Ranked choice voting included in Portland’s charter reform measure

PORTLAND, Ore. (KGW) — On Portlanders’ ballots for the November election is an option to overhaul city government and install a brand new system: Measure 26-228, the Portland Charter Commission’s recommendation for reform. The issue has fired up people on both sides of the measure, even attracting the attention of Hollywood A-listers.

Part of the proposed change introduces a new way to vote — and in fact, that new way to vote is on the ballot not just in Portland, but in Multnomah County and Clark County as well. It’s called ranked choice voting.

What is ranked choice voting?

Most American elections use what’s called a plurality system. Voters choose one candidate and whoever gets the highest percentage of the vote wins the election, even if they don’t win a majority.

But increasingly more U.S. cities and states are joining places like Portland, Maine, which began using ranked choice voting to pick its mayor back in 2011. The system is also known as instant runoff voting.

With this system, instead of just voting for one candidate, voters rank them in order of preference. If nobody gets more than 50% of the first-place votes, the person with the least votes is eliminated and the voters who picked that last-ranked candidate as their first choice will have their votes go toward their second choice — that’s the instant runoff part.

The process keeps going until someone gets a majority and is declared the winner.

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It can make a big difference to politicians and how they campaign. Before the 2019 election, NBC talked with the mayor of Maine’s Portland, Ethan Strimling.

“Somebody could easily win this race if there weren’t ranked choice voting with 35-36% of the vote,” Strimling said. “So that would mean that I could almost ignore the other 65% of the people out there. But because there’s ranked choice voting, I can’t ignore them. I have to talk to them as well because I need them to rank me second. And I find that once you have those conversations you can begin to soften some of that gap.”

Strimling ended up losing that election in 2019.

Ranked choice voting continues to spread across the country. A national group pushing the change is called “FairVote.” They report that 53 cities, two states and one county are using the system right now. Several more in the Pacific Northwest are deciding whether to adopt it, including Seattle, Clark County and San Juan County in Washington; along with Portland and Multnomah County in Oregon. FairVote thinks that the idea is catching fire.

“Ranked choice voting is the fastest growing nonpartisan election reform in the country right now,” said Deb Otis, director of research at FairVote. “Because it is improving elections.”

Bringing it home

Here in Oregon, Benton County has been working to implement ranked choice voting for several years now. Voters first approved the transition back in 2016 — by a significant margin. It’s been working so well that the city of Corvallis decided to use the system this year to elect their new mayor.

During this mayoral election in Corvallis, three people are running for the position. If one candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, they win. But if all get less than 50%, the person who got the lowest number of first-choice votes is eliminated.

If you happened to pick the eliminated person as your first choice, your vote would go toward your second pick. If there are more than three candidates, the process repeats until someone has more than 50% of the vote.

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Under Portland’s charter reform measure, the process would be a bit more complicated. While it would be ranked choice voting, voters would actually be electing three people per district at a time. There would be four districts dividing the city for a total of 12 city council members.

This three-candidate outcome for elections in each district has some opponents of Measure 26-228, like Portland activist Kathleen Saadat, worried that the winners won’t actually represent a broad cross-section of support.

“It still does not say to me that there’s a safe place for someone who’s elected to be considered viable at 25% of the vote,” Saadat said. “At 25% of the vote — we run the risk of having someone who is, I won’t call ’em fringe, I’ll call ’em antagonistic, to the way Portland has done things and to cause more confusion.

“And if they can stay in with 25% of the vote, it’s hard to get them out, especially if they’re organized and their constituency is organized. So I think we need to look closely at what our values are and what it is that will reinforce it. I’m not sure this second kind of ranked choice voting will support those values. I think it opens the door for dissonance, obstruction and an inability to go forward in some instances.”

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We’ve heard that concern from others, including KGW’s late political analyst, Len Bergstein. But Mark Stephan, a Washington State University professor in Vancouver who supports the Portland charter change, says that 25% is not as bad as it sounds.

“The focus on the 25% ends up being a bit confusing,” Stephan said. “The fact is that we as voters in a multi-winner district are gonna see three people elected to the council. And so we’re just ranking our choices — but honestly, potentially our first and our second and third choice could all be chosen. And if, let’s say our first choice wasn’t even in the race, well our second and third would’ve been chosen.

“The notion of the 25% is about how everyone, all the voters, get at least some shot at having their first choice be elected. And if not their first choice, maybe at least their second choice … and so really we’re picking, we really are picking three candidates. We just happen to rank them because we’re trying to allow everyone’s preferences to be acknowledged in that. So it’s not really about the 25%, it’s actually broader support that you’ll see for candidates, for the three that win in that particular district.”

Stephan said that ranked choice voting is actually a better way to elect candidates — because even if you don’t get your first choice, you might get someone you’re okay with rather than someone you can’t stand.

“Usually most voters are gonna get their first or second choice, and they’re still gonna maybe get someone they’re not as satisfied with,” he continued. “But it’s not as simple like, ‘Okay, who’s less worse than the other,’ less of that is going on. It’s much more about who I really like and who can I accept.”

Changing the game

We hear from viewers frequently who say that they’re sick of choosing what seems like the lesser of two evils, and that they’re sick of the negativity expressed in attack ads.

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As the former mayor of Portland Maine indicated and as Professor Stephan said, ranked choice voting can soften up some of the typical hard-ball tactics in politics — at least to a degree.

“There’s now talk about thinking about governor’s races and congressional races in the same sort of way, because there’s a lot of benefits that come with these that are separate just from just the ranking,” Stephan said. “It’s also about how the candidates learn to interact with each other because with ranked choice voting, you’re not wanting to necessarily be first for everyone. You’re wanting to be first or second for everyone. And so that means you don’t necessarily attack one of the other candidates, you maybe don’t attack any of them. You wanna be cordial to them. And so all of the negativity that we see in elections right now, especially now in the national elections, that stuff kind of washes away — not completely, but it somewhat washes away when candidates are being ranked versus, ‘Pick my side or the other side.'”

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It’s not all positive, though. Over the summer, KGW spoke to skeptics who think the entire package of Portland charter reform is too complicated.

“I don’t think that we should go, as we’ve said repeatedly, from a government that no one is using, to a government that has never been used,” said one opponent we spoke to.

“Your new government system is a very distinct issue from how you vote,” said another. “I understand the commission wants to put these together but it’s not fair to the voters.”

Voters throughout Multnomah and Clark counties will also be deciding whether to embrace ranked choice voting in this election, though their version does not come with the same complication inherent to Portland’s method.

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