Portland’s official slogan is “The City That Works,” but many residents believe the city is anything but that after a turbulent few years.
Homelessness and gun violence are on the rise, and parts of downtown are still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic and racial justice protests that engulfed the city in 2020.
Voters are currently debating a ballot initiative that would completely overhaul City Hall. The proposal would abolish a century-old commission form of government, which Portland is the last major city in the United States to use, as well as implement a rare form of ranked choice voting.
The campaigns on these issues have been emotional, reflecting two visions of Portland’s future: one that maintains the city’s reputation as a testing ground for unique ideas and upholds its unofficial slogan, “Keep Portland Weird,” and another that abandons unconventional methodology in pursuit of stability.
Portland is well-known for its liberal politics. However, many residents now believe it is on the wrong track, bringing municipal bureaucracy into the political spotlight as outside funding pours in.
In the hundreds of voter focus groups, he’s conducted over the last 15 years, pollster John Horvick has noticed a shift.
Reforming Portland’s charter has previously been on the ballot but has always failed. A 20-person commission must convene every ten years under city law to review it.
The most recent charter review process began in 2020, as protests over the police killing of George Floyd erupted on Portland’s streets on a nightly basis and a national reckoning with racism prompted discussions about making government more accountable and equitable. The charter commission held public meetings and signed an 18-month listening session contract with a local group, the Coalition of Communities of Color.
As a result, Measure 26-228 proposes to replace the city’s unique commission form of government, in which city council members serve as administrators of the city’s various bureaus, with the more common mayor-council system. The City Council would be expanded to 12 members, with four multi-member districts each represented by three councilors, and a professional city administrator would be added. In addition, it would use a type of ranked choice voting known as single transferable vote.
The changes were intended to make City Hall more inclusive, but no other city in the United States uses this specific voting system for multi-member districts in city council elections, which opponents have exploited.
Ballots are counted in rounds under the single transferable vote system, with city council candidates only needing 25% of the vote to win. If a candidate receives more votes than the threshold, their votes are transferred to the next candidate on each voter’s ballot. If no candidate receives a minimum of 25% of the vote in the first round, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and their votes are transferred to the next preferred candidate on each voter’s ballot.
Supporters of the bill, including the Coalition of Communities of Color, argue that it will increase voter turnout and make government more representative.
“It became clear that there was not only a problem with the structure of the commission form, but also a chronic problem of underrepresentation with the way the current voting system is set up,” said Sol Mara, the group’s civic engagement manager who is also campaigning for the measure.
The NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union have both endorsed the legislation. Portland United for Change, the political action committee working to pass the measure, has received tens of thousands of dollars in contributions from national organizations that support ranked choice voting, such as FairVote and Unite America.
Outside spending has been criticized by critics, who claim the measure is too complex at a time when many voters are questioning the integrity of America’s electoral systems.
Mapps would prefer that each district have only one council member, who would be elected using a more common form of ranked choice voting. If this measure fails, he wants a special election held next year to decide on separate ballot measures regarding government structure and voting method.
However, polls show that Portland voters are too dissatisfied with the city’s problems to care about the reforms’ potential drawbacks.