A NE PDX Perspective on Districting and Voting Reform

Dear Portland Charter Review Commission,

This is Sara Wolk. You know me as the Executive Director of the Equal Vote Coalition, but I also want to write in as someone born and raised in NE Portland, and as someone who has seen Portland change radically over the last few decades. For me, one of the things that made Portland Portland was its neighborhoods and the community and unique culture of each of them. Portland was a big city that functioned like a number of small towns, each with its own little commercial and cultural center, and we liked it that way.

At some point that changed. The housing crisis peaked and within a year many of my friends, myself included, faced no-cause evictions, and many of us ended up finding new housing farther from our jobs, our friends, and our families. Overnight, as a result, traffic skyrocketed. The same people going the same places suddenly required way more driving, less biking, and more congestion. Healing Portland, in my opinion, requires healing that. Getting to the root of gentrification, and also restoring and helping to cultivate deep rooted community and voice for Portland’s neighborhoods. Alberta is not Mississippi, is not Belmont, is not Hawthorne, is not Sellwood, is not Lents, is not Cully, is not St Johns, and East Portland is not the West Hills, or Downtown, or the Pearl.

When I first started working on the STAR Voting for Multnomah County initiative in 2016 I personally emailed every single neighborhood association, (there are 94,) corresponded with most to share information, and presented about STAR Voting and Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) to many of them in person. These meetings were eye opening. Some had young diverse members passionate about transportation, affordable housing, and sustainability. Others were dominated by older homeowners worried about new construction, and many had presentations from PPD on what they were doing to “keep homeless people off your lawns.”

Shortly thereafter we got rid of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, ONI, and replaced it with the Office of Community and Civic Life. One article on the change wrote “City activists who are already troubled by poor geographic representation under Portland’s at-large system have another major reason to be alarmed. So do the many other groups that are currently under-represented in city affairs.” I can confirm that in many cases what I saw in these Neighborhood Involvement meetings was dysfunctional or even counter-productive, but I can also confirm how nearly everyone was in agreement that strong, local voice was and is critical for saving Portland.

I support the move to get rid of Portland’s Bureau system, and as an electoral reform researcher and advocate I’m all about the choice to get rid of at-large Elections, but as the Charter Commission looks into the pros and cons of multi-member districts vs single-winner districts, I encourage you all to remember that Portland is not and never has been the homogenized Portlandia many people saw on TV and moved out west for. And our quadrants are not homogenous either. At this point almost all avenues for strong localized community representation and local accountability in PDX politics have been removed, and local districting, specifically having more of them and smaller, is the only thing in a position to restore that. More and smaller districts equals more direct and accountable local representation.

Unlike a neighborhood association, which only likely engages a sliver of its residents in it’s votes and meetings, Portland City Council races (post commission phase) will enjoy a relatively huge voter turnout, and if we’re lucky many of these voters will actually know their candidates, have met them out at public events, or through the schools, or through mutual friends. The smaller these districts are, the more likely that is to be the case. The cheaper and more accessible these elections will be for grassroots community activists and leaders. The easier it will be to win an underfunded campaign with door knocking and a personalized, insightful elevator pitch. The more likely a candidate with a day job will be able to compete. Smaller districts directly combat economic barriers to entry and combat the influence of money in politics.

From an electoral reform perspective and a community education perspective, small districts, and especially single-winner districts have other advantages. Single-winner elections are simpler and more transparent, which is especially important if we are considering a change to a new more complex preferential voting method. In order for voters to get on board with the new system they need to trust it and for that they need to understand it. Explaining the logistics of multi-member districts is one more layer of the onion to un-peel, and explaining proportional representation is another layer again.

Simply put, a single-winner district is as small as possible, a multi-member district is larger, and an at-large election turns the entire jurisdiction into a one large district.

From experience, those of us familiar with the Multnomah County Commission understand the implications of these options, and so do our local politicos. Most who have considered running for local office have heard how the expected cost to run for Portland (with at-large elections) is way higher than to run for county (which has single-winner districts,) and most of us understand that this makes county elections much more accessible and much more winnable for new candidates.

Many of us noticed in 2017 when the MultCo County Commission became majority minority for the first time, with 100% female commissioners. This outcome did not happen out of the blue. This is why the 1964 Voting Rights Act explicitly banned at- large elections for federal elections, and numerous studies have long shown that smaller district elections are better at electing people of color.

The fact is that at the time when County elections achieved a full minority majority, Portland city elections had still not elected their first Black woman despite the fact that these jurisdictions overlap and share many of the same voters.

Portland voters want to and will vote for BIPOC and female candidates to reverse the impacts of historical underrepresentation, and those candidate will win if the system isn’t designed in a way to dilute their constituents voices.

Interestingly though, many lobbying for representation for Portland’s marginalized communities are building the case against districts. Sightline’s often cited statistics make the case that Portland’s BIPOC communities are not sufficiently clustered to ensure diverse representation in single-winner districts, (or to or prevent diverse representation even if PDX were gerrymandered to the nines.) While that is true, the analysis ignores a few major points. Certain neighborhoods are historically and currently much more diverse, (read: red-lined,) and Albina, Kenton, Lents, and Cully are still a very long way from being homogenous with Laurelhurst, Alameda, and the West Hills. Yes, with gentrification there are now more white people in some of our historically diverse neighborhoods than before, but the economic and cultural differences across Portland are still huge and are likely to stay that way.

The reasons this is unlikely to change are brilliantly illustrated in this interactive post from a local queer BIPOC programmer, Nicky Case and queer femme mathematician and youtuber Vi Hart, both of whom are famous in the election science and math communities for their other work. TL:DR, people have implicit biases, and so we sort ourselves into like-minded communities.

When Sightline convincingly makes the point that single-winner districts will be unable to guarantee BIPOC wins because they are not gerrymanderable, they neglect to mention a number of relevant counterpoints. Namely, multi-member districts and Proportional Representation (PR) can’t guarantee this either. Portland’s Black, Latinx, and other BIPOC communities are not large enough to guarantee a seat even if council was expanded and even if the elections were done at-large. The group that is currently underrepresented and also large enough to be ensured some representation if Portland switched to Proportional Representation are Conservative voters.

Let’s break this down. Our population of Black Portlanders is roughly 5% (including non-voters.) In order to ensure that a faction with 5% of the vote could win a seat if they voted as block, the council would have to be expanded to 20 councilors, and the election would have to be at-large.

Fully at-large elections or larger multi-member districts are the most able to get proportional results- but we already know the many reasons at-large, or larger districts are problematic, hurt equity, and magnify the influence of money in politics.

So, let’s assume that we are getting rid of at large elections and switching to multi-member districts, as PR advocates are calling for. If we broke the city in to four multi-member districts we would need to increase the size of council to 80 seats to ensure that a population with 5% of the vote would win, but before that happened we would almost certainly see a massive increase in conservative candidates winning, because Conservatives are roughly 18% of Portland voters, and because they are more underrepresented statistically than People of Color.

Historically and statistically, the data is just not there to support the argument Sightline and other advocates are making that multi-member districts and PR will lead to more BIPOC representation on council and a lot of data exists which suggests the opposite may be more likely. This is far from a solved question.

The multi-million dollar lobby behind FairVote and their many affiliated Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) and Single Transferable Vote (STV) advocacy groups has also been making the argument for multi-member districts with PR for diversity, but their statistics are also somewhat questionable in this context. These studies, which are on RCV, not on multi-member districts, (but which are commonly used to argue for multi-member districts and PR,) combine the impacts of reforms which are sure to help equity, like preference voting, with other reforms that also help, like eliminating primaries, in a larger context that is already seeing trends in this direction, and in jurisdictions that are almost exclusively in super left, super progressive cities like San Francisco, NYC, and Minneapolis. It begs the question whether these cities elected more people of color because of voting reform or districting, or if these progressive cities passed these voting reforms in the first place because they had so many voters who genuinely support more diverse candidates.

In short, I encourage the Charter Commission to take oversimplified equity arguments for multi-member districts and Proportional RCV with a grain of salt. They may prove true, or they may prove to be the opposite.

These arguments aside, there are other much more concrete reasons why multi-member may be good that should be the focus of the Pro campaign. For example, multi-member districts would give voters more candidates to choose from in each race. PR at-large would lead to more diverse representation of ideological perspectives than non-PR elections.

Moving on from districting, there is another point that we should discuss; election accuracy in large fields of candidates and what voting method will help us get there. Our current Choose-One elections are horrifically bad at electing the most representative winner in elections with large fields of candidates, and RCV is not much better in these scenarios, and STAR Voting is great at producing accurate results with large fields of candidates, but even the best voting methods, even those like STAR which fully eliminate vote-splitting, will not perform ideally in huge fields of candidates because voters don’t do well with huge fields of candidates.

More than seven candidates is a lot for cognitive load, and asking voters to research, remember, and form distinct opinions on a dozen, or two dozen, or three dozen candidates is asking a lot. There is quite a bit of evidence showing that when voters are presented with to many options to research that they tend to default to relying on things like image and that they are more likely to stereotype.

Portland is already known for having some of the most competitive elections in the state, and races with over 20 candidates for mayor and city commission races happen every cycle. Add to this the fact that we (rightly) are looking at eliminating primaries, (which help narrow things down but have massive inequity implications,) and also upgrading our voting method (which will likely inspire new candidates to run who wouldn’t have otherwise) and we are setting voters up for some fairly overwhelming elections, at least at first. The key to remember here is that the larger the field of candidates, the more voters will make rushed decisions based on factors like name recognition and flashy mailers or TV ads that increase the impacts of implicit bias, electability bias, money in politics. Making some of these decisions to increase election size is worth it, but making every single decision in favor of the choice that would increase election size is cause for concern.

Lastly, I’d like to make one more concern about the logistics of PDX districting and voting reform. Portland encompasses three counties, Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington, and state law mandates that elections are run at the county level. This means that currently Portland elections are run by three separate entities, using two separate elections vendors. (Side note: Both vendors, ClearBallot and Hart InterCivic, have hardware compatible with STAR Voting.)

Our current voting method doesn’t require centralized tabulation of election results because it passes a criterion called “summability”, meaning that any subsets of ballots can be tallied separately, at the local level, and then summed. This is also the case for single and multi-winner STAR Voting, but it’s not the case for the other voting methods under consideration. Single-winner RCV is not summable because most of the rankings voters put down will never be counted. Until all the ballots are centralized in an RCV election it’s impossible to know which candidates will be eliminated and which rankings will be counted.

STV, the proportional version of RCV, and Proportional STAR also require centralized tabulation by a single entity. While the implications and logistical constraints from Portland’s tri-county elections are sure to be a challenge regardless, trying to adopt a voting method that isn’t summable will require the legislature to pass a statewide bill that would override the requirements for local tabulation and auditing, which would undermine Oregon’s election security standards, undermine trust in our elections. Even if this were able to be done it would likely result in a significant delay and would prove to be significantly more expensive than if we went with STAR Voting, which is already compatible with our election laws and which is logistically viable.

For these reasons I would like to take my hat off as executive director of Equal Vote and share my personal recommendation. That the charter commission consider a staged approach for the many massive changes that you all rightly want for Portland.

Many groups have done a great job of making the case for Proportional Representation, and I encourage you to read the case for Proportional STAR and multi-member districts on our websites as well. Though other jurisdictions that don’t cross county lines are better candidates for early adoption, I do think Portland could be a good fit for PR and multi-member districts down the line, but here is my recommendation for the Portland Charter Reform Commission for this year, 2022:

  • Switch from a commission to a city council form of government and maintain direct elections for Mayor to ensure accountability.
  • Eliminate primaries entirely, or adopt a Top 5 STAR Voting Unified Primary and a STAR Voting general election where a primary is only held if there are over 5 candidates who collect enough signatures to qualify. (A top 10 STAR primary is another option.)
  • Require that prospective candidates collect enough signatures to petition their way onto the ballot and remove the current policy that allows candidates to buy their way onto the ballot. Set this signature limit high enough to ensure that the number of candidates is not more than voters can reasonably be expected to research and ensure that this number can be easily adjusted as needed down the line.
  • Get rid of at-large elections and switch to single-winner districts which conserve the identity of Portland’s historically distinct areas, including specific representation for North, NorthEast, Far East, and Downtown Portland. (At least 6 districts.)
  • Adopt single-winner STAR Voting for city council, mayor, and auditor elections, as well as strongly recommending that Metro and County elections switch as well, which would reduce costs for all and keep things consistent and simple for all local elections. This would empower voters to vote their conscience and eliminate vote-splitting and the resulting gate-keeping and electability bias that leads to serious barriers to entry for new local leaders to step up and serve.
  • Stipulate that the next Charter Reform Commission in 2032 evaluate the number of candidates per race with the new system, and revisit the expected and observed impacts of changes to the primary and districting, and consider whether or not changes like primaries, multi-member districts, or Proportional Representation would be advisable at that point.

Thank you for your time, consideration, integrity, and for your leadership as you study and consider these many interlocking issues and their implications for Portland elections, and as a model for reforms around the state and country. The decisions we make here will have a massive impact on electoral reform and the direction of the movement as a whole. Oregon has always been a leader in electoral reform, from inventing the ballot initiative itself, to Vote by Mail, to automatic voter registration, we did it first. We need to lead on voting reform as well!

All the best,
Sara Wolk
Executive Director at the Equal Vote Coalition

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Sara Wolk

Sara Wolk

Systems design, electoral reform, music, regenerative agriculture, natural building.