After four years of Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, most of the city’s voters were ready to find someone else to take his place. So how did Wheeler win a second term? It was a three-way race. He won fewer than half the votes, but more votes than either of the other two (mostly further left) candidates. If they’d used ranked choice voting, would Portlanders have elected a new mayor?
Wheeler’s prospects for reelection were questionable given his dropping popularity. A DHM poll released in October showed he was behind his biggest challenger, Sarah Iannarone, by 11 percentage points. Another September poll showed nearly two out of three voters thought unfavorably of the mayor. The poll, conducted by FM3 Research and commissioned by a political action committee pushing for community police oversight, also showed strong support for the Black Lives Matter movement and the demand to reverse rising homelessness in the city—both issues at the top of Iannarone’s policy proposals as a progressive candidate.
Teressa Raiford, a Black Lives Matter activist and founder of Don’t Shoot Portland, won 8 percent of the votes in Portland’s top-two primary in May and was eliminated from the race. But organizers launched a write-in campaign for her in the general election. Because Iannorone was running to the left of Wheeler and Raiford was even further left on certain issues, it is possible that the majority of Portland voters split their votes between the two women, allowing Wheeler to win with just 46 percent support. Iannorone won 41 percent and Raiford and other write-in candidates captured 13 percent. Wheeler led Iannarone by 19,204 votes. More than 47,000 voters cast ballots for a write-in candidate.
Ranked choice voting would have changed the dynamic, and likely the result, of the race in several important ways:
- Voters would have had more options on the general election ballot, including Raiford, and possibly an option to the right of Wheeler. More choices for voters would also give the candidates more information about what voters want.
- Iannorone might have won. If fewer than half the voters who preferred a write-in candidate had ranked Iannorone second, she would have won with majority support instead of Wheeler winning with less than half the votes. (Alternatively, Wheeler might still have won, but with a stronger mandate.)
- Candidates may have focused more on fleshing out their specific policy proposals and less on attacking each other during the campaign.
Voters could have more choices
Here’s how a top-four primary and ranked choice voting (RCV) in the general—the policy that Alaska voters just adopted—might have worked for Portland. The top four of the 19 candidates from the primary—Ted Wheeler, Sarah Iannorone, Teressa Raiford and Ozzie Gonzázlez—would have advanced to the general election. Voters would have the option to rank one or more of those candidates, in order of preference. If no candidate received more than 50 percent support of first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes would’ve been eliminated. In this case, that likely would have been Ozzie González; voters who ranked him first would’ve had their vote reallocated to their second choice. The process would continue until a candidate won the majority of votes still in play.
Having all four candidates in the general would have given voters a spectrum of options. For example, on the hot button issues of police reform, voters could have ranked their preferences from Wheeler’s moderate budget cuts and increased oversight for the police bureau, to Iannorone’s commitment to work with Black Lives Matter leaders to bring about comprehensive reform, to Raiford’s desire to dismantle the bureau.
Similarly, voters would have had the chance to express support for climate plans ranging from Wheeler’s touting of energy efficiency to Iannorone’s Bill McKibben-endorsed climate leadership to González’s plans for zero carbon and zero waste. Iannorone argued that to solve the climate crisis we must solve the housing crisis, and voters would have had the chance to rank her vision of abundant housing against Wheeler’s focus on increasing shelter capacity and Raiford’s opposition to infill housing.
More conservative voters might have been able to register their own support for a candidate they loathed less than Wheeler without fearing contributing to an Iannarone win. It’s possible Wheeler might have still won, if voters who backed Raiford or Gonzalez first had preferred Wheeler second. For example, in the general election, Gonzalez might have positioned himself as the law and order candidate, appealing to Portlanders concerned about ongoing protests. Or more protectionist voters worried about new housing in their neighborhoods might have supported Raiford as the candidate opposed to infill.
Whether Wheeler or Iannorone ultimately won, ranked ballots would have given them a better sense of voters’ preferences on the issues that differentiated the four candidates, ultimately pushing the winner in the direction of voters’ preferences. For example, Benton County used ranked-choice voting for the first time this year and Pacific Green Party commissioner candidate Mike Beilstein captured 10 percent of the votes. This signaled to the winner of the race that many of her constituents care passionately about climate change. Because they were able to rank the Green Party candidate, voters may have moved lawmakers towards more aggressive climate policies. s
Portland voter could have agreed on a new mayor
A majority of Portlanders preferred someone other than Ted Wheeler to be mayor. If many of those who liked Raiford or González best had liked Iannarone second-best (or at least more than Wheeler), Portland would be seeing a change of direction in the Mayor’s office next year. But because voters didn’t have the option to indicate who they liked second-best, Portland is set to get four more years of Wheeler, who is stuck with a weak mandate.
More broad appeal, less hostility
Another advantage of ranked choice voting is less negative campaigning. Some Portland voters were turned off by the hostility candidates displayed towards each other at an early mayoral debate. If candidates had been working to earn voters’ second-place rankings, they might have focused more on appealing to more voters, not simply lobbing broad critiques at their opponents.
Ben Gaskins, associate professor political science at Lewis & Clark College, said ranked choice voting would’ve forced candidates to be more broadly appealing to entice voters to rank them as a second choice. Wheeler would have needed Raiford’s supporters to win. Cities that have used ranked choice voting for years have experienced how it transforms campaigns from character-bashing to voter-seeking.
Because candidates need to appeal to most voters rather than just push their main opponent down to win, ranked choice voting might also dampen negative campaigning by independent expenditure campaigns. A political action committee (PAC) supporting Ted Wheeler raised more than $300,000 and launched attack ads against Sarah Iannarone. That may not have been the best use of money with ranked choice voting.
Will this result build momentum for reform?
Ben Gaskins, associate professor political science at Lewis & Clark College, said the reelection of a “very unpopular” mayor prompted voters, especially those who supported Iannarone, to discuss election reform. A report by City Club of Portland released in July recommended that the city adopt some type of alternative voting system for City Council and mayoral races to improve equity and voter representation in elections. City Club last year concluded that Portland’s current “first-past-the-goal-post” election system is the worst option for achieving the city’s equity goals to give members of racial and ethnic minorities more of a voice in elections and government. Those goals include greater voter participation and more diverse candidates and officials.
One advantage to ranked choice voting is that it makes every vote count even if a voter’s preferred candidate doesn’t make it past the first round.
One advantage to ranked choice voting is that it makes every vote count even if a voter’s preferred candidate doesn’t make it past the first round. According to the report, ranked choice voting has been shown to increase diverse representation in candidates in Minneapolis, where 12 of the 22 candidates that won in 2017 were either women or people of color.
Jenny Lee, a member of the City Club committee that researched the different forms of voting and deputy director of the Coalition of Communities of Color, said she believes ranked-choice voting encourages candidates looking for broad support to reach out to constituents often left out of the conversation.
Lee said that with the ability to rank candidates, voters could also signal the policies they care most about and the messages that resonated, not just the individual candidate they believe is right. For example, in Portland’s mayoral race, supporters of dismantling the police bureau could have demonstrated that by putting Raiford first, and still could have indicated if they preferred Iannarone to Wheeler.
“It is important that there’s something that better captures the policy preferences and the values of voters,” Lee said. With ranked choice voting, “you’re better able to express your beliefs.”
Sightline Institute is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and does not support, endorse, or oppose any candidate or political party.
Kristin Eberhard, Director, Climate and Democracy and author of Becoming a Democracy: How We Can Fix the Electoral College, Gerrymandering, and Our Elections, is a researcher, writer, speaker, lawyer, and policy analyst who spearheads Sightline Institute’s work on democracy reform and on climate action. She researches, writes about, and speaks about elections systems and democracy reform, with particular expertise on Vote By Mail and proportional representation. Eberhard lives in Oregon, an all-Vote By Mail state. She is available to discuss tested, safe, fair COVID-19 election practices, state by state. Find all Eberhard’s latest research here.
Hayat Norimine, research contributor, is a freelance writer who grew up in Washington on the border of Idaho. She previously covered city halls and politics for The Dallas Morning News, Seattle Met magazine, and The Daily News in Longview, Washington. She has an MA in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism and a BA in English from the University of Washington. For Sightline, she researches and writes about democracy reform and elections issues and reports on fossil fuel proposals along the Thin Green Line.
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