Portland shows the way – representation in “Multi-everything” Cities

By Steven Hill, DemocracySOS 

What kinds of political structures will create a sense of shared community in urban zones?

In increasingly consequential ways, large metropolitan areas have become political worlds unto themselves. The urban zone is multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural, multi-gendered, multi-jazzed, multi-partisan—in short, “multi-everything.” Yet states with the largest cities are vastly underrepresented in the U.S. Senate and in the antiquated Electoral College that chooses the president. Because of this, cities generally receive far less in federal monies per capita than do rural areas.

In this time of persistent federal budget deficits, and given the perpetual “winner take all” political calculations in Congress, cities have had to do a lot on their own. Many cities were convulsed by George Floyd protests throughout 2020, yet urban unity is hugely important, otherwise cities will punch below their weight in the nation’s scorched-earth political tussles.

Given that, an important question arises: in the 21st century, what kinds of political structures will create a sense of shared community in these urban zones, and decrease the multiple currents of tension?

There is no easy answer to this question, but it is certain that “winner-take-all” electoral districts only exacerbate the problem. Nothing magnifies the turf wars, whether between different racial groups, downtown vs. neighborhood interests or housing and education advocates, more than an “if I win, you lose” form of politics. Redistricting battles in many cities have produced corrosive bitterness as each minority group and community of interest claws for its share of a limited commodity: political representation. San Francisco recently experienced a brutal redistricting battle between competing racial groups and political factions over how to draw its local district lines that badly frayed community relations. The shortcomings of this approach are increasingly hard to ignore.

So it’s with a sense of relief that I heard that on June 14 a charter commission in Portland, Oregon overwhelmingly approved an overhaul of city government structures that offers an innovative blueprint for cities. Portland was wracked by many months of George Floyd protests in 2020, which prompted the Trump administration to send in federal troops. So in a spirit of reinvention, this charter commission placed on the November 2022 ballot, by a vote of 17-3, a package of political reforms, including expanding the size of the Portland City Council from five seats to 12 and electing them by proportional representation, which is by far the fairest and most inclusive method for these multi-everything cities. Now Portlanders will have their say in November over a potential pathway that could let some steam out of its hissing volcano.

Fair representation for the multi-everything city

Proportional ranked choice voting (P-RCV), which is the specific method chosen by Portland’s charter commission, is a candidate-based form of proportional representation that provides a fairer and more flexible method for achieving broad representation than the current at-large system that Portland has used for many years. Like most urban areas, Portland has been diversifying for decades to the point where 30% of its population of 650,000 is non-white. Renters, people of color, and folks from the east side of Portland have not had their voices heard in the city’s politics, and here’s why: its current “winner take all” method is arguably the worst for achieving broad participation and authentic representation.

Imagine you have a city with a dominant majority and several large minority constituencies, all competing to elect five city councilors. In Portland’s current system, each voter has five votes, and she can cast one vote for each of the five council seats (elected by “positions”), with the highest vote-getters winning each seat. Sounds simple, right?

There’s just one problem:  when the dominant majority goes to vote, it has more votes than any of the different minority constituencies. So it’s voting bloc can outvote any and all minority voting blocs and win 100% of the seats. This “plurality at-large” voting method is the most widely used in small towns and cities across the United States. It routinely underrepresents entire swaths of voters, and for decades has been subject to numerous voting rights lawsuits (until recently, when the US Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act).

Here’s one of my favorite examples of how terrible this electoral system is, and how a different voting method can vastly improve representative democracy. This case comes from an unlikely place, then-Governor George W. Bush’s backyard, the west Texas city of Amarillo. Although more than 20 percent of the city’s population was black or Latino, no black or Latino candidates had been elected to the school board in more than two decades in the city’s at-large, winner-take-all elections. A voting rights lawsuit was filed and to settle that an agreement was reached to use a proportional voting method known as cumulative voting.

It had an immediate impact in its very first election: of the four open seats, one went to a black candidate and another to a Latino candidate, and voter turnout tripled over the previous school board election because suddenly minority voters had a reason to vote. In the next election, another Latino was elected. Women won their first seats as well. Within two election cycles, Amarillo’s school board had become vastly more representative without needing to gerrymander a single district.

Amarillo is not an isolated example. About 200 jurisdictions across the US have adopted a proportional method, usually to resolve disputes over minority representation. Clearly, as our cities— indeed, our entire nation—continue to “rainbowize,” proportional voting promises authentic representation to more individuals and constituencies, as well as the best chance for realizing a colorful mosaic that both respects differences and knits them together into a more unified whole.

We tend to talk about these “representation deficits” in terms of race because it is easily identifiable. But in multi-everything cities, the mix of seemingly infinite diversities can be both impressive and confounding – and hard to adequately represent. Portland’s charter commission took a look at its city’s demographics, not only racial but income, renters, partisanship and neighborhoods. Groups like the Coalition for Communities of Color weighed in, saying “many Portlanders feel that the city government is not effectively responding to their needs and feel the City Council has historically not represented their communities.” As part of its statement of values the commission stated up front that it wanted to achieve “a participatory and growing democracy with more voices being heard in elections.” Which sounds so apple pie inclusive, exactly what you’d expect from a charter commission in a place like Portland. But the devil is in the details – how do you achieve that?

Proportional representation vs. “winner take all” districts

The commission had a choice of moving to a representation method based on single-seat districts, like many large cities use. But they discovered a problem: Portland’s various racial minority constituencies were too geographically spread out to benefit from drawing a “majority-minority” district. Plus, even if you could do that, what happens to the minority voters that don’t live in those gerrymandered districts? They are out of luck. Out of representation. As is any non-majority constituency that lives within that district, whether a minority of income, partisanship, ideology, religion or some other factor. This is the dilemma of representative democracy in a multi-everything city. Attempts to line-draw representation for one group too often results in disenfranchising another group. Representation is a zero-sum game – “if you win, I lose.” That’s why it’s called “winner take all.”

So the Portland charter commission took another route, that of adopting proportional ranked choice voting – but with its own intriguing innovation. It didn’t want all 12 of its seats elected citywide, as the commission had heard from a number of citizens at public hearings that they valued neighborhood representation. So it has proposed a groundbreaking structure that offers the best of both worlds – four super-districts spread across different parts of the city, each equal to the others in population, with each district electing three councilors by P-RCV. That configuration creates some geographic-based representation combined with broader city-regional representation. Any candidate that receives 25% of the vote in one of those three-seat districts will win a seat. And groupings of like-minded voters will be able to elect winners in proportion to their share of the popular vote. For example, in each district, if a perspective such as liberal, conservative or moderate, or Latino or African-American, comprises a majority of the voters, they will win two of the three seats, instead of 100% of the representation; while another 25% perspective will win the other seat. Each district will be very competitive for any number of political viewpoints, and coalitions will be able to form fluidly in response to the pressing issues of the day.

Besides the lower victory threshold, the other advantage to the charter commission’s chosen method flows from the use of ranked ballots. From a democratic standpoint, especially when compared to other electoral methods such as plurality, approval voting or top-two primary, ranked ballots are a small wonder in at least two ways.

First, ranked ballots allow an individual voter to pick her/his favorite candidates without worrying about spoilers or inadvertently helping to elect the “greater of two evils” candidate. That’s because if your first-ranked candidate can’t use your vote to win, your vote automatically migrates to your second-ranked candidate. Ralph Nader’s 97,000 voters in Florida, who watched George W. Bush beat Al Gore by 537 votes and win the presidency in 2000, could have ranked Gore second. Even if just a handful did so, Gore would have been elected president.

The charter commission greatly valued this factor, reporting that “ranked choice voting allows voters…to vote their conscience and worry less about strategic voting…voters have the freedom to vote for the candidates they believe in, rather than having to choose between the lesser of two evils. Adopting ranked choice voting could better ensure a city council where more Portlanders are represented by someone from their top vote preferences.”

Second, ranked ballots allowed similar-minded candidates to run and not knock each other off by spoiling. In New York City’s recent city council elections using ranked choice voting, the ranked ballots played a mighty role in women’s representation rising from 14 to 31 seats out of 51, a stunning turnaround. Women of color won 25 of those seats – almost a majority of the council. With ranked ballots, women candidates could run without worrying about splitting votes with other women in their race. Two Latina or two black candidates could both run in the same district without worrying that they were dividing their communities of voters. In fact, with a broader diversity of candidates running, they could mobilize more voters and really boost voter turnout. More voters would hear from a candidate who reflected their own demographic.  

Ranked ballots allow voters to express the complex racial-ethnic and political allegiances that so many Americans align with today. A black conservative, a gay Latino or Asian American businesswoman may not fit ideologically into the neat categories of race. Ranked ballots allow voters to, in effect, “district themselves” by expressing who they are via their rankings.

Charter commission co-chair Gloria Cruz views their pioneering proposal as a giant step forward for Portland, given its racially-conflicted past. “I believe that we’ve been engaged in an exercise of creating space—space for a government that can practice another way of being,” she said. “And space for those who are marginalized to have more opportunity to participate in our democracy.”

Blair Bobier, an attorney and longtime Oregon advocate for political reform says “Portland is long overdue for systemic reform. Far too many people have been shut out of a city government that hasn’t reflected the people it is supposed to serve. We look forward to an expanded city council combined with proportional ranked choice to bring more voices and greater diversity to city government.”

Let’s hope Portland voters agree this November. The nation needs more positive stories that reinforce democracy-building, and that advance the Golden Rule of Representation: “Give unto others the representation you would have them give unto you.”

Steven Hill @StevenHill1776

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