American democracy faces mounting challenges, whether it’s election deniers seeking office, threats to poll workers, or U.S. House and state legislative races run on gerrymandered maps that courts have rejected as unconstitutional.
Nevertheless, not all the news is bad. As a recent report by the Center for Public Integrity detailed, while 26 states have created new barriers to the ballot box since 2020, another 20 states have expanded access and made it easier for citizens to make their voices heard.
Once again, it’s the Pacific Northwest leading the way. Oregon, especially, has become a launching pad for effective, non-partisan electoral reforms that create a stronger democracy for everyone.
Back in 2016, Oregon became the first state to adopt automatic voter registration for all eligible citizens. Before that, the state blazed a trail on vote-by-mail and brought the ballot box into every home. What’s birthed in Oregon blossoms everywhere. Now eight states vote entirely by mail, and another 22 states, as well as Washington, D.C., have embraced automatic voter registration.
This November, voters in Portland, Oregon have another opportunity to shape the future of democracy, and adopt changes that strengthen every voters’ voice, provide greater choice, and make city government more accountable and responsive to everyone. It might not be the highest-profile election, but Oregon’s modern history as a creative and forward-thinking laboratory of democracy means that it could help make elections and representation fairer everywhere.
A “yes” vote on Portland’s Measure 26-228 would transform its antiquated city commission and better equip city leaders to take on serious challenges. But more than that, it would replace this relic with a modern-day gold-standard for voter choice and fair representation. This model – which combines new multi-seat districts, ranked choice voting, and proportional representation – is precisely what hundreds of political scientists and other thought leaders have embraced as the very best hope for reducing polarization and repairing the nation’s broken politics.
Right now, Portland elects each of its five city commissioners at large through a city-wide election. The city’s charter commission has proposed replacing this relic – no other major city still retains this structure – and expanding the council all the way to 12 members, elected from four districts. Each district would elect three councilors, using ranked choice voting.
This is a huge step forward for Portland. Taken together, the combination of more seats, new multi-seat districts and ranked choice voting would create a proportional system that makes candidates and politicians more accountable to everyone they are supposed to represent. Ranked choice voting opens the door for new candidates – oftentimes young people, women, and people of color – to step forward and lead. And the combination of RCV and a more proportional system creates a meaningful and contested election for everyone – and ensures every point-of-view gets heard, relative to the number of votes earned. Which is exactly how elections are supposed to work.
But if Portland leads the way and adopts this approach, it would also be a giant step forward for the nation. Experts have become increasingly convinced that this form of proportional ranked choice voting under consideration in Portland is the best way to ensure every voice is heard, not simply the loudest on the extremes. It’s the clearest path toward a genuine multi-racial democracy and the best way to defeat the scourge of partisan and racial gerrymandering.
This summer, more than 200 scholars signed an open letter to Congress calling for this type of approach to be used in U.S. House elections. They urged leaders to “embrace this political richness by joining nearly every other advanced democracy in moving to more inclusive, multi-member districts made competitive and responsive by proportional representation.”
Political scientists at Oregon’s top schools have embraced the proposal. And national experts at Harvard Law School and best-selling authors like Duke professor Nancy MacLean have also endorsed this change. “If we as a nation are serious about bringing our communities back together, saving American democracy and providing all voters with meaningful solutions, proportional elections are the solution,” they write. “What’s happening in Portland is our first opportunity to dismantle failing election systems and rebuild a path forward to a better governing body that actually represents we the people.”
Portland is just the biggest step on this Oregon Trail. As the largest city in Multnomah County, it was a catalyst for a county charter commission to vote almost unanimously to place a referendum on the ballot to adopt single-winner RCV for Multnomah County, Oregon’s most populous with more than 800,0000 residents. Leading this effort has been Oregon Ranked Choice Voting and the Coalition of Communities of Color. The city of Corvallis is using RCV for the first time this year, and two years ago Benton County used RCV for a county commissioner election.
First Portland, then Oregon, then the nation. The adoption – and success – of proportional RCV in Portland would be a win for the city, but also help mainstream these reforms for everyone. And as we have seen, what starts in Oregon can spread quickly. Another form of ranked choice voting is also on the ballot this fall in Seattle, as well as Clark and San Juan counties in Washington, as the Pacific Northwest continues to reinvent democracy in the nation’s hour of need.
We need not despair during these dangerous times. Innovation and trailblazing – then exporting those essential new ideas nationwide – are the Portland way. A better nation starts with a better Portland. That begins with a yes vote on Measure 26-228 on Tuesday, November 8.