‘People are Mad’: Portland Votes on Government Changes

Portland, Oregon’s official city slogan is “The City that Works,” however many residents say the city is anything but.

Swaths of downtown are struggling with gun violence and homelessness and working to come back from the 2020 racial justice protests that brought terror and damage to businesses and closures during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Next week, voters will decide on a ballot measure to completely overhaul City Hall. The measure would end the century-old commission-type government that Portland uses. It is the last major city in the United States to use it. It would also put a rare form of ‘ranked-choice voting in place.

While Portland is known for its progressive politics, many city residents think it is headed in the wrong direction. John Harvick, a pollster, has seen a shift in the voter focus groups, numbering in the hundreds he’s conducted over the past 15 years.

“In 2007, 66% of Portlanders on average that year thought the city was headed in the right direction. Now, it’s about 10%,” said Harvick, who serves as senior vice president of DHM Research. “People are really upset with the way that the city is going.”

Portland’s charter reform issue has been on the ballot before but has consistently failed. Under a law in the city, the 20-person commission must meet every ten years to review the issue.

The most recent review, in 2020, kicked off as protests over George Floyd’s killing by a police officer erupted each night on the streets of Portland. The commission contracted with the Coalition of Communities of Color, a local group, for 18 months of ‘listening sessions’ and held public meetings about making the government more accountable.

Measure would eliminate city commission government

Measure 26-228 would eliminate the commission form of government, where city council members serve as administrators of various bureaus in the city. It would replace the commission form with a more familiar mayor-council system.

The city council will be expanded o 12 members. Each of the four multi-member city districts would be represented by three councilors while adding a professional administrator. It would also put in place a single transferable vote, also known as ranked-choice voting.

The changes are intended to make a more inclusive City Hall. Still, this is the only U.S. city with a similar voting system for multi-member districts in city council elections. Opponents have seized the uniqueness of the city’s proposed legislation.

“We are moving from a government that no one is using anymore to an election system that no one is using,” said the Partnership for Commonsense Government director, Vadim Mozyrsky. “Portland really has a history with experimenting. Now, it seems like people are intent on experimenting with democracy itself.”

Under the new system, ballots would be counted in rounds, with council candidates only requiring 25% of the vote to win. Once a candidate passes the 25%, the excess votes are transferred to the next candidate ranked on each voter’s ballot. If no candidate receives 25% of the votes cast in the first round, the one with the fewest votes is eliminated, with their votes being transferred to the next preferred candidate on each voter’s ballot.

The Portland measure has been endorsed by local chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP. The Portland United for Change political action committee is working to pass the measure, receiving thousands of dollars in contributions from different groups that advocate for ranked choice voting, Unite America, and FairVote.

Polls suggest voters in Portland are too frustrated with the city’s troubles to care about any downside to the reforms.

“The likelihood of passage, no matter what was being put forward to voters, I think is much higher now than it’s been in the last century,” Harvick said. “Just given the fact that you know, people are mad.”