Next month, as Americans vote, residents of Portland, Oregon, will see a question on the ballot that could transform their city. For the ninth time in more than a century, voters will have a chance to replace their antiquated commission form of local government, in which four commissioners and the mayor serve as both city councilmembers and as heads of the various municipal bureaus. This time, however, with Portland’s government straining under a surge in violent crime and disorder, the stakes are higher than ever.
The November ballot measure, numbered 26-228, goes much further than past unsuccessful attempts to replace the commission system. The single, all-or-nothing question would triple the ranks of the city council, create the office of a professional city administrator to oversee bureaus, and introduce multi-winner, ranked-choice voting, called the single transferable vote (STV), to elect three councilmembers each from four multimember districts. This system would introduce some degree of proportional representation, by which the council’s composition reflects political and demographic subgroups in the voting population. If passed, Portland would thus move from the only large contemporary American city governed by a commission to the only one that employs STV-based proportional representation.
The commission form of government was an invention of the Progressive Era. Following a devastating hurricane in 1900, Galveston, Texas, became the first municipality to adopt a commission, in 1901. Portland followed in 1913. For more than a century now, the City of Roses has elected four commissioners and the mayor through nonpartisan, citywide elections. Elections are held in even-numbered years for two out of four ordinary commissioner positions, with the mayor elected during presidential election years. These staggered races mean that the results of one election year cannot yield a complete overhaul of the council. If a candidate fails to secure a majority in a May primary, the top two candidates square off in a November general election.
Unlike many other cities that once had commissioner systems, Portland’s mayor assigns each commissioner to oversee particular bureaus—an authority that grants him independence from, and leverage over, the council. The mere threat of removal or reassignment can win the mayor concessions. Beyond that power, the ability to propose the city budget, and a longstanding practice of serving as the city’s police commissioner, the mayor possesses little more authority than do the other commissioners.
This system was designed to produce simpler, more efficient government. Fewer offices meant leaner staffing budgets. By concentrating administrative and legislative functions in one position, the idea went, voters would elect candidates based on competency, expertise, and experience rather than on name recognition or political affiliation. Citywide elections would tie commissioners’ interests to citywide needs, and the same individuals who knew the ins-and-outs of municipal bureaus would better understand how to improve them legislatively as councilmembers. In theory, a commissioner could write a bill pertaining to his particular bureau, gather support for it in the city council, vote in favor of it, and enforce it.
But history shows that the system doesn’t work as designed. What may have been appropriate for a budding city of some 200,000 inhabitants has failed to keep pace with the highly complex needs of modern Portland, population 650,000. Commissioners have been elected on political platforms, not professional expertise. As heads of Portland’s bureaus, councilmember-commissioners have proved poorly suited to meet the demands of their roles.
Consider some examples of gross mismanagement. The city housing agency, run by commissioner Dan Ryan, fell prey to a $1.4 million wire scam in April, even though the city treasurer flagged the swindle before the housing authority authorized the transfer. Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, commanding one of only five votes on the city’s nearly $7 billion budget, has come under question for fiscal imprudence. In 2017, as a self-described “volunteer” president of the Portland NAACP, she failed to implement basic financial oversight and controls, yet collected $13,000 in unreported income from the organization. Last March, a state court ordered Hardesty to pay more than $16,000 in defaulted credit card debt.
Commissioners often run their bureaus as silos, resulting in adversarial relationships and unwillingness to cooperate with large swaths of the municipal government. During the city budget process, each commissioner—now wearing a councilmember hat—pushes for more funding for the bureaus under his purview. Shifting commissioners around the bureaucracy has resulted in unaccountability, inefficiency, and worse municipal services; commissioners face a steep learning curve each time they receive a new appointment.
Portland’s system not only delivers bad policy but also hurts its democratic health. Cross-cutting citywide goals on issues like transportation can’t be met given the lack of inter-bureau collaboration. And running multiple departments while voting on council business leaves commissioners with little time and energy for constituents—a dynamic made worse by a lack of electoral districts. All Portlanders, regardless of where they live, must travel to city hall to meet with one of their five representatives. Chances are that commissioners will care to discuss only those issues that fall under the purview of their bureaus. According to former commissioner Steve Novick, “The council as a whole is never truly committed to a particular priority, because every commissioner’s real priority is his or her bureaus.”
Portlanders have repeatedly refused to change their characteristically weird form of government. But fed up by an unprecedented rise in homelessness, violent crime, drug abuse, and public disorder over the past two years, residents are considering a new way forward. According to a January 2022 poll, 81 percent of respondents reported that the current city council is “ineffective in providing public services”; 66 percent viewed their local officials with mistrust; and 88 percent said that quality of life in the area was getting worse, far higher than the 49 percent reported in 2017.
The city’s violent-crime spike has far exceeded the national average. The number of homicides ballooned from 29 in 2019 to 53 in 2020 to a record 92 last year. In 2022, the number is 82, on pace to set another record. On a per-capita basis, the homicide rate moved from 4.4 per 100,000 in 2019 to more than 14 today. One analysis of the homicide problem concluded that “a very small and very high risk population is driving a significant portion of the gun violence in Portland.”
Homeless camps have proliferated, creating garbage-strewn environments of lawlessness and drug abuse that have spilled into residential neighborhoods. Tenants in one working-class apartment building feel trapped, unable to move out of the building where they routinely find addicts shooting up in common bathrooms and sleeping in stairwells. Better-off Portlanders have moved away, fearful of the risks to personal safety and property values that the camps pose. Attempts to clear encampments have failed: residents report that the homeless return to the same site shortly after each clearing.
Portland’s commissioners contributed to this environment, and they seem unable to resolve it. In the summer of 2020, Hardesty rallied progressives to defund the police and disband its Gun Violence Reduction Team, even as rioters besieged the city’s federal courthouse for months, vandalized another commissioner’s home, and set fire to City Hall. Unsurprisingly, the Portland Police Department suffered attrition. Even though the city restored funding recently, the damage is done: Portland now has the fewest cops deployed in 30 years, with only one working officer for every 827 residents, far fewer per capita than in comparable cities like Seattle, Denver, and Kansas City. A new poll by Data for Progress reveals that 63 percent of Portlanders would like to see more police officers in their community; 61 percent want greater enforcement against quality-of-life offenses.
Under commissioners’ watch over the last decade, Portland’s failure to hire enough officers to keep up with its population growth left it vulnerable to today’s critical staffing shortage. Kris Henning, a professor of criminology at Portland State University, remarks that the city has “been ‘de-policing’ for quite a while now,” but “the rate of decline has increased significantly in the last two years.”
November’s ballot question therefore represents a vital chance for Portlanders to arrest their city’s decline. The city charter mandates that the council appoint a commission each decade to assess and propose revisions to the charter. If approved by at least 15 out of 20 members, the charter commission can directly submit a proposed amendment to voters for approval.
In December 2020, the council selected 20 volunteer Portlanders from diverse backgrounds as members of the latest charter commission. In June, after conducting 80 public meetings and hearings and receiving more than 4,000 public survey responses, the commission voted 17–3 to advance an all-or-nothing package of reforms on November’s ballot that would: (1) replace the commission form of government, thereby eliminating councilmembers’ dual roles as heads of departments and the mayor’s voting role; (2) establish the office of city administrator, akin to a manager, whom the mayor would nominate to oversee the city’s bureaus; (3) expand the number of council seats from four to 12; and (4) elect three councilmembers from each of four districts using STV, the multi-winner version of ranked-choice voting (RCV), with the mayor elected separately using single-winner RCV.
In essence, this ballot measure couples a “relatively strong” mayor, who would have the authority to nominate, supervise, and fire the city administrator, with a city council elected via a system of proportional representation. A politically accountable mayor, chosen by voters citywide, would also hire the police chief and city attorney, allowing him to concentrate on getting crime under control and overseeing the work of the city administrator. This professional and formally nonpolitical official, tasked with ensuring that city services operate efficiently and effectively, would hire and fire bureau staff and directors. For their part, the 12 city councilmembers would focus on serving constituents and developing policy, subject only to a mayoral tiebreaker, not a veto or vote.
If the ballot measure passes, Portland would become the first large American city in some seven decades to use multimember districts in local elections. That would yield some distinct advantages. Scrapping the low-turnout May primary in favor of a single November general election would reduce municipal costs and promote higher turnout. By ranking candidates, Portlanders can express which candidates they most prefer, without the need for a runoff.
Compared with single-member districts, which are far more susceptible to gerrymandering, multimember districts would likely promote greater representation of moderate, conservative, and independent views and other minority groups. Under Portland’s proposed three members per district, the quota to win a seat is 25 percent plus one of the first-round votes (though the last seat to be filled may secure less than this under some circumstances). Under single-winner RCV, the quota is 50 percent plus one. Geographically larger and more populous multimember districts still allow for local representation but also invite coalitions of non-majority voters to rally behind one preferred candidate and secure that seat, thus producing a council more reflective of the electorate’s preferences.
In a county where approximately 287,000 registered Democrats dwarf 59,000 Republicans and 180,000 unaffiliated voters, carving out 12 single-member districts would likely result in all or nearly all districts with Democratic majorities—and thus supermajority control. Though Portland’s elections would continue to be nonpartisan if the ballot proposal passes, these party-registration statistics suggest that each three-member district would plausibly yield two progressive or center-left winners and one who appeals to a coalition of Republicans and independents. The left-of-center council faction would still command a comfortable majority, yet a sizable and multifaceted minority bloc would likely emerge.
Of course, the proposed changes wouldn’t fix all the city’s problems. The charter-review process repeatedly stressed that a 25 percent victory threshold would grant women and racial and ethnic minorities a greater chance of securing a seat. But given that representativeness increases with assembly size, even a reconfigured 12-member city council would likely not be large enough to achieve close proportional representation of small local factions. If Portland adopts partisan elections, predictive modeling suggests that only 1.81 parties would win seats, well short of a vibrant multiparty democracy.
And compared with other electoral systems, STV is more complex for voters and administrators to understand. Election officials must come up to speed on the vote-transferring mechanism, which voters don’t perceive but plays a central role in determining outcomes. (After a candidate meets the minimum quota necessary to win a seat, his “surplus” votes above that amount are transferred to the candidates whom his supporters ranked next. Votes also move from eliminated candidates to remaining ones, again allocated according to the rankings of the eliminated candidate’s voters.) Portland will need to expend considerable effort and resources ensuring that voters know how to fill out their ballots properly in order to reduce the number of unintentionally exhausted ballots, or ballots that fail to rank a candidate who makes it to the final round.
Despite these upsides, it didn’t take long for opposition to mount after the charter commission released its proposal. The most strenuous objection concerns the all-or-nothing nature of the change. Separate proposals, these opponents claim, would allow Portlanders to overhaul the commission system without such a complicated, experimental, and radically different replacement. Controversy erupted when the North Star Civic Foundation, a local good-government group, conducted a poll but shared only a truncated version of the results with the charter commission, omitting a finding that 72 percent of respondents preferred separate ballot questions to just one. Months later, when the story broke about this omission—after the commission had already voted to submit the single question to voters—one charter commissioner resigned in protest.
City commissioner Mingus Mapps, a former political science professor and outspoken critic of Portland’s government, created a political action committee to push for charter reform, but he is now using the organization to urge voters to oppose the ballot measure. Earlier this month, Mapps unveiled an alternative proposal, which includes a seven-member city council made up of single-member districts, a city administrator that oversees bureaus and day-to-day tasks, and a mayor with the powers to veto legislation, hire and fire the administrator, and propose the city budget. A separate ballot question would ask voters whether to approve single-winner ranked-choice voting as the means of electing councilmembers. At the earliest, these votes would take place in May 2023.
Portland’s newspaper of record, the Oregonian, also urged readers to reject November’s ballot measure, claiming that its provisions, “untested and unused by any other city in the nation,” would represent a complicated “test case model for government.” Business leaders, represented by the Portland Business Alliance, likewise support replacing the commission government with a city council but oppose the rest. In July, the group filed suit in state court seeking to invalidate the ballot measure on the grounds that the multipart question violated a state constitutional requirement that each ballot measure address only a single subject. The following month, the court upheld the measure, agreeing with Portland’s argument that the suite of reforms aims at one purpose: changing the structure of municipal government.
Another reason behind the opposition stems from the costs that would accompany such an expansion in the size of municipal government. Portland’s budget office projected that the change would cost between $900,000 to $8.7 million annually, or 0.1 percent to 1.4 percent of the city’s discretionary budget. (The wide range owes to the ballot measure’s all-encompassing effects on city government.) Yet placing city bureaus under professional administration, which would expand the possibilities for interagency collaboration, might offset the costs associated with an expanded city council.
In any case, opponents’ claims that the proposed change represents an untested and unprecedented form of local government don’t hold up. Jack Santucci, a professor of political science at Drexel University, points out that large American cities used STV in local elections throughout the early- and mid-twentieth century, including with multiple multi-seat districts. All repealed this system, however, often because of opposition by the two major parties and midcentury fears of Communists gaining a toehold on political power. From 1937 to 1947, New York City featured both STV elections for city council and a separately elected mayor, so Portland’s reformed government would not be entirely unique. Approval of the change would be historic, however, as it would represent the first major city to return to proportional representation after its decades-long abandonment.
Last century’s experimentation with STV-based electoral systems bears lessons for today. In particular, the system’s widespread repeal is proof of its vulnerability, absent efforts to strengthen party-based cohesion mechanisms and rein in unpredictable swing votes in the city council. Evidence from San Diego suggests that partisanship is the strongest predictor of councilmembers’ voting behavior, even where they are elected in nonpartisan elections. Parties help coordinate voters, legislators, and legislation; without parties, councilmembers would likely have to form coalitions on an issue-by-issue basis, impairing voters’ ability to know what results they can expect from casting their vote. One reform—allowing qualifying parties and other local organizations to print their endorsements for candidates on-ballot—would allow candidates to pledge support for particular policies and parties in exchange for institutional support during elections.
Portlanders still undecided about their vote on ballot measure 26-228 face a conundrum: vote no, and watch their city descend into further violence and disorder; vote yes, and hope that already-embattled officials can pull off the most sweeping transformation in city history. Next month, while American eyes will no doubt fix on the balance of power in Congress, Portland may well reveal the future of local government.
Photo by George Rose/Getty Images