Portland, Ore. – If you live in Multnomah County, you will be voting on ranked choice voting (RCV) twice during the midterm election. In Portland, RCV is included as a part of a package of proposals within the Charter Reform that looks to monumentally change how the city does government. In the county, ballot measure 26-232 will ask if county officials should be elected using RCV, and is one of the many ballot measures brought forth by the Charter Committee. But they are not the same style of ranked choice voting. Portland is using what’s called Single Transferable Vote, whereas Multnomah County is using Simple Ranked Choice Voting.
Blair Bobier the President of Oregon Ranked Choice Voting Advocates says each division came up with a system that suits what they’re trying to accomplish.
“Portland is coming up with the gold standard. Portland has a very sophisticated system of ranked choice voting that will provide the best representation possible. Multnomah County’s system as proposed by 26-232 is great and will work well for them.”
Portland’s method is better suited for the new structure of city council the charter reform is looking to implement; three councilmembers per district. And it has been used in countries that have this exact same format, like Australia and Scotland. The change at the county level has more to do with saving time and money on elections, and according to Annie Kallen with the Multnomah County Charter Review Committee it wouldn’t change a whole lot.
“RCV kind of does the same thing as what we already do now with runoffs, the only difference is that it’s doing it instantly,” Kallen said. She adds, this proposal came out of frustration over the current way we elect officials for not being proportionally representative of the people. Under the ballot measure, voters would rank candidates in order of preference. All the first choices are tallied, if a candidate eclipses 50% of the vote, they win and there’s no more counting. But if there isn’t, the candidate receiving the least amount of votes is eliminated, and their votes are reassigned to the voters second choice. That continues until someone has a majority of the vote.
This is also known as Instant Runoff Ranked Choice Voting. Kallen thinks this is too similar to the current system and actually voted no on it during the Charter Committee process.
“The problem with RCV is you’re not counting all that ballot data at once, and you’re having a series of eliminations. So it’s actually very similar to our current system where you can have vote splitting in every round. What we use in Multnomah County now, you vote once in May, then there’s a runoff in November, that system actually already mitigates vote splitting because of that runoff.”
Bobier disagrees, saying that even in the May primary, one could be afraid to vote for their favorite candidate.
“(RCV) brings more candidates into the system and it gives voters more choice and more power. So if you like an outlier candidate, you can give them your number one choice. And the most important thing is that candidate can’t play a spoiler role. You can vote for any candidate you want without fear they’re going to be a spoiler, because if they don’t get enough support then your vote will count for your second choice.”
He also thinks it benefits the democratic process as a whole, because outlier candidates can bring in new ideas and issues to the forefront of the debate. On top of that, he hopes it will tone down the intense partisan bickering that is becoming more common in our political system.
“In a typical head-to-head election, everybody tries to boost themselves up, and at the same time tear their opponent down. You can’t risk doing that when you use ranked choice voting because in order to win you might need the support of some of your opponent’s supporters. You might need their second choice votes,” Bobier said. “So instead of going on the attack and pointing out differences, candidates are much more apt to point out similarities.”
Jon Isaacs, Vice President of Public Affairs for the Portland Business Alliance actually supports the county’s form of RCV, despite his organization stating it’s opposition to the Portland Charter Reform and the method of RCV that corresponds with it. He likes that the county’s method guarantees the winner will always have 50% of the vote.
“If you read the literature on traditional ranked choice voting that’s one of its core philosophies, which is that you avoid the situations where you elect people by pluralities and you always end with the winner that has the most support, clearly, within the jurisdiction they’re running in,” Isaacs said. “There’s lots of examples of where this is effective. And in particular it tends to filter out extremists. You end up with a more mainstream candidate, which is what you’d expect when the philosophy is to end with the winner that has a majority of the voters in any district that they’re running in.”
Portland’s method of RCV isn’t as straightforward. Especially when it comes to counting the votes. A candidate needs just 25% of the vote to secure one of the three city council seats in their respective district. It follows the same format as the county’s method, in that you go to a voters second or third choice and so on, until a candidate reaches the mark. And the candidate with the fewest amount of votes is eliminated after each round of counting. What makes it interesting, is once a candidate reaches that 25% threshold, every vote beyond that is actually transferred to the voters next choice. (Author’s note: this is the best video I’ve found that explains the redistribution of surplus votes, but I will do my best to explain). So if a candidate needs 5,001 votes to win, but receives 6000 votes, the 999 extra votes are redistributed to the second choice. That said, it’s looking at the second choice of all 6,000 voters that selected the winning candidate but dividing them up by 999 votes. So it’s actually a fraction of a vote that’s being passed on to the voter’s second choice. That fraction is calculated by dividing the number of surplus votes by the number of total ballots received. In this case, that number would equal .1665. So everyone that voted for the candidate that already secured a seat, is also giving .1665 percent of a vote to their second choice in the next round of counting. And this is why Isaacs prefers the county’s form of RCV over Portland’s.
“If both these measures pass, voters are going to be quite confused because you’re going to have two completely different forms of ranked choice voting, in which their votes are counted differently. And that’s one of the concerns we expressed in our opposition to the city measure,” Isaacs said. “The single transferable vote is extremely convoluted, and our concern is voters aren’t going to understand how their votes are counted differently. We think it would be much wiser for the city to follow the county’s lead and go with single representative districts with simple ranked choice voting, rather than this never-been-tried-before system, with multi-member districts that even the proponents have a hard time describing.”
Bobier says there’s no need to overcomplicate it on the voters end. They just have to rank candidates.
“You put your first choice as number one, your backup as number two, and your third choice as number three. It’s something we do all the time. If you go out for ice cream and your favorite flavor is out, you go for your second choice,” Bobier said. “It’s very simple, I’ve had kindergartners do this.”