Portlanders Have an Opportunity to Change How Their City Hall Works!

Every 10 years, the city of Portland reexamines its charter, the document that lays out how the city’s leadership is structured and how it gets elected. City Council appoints a Charter Commission, made up of 20 volunteers from across the city, to research and recommend changes. In 2022, the Commission recommended a mutually reinforcing suite of reforms, including switching to four districts with three council members each and using ranked choice voting to elect city leaders. These changes, gathered from over a year of intensive research and hundreds of hours of comments from the community, are custom-built for the dynamics of Portland’s population and the challenges the city faces. They aim to ensure that the Rose City’s government will better serve and represent its people.  

This November, Portlanders have the opportunity to implement these changes by voting on ballot measure 26-228

Sightline Institute has researched these reforms for several years and followed developments on the Commission’s work. View highlights below. 

With six weeks until the November 8 Election Day, Portlanders are gearing up to vote on a ballot measure that would transform the city’s system of government and elections so that they better serve and represent the people of Portland. Since Sightline’s last update on the effort to change Portland’s city charter, campaigns have geared up both for and against the measure, and news has proliferated around lawsuits, alternative reform proposals, and opposition figures. Below we review what the measure contains and the last few months’ developments you may have missed as you were enjoying your summer. 

What would ballot measure 26-228 deliver? 

Portland voters will have to look well down their ballots this fall, past numerous other races for federal, state, and local offices to find any local ballot measures. But when they do, they’ll see this question: “Should Administrator manage city government, 12-member Council (three from each district) make laws, voters elect officials using ranked choice process?” This is measure 26-228, an opportunity to change the city’s charter in three key ways.

A new 11th-hour idea for rewriting the rules of Portland’s city government has several possible flaws, but here’s one: statistically speaking, it’d be likely to worsen the city’s housing shortage.

The proposal was publicly floated in a media interview three weeks ago by its loudest advocate, city Commissioner Mingus Mapps. Mapps’s idea, according to The Oregonian/OregonLive: to scrap the concept hammered out by a city-appointed citizen commission over the last year, a form of proportional representation, in favor of a winner-take-all system that would elect its entire council from smaller, one-winner districts.

A referendum that would implement proportional representation and other changes is on the November ballot in Cascadia’s third-largest city as measure 26-228. Mapps’s concept has yet to be fully hammered out and might yet change.

If Mapps’s proposal ends up as described by The Oregonian and wins support from other councilors and the public, Portland would be imitating a form of government that reduces housing growth in US cities by an average of 20 percent.

“The number of units permitted falls sharply . . . immediately upon the reform’s approval,” wrote Evan Mast, the author of an academic paper on this subject circulated in 2020 and published in May, “Warding Off Development: Local Control, Housing Supply, and NIMBYs.”

Portland’s Charter Commission voted to advance some of its reform proposals to be drafted into potential ballot measures by the City Attorney. The proposals moving forward include changes to the city’s form of government and elections. They are based on research done by the Commission and input from thousands of Portlanders over the past year. After months of deliberation over the details and values represented in these proposals (and more discussion to come), all 20 Charter Commissioners voted to send these proposals to be drafted into ballot measures.

For over a year, the Charter Commission has been meeting to discuss potential reforms to the city’s form of government and elections and hear from Portlanders what they want out of their city government. Sightline has written about the Commission’s purpose, powers, timeline, and areas of focus, as well as the history of prior charter reform efforts. But even before the Commission was established for this decade’s Charter review, groups like the City Club of Portland and League of Women Voters of Portland were researching different issues relating to form of government and elections. And for over a century, Portlanders have been debating how well their form of government and elections are serving them.

So what’s actually happening now?

It’s charter season! As we speak, Portland’s Charter Commission is examining the city’s governing document for potential improvements and looking for feedback from Portlanders interested in bettering city government.

The city charter is the document that outlines city powers and responsibilities like the following: City Council structure and elections, public records and transparency, police oversight, local bonds and taxes, budgeting, transportation and infrastructure, public utilities, economic development, affordable housing, and basically everything else that City Hall is concerned with.

While all of these are important topics, the commission has decided to first focus on possible changes to Portland’s commission form of government and at-large method of elections. City Council impacts all of these topics and policies, so making sure that Portland has governing and electoral systems that are effective and responsive is one of the best ways to make sure that solutions are implemented efficiently and equitably.

For Portland to be “The City That Works” for everyone, it’s important that the charter-defined structure of government isn’t holding back popular policies and the charter-defined method of elections isn’t preventing a diversity of voices from being heard at City Hall.

Anyone who has been following analyses of gerrymandering recently has heard the name Moon Duchin. The professor of mathematics at Tufts University leads the MGGG Redistricting Lab (an outgrowth of the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group), a Tufts-based group using cutting-edge research to better understand political districts and their consequences. That group recently analyzed several jurisdictions around the country, including Portland, Oregon, to show how different districting options and voting methods could change voters of colors’ chances of electing candidates of choice.

This thorough analysis from a nationally-acclaimed research group is particularly timely as the Portland Charter Commission considers whether the city should make changes to how we elect city councilors and to our form of government. Right now, we elect four commissioners and one mayor in at-large elections, and each serves as both lawmaker and head of one or more city bureaus.

The MGGG report’s implications are crystal clear: dividing Portland into single-winner districts will not allow voters of color to reliably elect any candidates of choice. Even if Portland expands the council to nine members, each elected by district. Even with the most innovative redistricting technology razer-focused on drawing districts to concentrate voters of color and voters of color all throwing their support behind particular candidates. The modelers found zero scenarios in which single-winner districts would reliably give voters of color a candidate of choice. Portlanders of color are simply spread too far across the city to create any geographic district that is not majority white.

We previously wrote about how expert redistricters were unable to draw a majority people of color (POC) district in Portland, despite the fact that the city’s population is 28 percent people of color. In some cities, people of color are concentrated in a particular area, allowing districters to draw a line around them. But in Portland, they are spread out. Without intentional racial gerrymandering, districts would have even lower shares of Portlanders of color than the intentionally gerrymandered study showed. And specific racial groups would likely be below 10 percent in most districts.

Districts are far from a panacea for racial representation in Portland. The only kind of representation districts guarantee is geographic, which doesn’t necessarily align with the things that may be important to Portlanders, such as racial identity, housing affordability, or safe streets. In contrast, proportional voting would achieve representation for whatever is important to voters—including geography, if that is what voters want.

As Sightline wrote in 2017, the vast majority of Portland’s councilmembers have been white men and have come from the close-in east side or west of the Willamette—areas where residents are far more likely to have a higher income and own (rather than rent) their homes. But now, in 2021, three out of five city commissioners identify as people of color (Jo Ann Hardesty, Carmen Rubio, and Mingus Mapps) and only two out of five identify as white men (Ted Wheeler and Dan Ryan). Some Portlanders may feel the lack of representation for Portlanders of color has been “solved.”

Not so fast.

Certainly, the current racial and ethnic diversity on the council is an important improvement over the past. Black and Latinx Portlanders can now see someone who looks like them in City Hall – what political scientists call “descriptive representation” — and that boosts the council’s legitimacy because the body appears to represent Portlanders. But the system that elected just two people of color in the century from 1913 to 2013 did not get fixed overnight. We don’t have to look into ancient history to see how our system has failed to elect representative councils. Looking back just to 1995, we see that white men won more than three-quarters of council elections compared to fewer than 10 percent won by people of color.

In our last article, we showed how, if Portland used districts, many Portlanders wouldn’t get a candidate of choice on the city council. It doesn’t have to be that way. In several American localities, 80 or 90 percent of voters successfully elect someone they want onto the city council. Rather than using winner-take-all races, where up to half of voters “lose” and don’t have someone representing them in city government, these places use proportional voting, where most voters “win” and have a voice on council.

For Americans who have not experienced proportional voting, the system might sound like magic. Most Americans think of elections like baseball: one team and all its fans win; the others lose. That’s also true of winner-take-all elections. And that’s how it works under Portland’s hundred-year-old system: candidates can choose which seat to run for and, therefore, which candidates they wish to compete against, giving fewer voters a voice. (For example, in May 2020, say a voter’s priority was a candidate with a strong environmental track record. For Position 2, they could vote for either Tera Hurst or Julia DeGraw. Neither won a seat.) Whichever candidate the voter chose, they (and everyone else who voted for the same candidate) ended up without a strong environmental voice on City Council.

Our democracy doesn’t have to have so many losers. Proportional elections are more like ordering pizza; most people are able to get something they like. If Portland expanded the council to 10 members and used proportional ranked choice voting to elect five members every other year, voters would see all the candidates in one pool in November and be able to rank one or more. A voter could rank Tera Hurst first, Julia DeGraw second, and Seth Woolley (who ran for Position 4) third, and stand a good chance that one of them would win one of the five available seats.

It’s not magic. It’s a better way to run elections to ensure that more voters win. Here are a few examples of how this actually works in other American cities.

The Portland Charter Commission is considering a lot of interrelated questions around city elections. One issue is the role of primaries. For most city elections, the primary is the election. If a candidate wins in May, then there isn’t a race in November. Primary voters tend to be older and whiter than general election voters, so ending an election in May gives less voice to younger and more racially diverse Portlanders. The Charter Commission could recommend an amendment to ensure that November voters always have a voice in city elections.

The Portland Charter Commission is wrestling with which election and governance systems will give Portlanders the best representation and accountability in City Hall. In the 20th century, several American cities tried a reform—proportional representation—that successfully fought corruption and broadened representation. They fought party corruption and elected women, people of color, and minor parties. But they became victims of their own success, facing backlash from party power players and from people who did not think that people of color and minor parties deserved a say in governing.

Portland could learn from both the successes and the repeals of proportional representation in other American cities. In the 1900s, those cities were not yet ready to give everyone a voice, so when they adopted a system that did just that, it was vulnerable to repeal. Is Portland ready to truly admit that everyone—including women, people of color, and those with minority views—deserves a voice in the city? If yes, this might be just the right time and place to implement a fair voting system and make it stick.

Elections are a two-way street! While the voter experience is crucial to good elections, candidates are the other key ingredient in a representative democracy. Unfortunately, not all campaigns are created (or treated) equally under the current system of winner-take-all elections in Portland. Candidates with money are able to promote their names and platforms to more voters (and donors), and candidates with pre-existing name recognition are able to solicit more campaign contributions. More concretely, money lets campaigns purchase advertising, pay staff, print leaflets, feed volunteers, produce yard signs, and do many other things that get candidates’ names and platforms in front of voters’ eyes. And expensive elections discourage some aspiring officeholders from running at all. Research shows that in high-spending campaigns fewer candidates run for office, more of those candidates are personally wealthy, and incumbents have even more financial and electoral advantages.

Proportional representation offers Portlanders an opportunity to level the playing field. By increasing the number of voters who get to elect their preferred candidates, proportional representation opens the door to grassroots candidates with less existing money and name recognition. Smaller campaigns can thrive when they don’t have to go one-on-one against candidates with big wallets, particularly if they take advantage of Portland’s public financing program, Open and Accountable Elections.

For over a year, Portland’s Charter Commission has listened to public input and researched different reforms to the city’s form of government and election system. The window for thorough public discussion of City Charter reforms like these only opens once a decade, giving the commission a rare chance to make Portland’s government more representative of its diverse city, more accountable to constituents, and more responsive in providing city services.

With these goals in mind, the commission has arrived at three broad agreements and is looking for public input in hashing out the details.

  1. First, the City Council should have more members, all of whom should represent districts rather than the city as a whole.
  2. Next, public officials should be elected using a method that only takes one election to yield final results and that captures multiple preferences from voters.
  3. Finally, councilors should stick to lawmaking and stop stretching themselves thin by also running city agencies.

These proposals are a great start and have real potential to increase community trust in their elected leaders and city staff. They’ll form the backbone of possible ballot measures that voters would consider in November.

But before the commission can send any decisions off to the City Attorney to draft actual ballot measures, they need to resolve some key remaining questions. On Thursday night, the public has one of its last opportunities to weigh in on these and other questions before the Charter Commission sets these proposals in stone. After this month there will only be a few details to tinker with and a simple yes/no vote on the draft proposals. Then it’ll be another 10 years before a new Charter Commission can consider a major change to the organization and selection of Portland’s government.