Portlanders have an opportunity to change the way that City Hall functions!

Portland’s Charter Commission is currently evaluating the city’s governing charter, looking for possible amendments and reforms. Their main focus is assessing the commission form of government and at-large method of elections. Portlanders will get to vote on any amendments in 2022, but they can get involved now to contribute to the public process.

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.