A voter-approved plan to overhaul the way Portlanders pick their elected leaders appears poised to become city code, despite accusations from some current commissioners that it’s too confusing.
On Wednesday, Portland City Council members shared their unease over a proposal to update the city’s elections code to adopt a form of voting called ranked choice. This system permits voters to rank their top candidates on a ballot, instead of just selecting one person each election, and have their preferences reflected in the final results.
The idea is to increase the chance of voters electing someone they support, even if the winning candidate is not their top pick.
City Commissioner Mingus Mapps and others expressed concern that the proposal was too complicated for future voters to understand.
“I’ll confess, guys, I’m a little bit confused as to how all this works,” Mapps said. “I’m stuck.”
City staff attempted to detangle the process in their presentation, and assured commissioners that the rollout of the new voting system will come after extensive outreach to educate voters on the new process.
The council hearing comes four months after Portland voters approved a ballot measure to change the city’s voting process and its government structure.
In the run up to the November 2022 election, skeptics — including Mapps — argued that the process was rushed and unclear. But now that the measure is part of the city’s charter, it’s up to city commissioners to implement it and make it successful.
Voters instructed city leaders, currently elected citywide, to create four multimember districts in Portland with three council members elected per district. This will expand the size of the city council from five to 12 people. Under this new structure, the mayor and auditor will still be elected citywide, while members of council will be elected by voters living in each individual district.
Those district lines have yet to be drawn. A volunteer committee is responsible for recommending to council how to fairly divide the city into four districts. The group is currently in the process of gathering public feedback on how the city should be divided.
Ranked choice voting is perhaps the most complex piece to the changes outlined in November’s ballot measure.
Currently, if a Portland City Council candidate collects more than 50% of votes in a primary election, they automatically win. If no candidate receives a majority in the primary, the top two candidates move on to the general election. The new voting system abolishes primary elections for city offices, which usually occur in May, and condenses this elimination process into one election cycle — the November general election.
With ranked choice voting for the new multimember districts, each Portland voters will elect three commissioners to represent them by ranking up to six candidates, from their top choice to their least favorite.
Then the ballot counting begins. Any candidate who gets over 25% of the first-choice votes automatically wins a council seat. If only one or two candidates pass that threshold, the candidate with the least amount of first-choice votes is kicked out of the race. Voters who picked this losing candidate as their first choice then have their vote transferred to the candidate who was their second choice. Voters whose first-choice candidate won over 25% get a fraction of their vote redistributed to their second choice. This process continues until either three candidates pass the 25% threshold or there are only three candidates remaining after repeated eliminations. (This video by Minnesota Public Radio helps illustrate the process.)
The mayor and auditor will be elected in separate, citywide elections that also follow the ranked choice model. In these races, where only one seat needs to be filled, a candidate automatically wins if more than 50% of voters select them as their top choice. If no candidate reaches this threshold, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated. As in council elections, voters who chose the eliminated candidate as their top pick get their votes transferred to their second-choice candidate. If that doesn’t push a candidate over 50%, the cycle continues until someone crosses that threshold.
This new voting system must be operational by the November 2024 general election.
The new voting process was written by representatives from the city attorney’s office, the city auditor’s office, Multnomah County Elections Division and the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center, a nonpartisan organization that consults jurisdictions on administering ranked choice voting. After writing an initial draft of the policy, the group solicited feedback from the public before sending its final recommendation to the city council.
Along with capping the number of candidates allowed to be ranked on a ballot to six, the new policy offers protocol for handling incomplete or faulty ballots. Such as, if a voter skips a ranking on their ballot, their next choice is counted. For example, if a voter assigns a first and third choice but leaves their second slot blank, the candidate ranked third will automatically be ranked second. If a voter selects two candidates for one ranked position, both candidates are eliminated from their ballot, and the candidate ranked directly below them is promoted to their position.
Questions from city commissioners
The majority of people who testified Wednesday supported the new rules. Most speakers asked city staff to invest in voter education prior to the 2024 election.
Both Mapps and Commissioner Rene Gonzales said they were worried that the system may be too complicated for Portland voters to understand.
“I don’t think we can underestimate the risk we are taking by voter confusion and fatigue,” Gonzalez said Wednesday.
Mapps specifically expressed confusion with the mathematical breakdown proposed in the elections code to tabulate ranked choice ballots.
“You can say broadly you’re ranking people, and somehow it wiIl all kind of work out,” Mapps said. “I do think it’s important we actually understand what the heck we’re doing here.”
Mapps asked both city and county elections staff whether they “actually understand the math” included in the new policy.
Representatives from both offices said they did.
Shoshanah Oppenheim, the city staffer overseeing Portland’s transition to a new voting and government system, said Mapps’ questions underscored her office’s mission.
“You highlight how much we need to invest in voter education,” Oppenheim said. “Voter education is a critical part of our ability to ensure that voters are able to vote their preference.”
The city is currently seeking proposals from contractors interested in coordinating a $675,000 citywide voter education campaign.
Gonzalez and City Commissioner Dan Ryan both raised concerns that the details included in the new policy did not reflect the intent of the ballot measure. Ryan pointed to the fact that the measure did not propose a limit to the number of candidates voters would be allowed to rank on their ballots, while the new code caps the number at six.
The measure was written by the city’s Charter Review Commission, a volunteer group tasked with suggesting changes to Portland’s founding document. On Wednesday, two former members of that commission said the proposed voting code reflects their group’s intention.
“The charter commission intentionally did not include language mandating the maximum number of candidates a voter could rank,” said former volunteer commission member Melanie Billings-Yun. “We agreed that it was the purview of elected officials to design a ballot and for the City Council to adopt an election code that reflects the will of the people.”
Ryan said this answer addressed his concern.
Christine Neilsen, a member of the public who testified Wednesday, urged commissioners to avoid stoking public distrust in the new voting system.
“The message they need from elected officials now is that… your city government is smart enough to implement it successfully,” Neilsen said. “Each of you has the opportunity as your legacy to usher in a new and positive era for city government.”
Multnomah County voters last November also opted to adopt ranked choice voting for countywide elections. Although the county elections department is playing a role in helping Portland craft its new voting policy, county leaders have yet to start drafting their own elections code. That’s because the county has until 2026 to shift to ranked choice voting.
County elections director Tim Scott said he expects the county to study Portland’s first ranked choice election in 2024 to influence its own policy. Mayor Ted Wheeler said he’s looking forward to evaluating the city’s first ranked choice election with a “fine-tooth comb.”
Portland City Council will vote on the proposed changes next week.