting Rights Act could make it easier for citizens to bring a lawsuit challenging their jurisdictions’ form of voting. Cities, counties, and school boards could avoid such lawsuits by changing to a fairer voting system.