The Portland Charter Amendment (measure 26-228, “Amends Charter, Changes Portland's government structure and process for electing city officials”) on November's ballot offers us an opportunity to adopt ranked choice voting to elect the Portland City Council and Portland Mayor. Unfortunately there's lots of confusion about this ballot measure. So here's an FAQ that clears up what will happen and why this reform is wisely designed.
Each councilor will represent only one third of their district's residents.
Under the proposed multi-winner “ranked choice voting” system, the ballots that elect the first-seat winner are set aside, and the remaining ballots are counted to determine who wins the second seat. Then the ballots that elect the second-seat winner are also set aside, and the remaining ballots are counted to determine who wins the third seat.
This means that if a money-backed “golden handcuffed” candidate wins the first seat, the second and third seats are likely to be won by less-well-funded candidates who more strongly support what the majority of voters want. Specifically, the voters who are swayed by slick marketing tactics will have zero influence on who wins the third seat, and almost zero influence on who wins the second seat.
Let's suppose your district elects the following three councilors:
You would choose to communicate with the councilor in your district who seems to represent the kind of people who would benefit from what you advocate. It's not necessary, or even useful, to precisely know which candidate your ballot helped to elect.
This kind of representation is far better than having a small district that is “represented” by a single councilor who does not share your priorities.
If three “golden-handcuffed” candidates get lots of funding, and there are at least two other popular candidates who get very little funding, only one of the three golden-handcuffed candidates is likely to win a seat.
This happens because the ballots that strongly support the golden-handcuffed candidates have already been “used up” to win the first seat. Remember the ballots for the golden-handcuffed candidates are set aside while the counting is done to fill the second and third seats.
It's only under our current single-winner system that a “golden-handcuffed” politician can block other candidates from winning. And that happens because only one office is being filled. It's well-known that a single elected official cannot possibly represent everyone in their district.
Although “gerrymandered” districts skew election results under our current single-winner election system, district boundaries are far less important when “multi-winner ranked choice voting” is used. Recall that any advantage for winning the first seat is “used up” before the counting is done to identify who wins the second seat. And the third-seat winner will represent whoever is not well-represented by the winners of the first two seats.
There is no political-party bias in multi-winner ranked choice voting. Under the new system, all the candidates in a district will compete together, and political party affiliations will not appear on the ballot.
If we were to track political-party associations, and if a “Democrat” were to win the first seat, then a “Republican” would be likely to win the second seat. If a “Republican” were to win the first seat, then a “Democrat” would be likely to win the second seat. The third seat will be won by a candidate who is not well-represented by either of the other two winners.
It's worthwhile to understand why the “rich” — or more specifically the biggest campaign contributors — currently have strong control over election results.
One of the most effective ways to control elections with money is the “blocking tactic.” A clear example of the blocking tactic happened in the 2008 US Presidential election. Some wealthy Republicans gave money to Barack Obama to block Hillary Clinton from reaching the general election. That part of their tactic was successful. However they were shocked to discover that most voters are not as racist as they had expected, so their blocking tactic did not yield a Republican president as they had expected. Similarly, in some recent primary elections, wealthy Democrats have funded Republican candidates who are expected to be weaker candidates in the general election.
This money-based blocking tactic exploits the fact that general elections are preceded by primary elections in which each party can nominate only one candidate. This is why general elections typically are a contest between a golden-handcuffed Republican and a golden-handcuffed Democrat.
If there were a path for a second-most popular candidate from each party to reach the general election, and if ranked choice ballots were used in the general election, the excessive influence of money in politics would be greatly reduced.
Wisely the new Portland election system will not involve any primary election. This feature alone will reduce the influence of money. That's because the blocking tactic relies on the one-nominee-per-party limit.
Their ballots look confusing because they print as many “choice” columns as there are candidates. We aren't likely to use that ballot style. The Charter Commission did not specify how this detail should be handled.
Hopefully our Oregon election officials will wisely choose to upgrade the election software to allow a voter to mark two or more candidates at the same “choice” level. That allows ballots to always have six choice columns. Then a voter can, if they want, mark a choice level for every candidate. This is a subtle detail that will become clearer after the first election. Just remember it's easy to remedy with a software upgrade.
In some cases the candidate with fewest top-ranked ballots is not the least popular candidate. In these cases it's useful to look for a “pairwise losing candidate.” That's a candidate who would lose every contest if they competed one-on-one against each of the remaining candidates. This is like saying that if a soccer team plays against two other teams and loses against both teams, the losing team clearly doesn't deserve to win. The same should happen in politics. A software upgrade can implement this improvement.
In the meantime these unexpected results rarely occur, they only happen in close elections, and they are only of concern in the Portland mayoral elections, not the city council elections.
If you and some friends are choosing a pizza topping, the method called “Approval voting” works well, and it's simple. Each voter “approves” each choice they like, and the choice with the most approval votes wins. That would work OK in primary elections. But it's not good enough for general elections. Why?
Savvy voters can mark "Approval" ballots using tactics that increase their ballot's influence.
That vulnerability to tactical voting also applies to “rating” ballots, which are also called “score” ballots. Those ballots are counted very differently from ranked choice ballots.
Part of the reason other voting methods get attention is that the currently available certified software for ranked choice voting has the two weaknesses already explained. Yet both of these weaknesses are easy to remedy just by adopting better software. As a reminder, that upgraded software will count multiple marks in the same choice column, and will eliminate pairwise losing candidates when they occur.
Imagine that voters in your district a mile away from you support the second-seat winner, and you and your neighbors support the first-seat winner, and voters in another part of your district support the third-seat winner. All together the three winners have a total support of 75 percent (that's three times 25).
Compare that to having one winner per district, which provides only 50 percent support, and leaves 49 percent of voters with no representation.
Yes, the magic of mathematics is confusing. No, the wrong candidates can't win. That's because the counting uses ranked choice ballots, which provide much more information about voter preferences. It's only under our current election system, which lacks that deeper information, where a 25 percent threshold would allow crazy election results.
They don't use ranked choice voting. They use the simple-minded ballots that allow voters to mark only one candidate.
More importantly, each of Baltimore's fourteen city-council districts elects just one councilor. That accounts for the unfairness of every Baltimore city council member being from the city's dominant political party, with no representation for the smaller percentage who prefer the other main political party.
The foundation of good government is a good election system. Baltimore uses the same flawed election system that causes US Congress to operate in ways that are dysfunctional.
Here in Portland we are being offered a very good election system. It will provide a great foundation for a wiser city council that better represents all the voters, not just the biggest campaign contributors.
All the elements of the reform are inter-related. As explained in the previous answer, a well-designed election system provides a solid foundation, and that's a necessary part of the chosen distribution of power between the city council and mayor.
If voters were offered buffet-style choices and failed to approve the use of multi-winner ranked choice voting, then we could end up with the flawed system that's used in Baltimore.
Educating voters how to mark ranked choice ballots might seem expensive. And training election officials to conduct elections under ranked choice voting is an added expense. Yet these investments will reduce future costs because eventually ranked choice voting will be adopted for use in all Oregon elections.
Keep in mind that single-winner ranked choice voting is already being used in Corvallis to elect Benton County officials.
In case you're wondering, new vote-counting machines are not needed; our existing equipment is designed to handle ranked choice voting.
There are no good reasons to oppose this measure. The people who criticize the reforms aren't fully understanding the changes. Or else they own a business and give lots of money in campaign contributions and fear losing their money-based influence.
The proposed reforms will give Portland the opportunity to dramatically increase economic prosperity for Portland. That increased prosperity for both employers and employees will help solve lots of problems that the city currently faces.