How Ranked Choice Voting works (and how it could give bicycling a bigger voice in City Hall)

A creative explanation of how Single Transfer Voting works, from Minneapolis Public Radio

Its aim is to make sure every voter has some influence, in proportion to the popularity of their choices.

You know an issue is hot when you go to a Labor Day weekend party and people are talking about it. The issue is Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), and it will be on the ballot this November as part of the Charter Reform referendum to reorganize city government.

More precisely, voters will be voting on a specific type of RCV called Single Transferable Vote (STV).

As BikePortland previously reported, the Portland Charter Commission has proposed a package of changes to voting and city governance after grappling for a year and a half with how to improve the way we run our city.

I wanted to better understand how the STV method was implemented, and I have a hunch that some BikePortland readers would also like to take a deeper dive. So if you are someone who isn’t satisfied until you understand the details, I’ve pulled together a wonkish explanation of STV, and how the method could give bicycling concerns more voice in city government.

The Big Picture

It helps to think of the opinions and candidate preferences of voters as a big conglomeration of information. A good voting method extracts as much of that information as possible so that the candidates we put in office best reflect what voters want.

Ranked choice, single transferable vote is a nuanced way of extracting information about voter preference. Its aim is to make sure every voter has some influence, in proportion to the popularity of their choices. In this way, the fullness of your opinions is captured, even when your first choice is for a candidate who has no chance of winning, or alternatively, who is sure to win.

I don’t understand that 25% bit

The arithmetic of voting for different numbers of candidates. (source

On the ballot this fall is RCV with STV in multi-member districts. That means you will rank candidates who are running in your geographical district. The city will be divided into four districts, with three candidates elected to council from each one.

The arithmetic of having three winners is that each candidate will need to capture over 25% of the total vote in their district. Let’s walk through that.

If you have a voting system with only one winner (N = 1)—like we do now—that candidate will have to capture one more than 100 divided by (N+1) votes to win. That comes to 100 divided by 2, or 50% of the vote. That’s what we are used to.

With two winners, N = 2, it becomes 100 divided by 3, or 33% of the vote. Three winners is 100 divided by 4, to arrive at the 25% from the method proposed on our ballot (see table above).

Another way to think about it is that the threshold is set so that it is mathematically possible for only N candidates to get enough votes to win. That’s just the arithmetic of voting.

Here is how tabulating the vote works

This is the fun part. And honestly, there is a short YouTube video from Minneapolis Public Radio which does a fantastic job of explaining tabulation in only 2 minutes and 42 seconds using colored sticky notes, dry erase markers and hands. Their explanation is delightful and will satisfy most people.

Here goes my explanation, it’s a little less delightful, but is tailored to being a cyclist in Portland.

The first pass of vote counting is similar to what we are used to—count how many first choice votes each candidate got.

It’s the next steps that differ. Any candidate who passes the 25% threshold is a winner. But how far did they make it beyond the threshold? We are accustomed to declaring elections “landslides” and talking about “mandates” according to how how strong a win is, so the next step—the actual transfer of votes—might take some thought to get used to.

Any win above 25% has “surplus” or extra votes beyond what is needed to win. It is the number of surplus votes a winning candidate receives that will be transferred to other candidates, in proportion to the votes each candidate received as the second-ranked choice of those winning voters.

In other words, the second-ranked choice of all the voters of a first-pass winning candidate are counted and the fraction of the total vote each candidate got is calculated. Those fractional proportions are then multiplied into the number of surplus votes and distributed to other candidates proportionally.

Why it matters for bicycling

I might have lost you in the previous paragraph, so let’s talk bicycles. Let’s say there is an election, and the big issues are police reform, law and order, and renter protection. Under our current system of winner-take-all voting, improving active transportation infrastructure—better bike facilities—can’t break through those hot-button issues.

But under RCV STV you might get a candidate, call her Catherine, who advocates for better bike infrastructure. It’s her main issue. She gets 10% of the vote on the first round. Candidate Joan, who is an incumbent and whose main issue has always been police reform gets 50% of the vote, so she has a surplus of 25% of the district vote. She’s a winner.

Let’s distribute Joan’s 25% surplus votes to other candidates. Looking at the 2nd-ranked choice of Joan’s voters, we see that a whopping 50% of them chose Catherine. Half of a 25% surplus is 12.5% so Catherine’s total vote count becomes 22.5%—the bike advocate has got a shot at winning!

There is a third candidate, Pascal, who is the law and order candidate. He wins with 30% of the vote, or a 5% surplus. Let’s redistribute that surplus. It turns out that 60% of Pascal’s voters chose Catherine as their 2nd choice candidate. That’s 3% of the total district vote which gets added to Catherine’s column, and she too is now a winner with 25.5% of the vote!

And that is how issues which have trouble breaking through to become a “hot-button” number one issue, but which nevertheless have strong community support, can gain representation on the City Council. These are called “minority” positions. I point this out because this is distinct from positions held by racial or ethnic minority voters, and there is a tendency to conflate the two.

The takeaway

Importantly, the process does not lose ranking information. Both Joan and Pascal will know that a large percentage of their voters want better bike facilities, and you might end up with the two of them—opposites on the police issue—supporting Catherine as she pushes bike issues on council.

Moreover, because a candidate might be angling to be the 2nd or 3rd choice of a competitor’s voters, they would be wise to avoid running a campaign that angers those voters who are not ranking them as 1st choice.

Finally, RCV STV does away with primaries. Historically, the turnout for primaries is low, which means that a small percentage of highly motivated voters determines the selection of candidates that the larger voting public will see in the general election.

Not quite done

Of course, there is more to STV than my explanation covers. The process may make several passes through the data, reaching 3rd- and 4th-choice candidates, and beyond. Also, there are methods for eliminating the bottom scoring candidates when it becomes mathematically impossible for them to win. Their lower-ranked voter choices then percolate up to candidates who can still feasibly win.

This video, also out of Minneapolis, goes into greater technical detail about STV starting at minute 20:51. I don’t know what software Portland will be using to tabulate votes if charter reform passes this fall, so there might be differences in details, but the Minneapolis video gives a good general explanation of the methods and addresses some of the “what ifs” that come up.

Got other questions or observations about charter reform? Let us know in the comments.

Judge rules against Business Alliance challenge to charter reform

The Multnomah County Circuit Court has ruled against the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) challenge to a voting and governance measure slated for November’s ballot. The PBA had argued that the broad package of changes referred to the ballot by the Charter Review Commission violated the state constitution’s single-subject requirement.

In today’s ruling, Judge Stephen K. Bushong concluded that the measure does not violate that requirement.

This is the second charter reform defeat this summer for the PBA. In July, the City Auditor’s office declined a PBA request to conduct a constitutional review of the proposed reforms, responding that the Auditor only reviews “initiatives”—measures brought to the ballot via signatures—not “referrals” to the ballot made by governing entities. Despite that setback, the PBA unsuccessfully pressed forward with this same argument to the Circuit Court.

In response to the ruling the co-chair of the Charter Review Commission, Melanie Billings-Yun, told BikePortland that:

The court has agreed that the Portland Charter Commission has developed an indivisible and comprehensive plan for bringing meaningful change to our city government. As Judge Bushong so rightly said in his ruling, “All the provisions in this package of reforms are properly connected to the unifying principle of reforming the structure and operation of city government.” That unifying principle is creating a governing system that is accountable, responsive and representative of all the people of Portland. Now Portland voters will have the power to choose a better future for our city.

Today’s decision brings to a close a strange interlude in which the City Council has been in the awkward position of watching the City Auditor’s and Attorney’s offices defend the legality of recommendations made by the council-appointed Charter Review Commission, even as council members’ reaction to the full package of those recommendations ranges from tepid to testy.

The Charter Review Commission (CRC) is an independent body of 20 volunteers called together by the Portland City Council every ten years to review and recommend changes to Portland’s city charter, the constitution of the city. Each Council member is allowed to nominate four charter commissioners who are then subject to Council confirmation. A super-majority of 15 out of 20 CRC commissioners can refer their recommended changes directly to the voters. By a comfortable 17 to 3 vote this past June, the current CRC referred its package of amendments to the November ballot.

Mayor Wheeler summed up the relation between the City Council and the Charter Review Commission in the June 29 Council meeting in which the CRC informed the Council of their recommendations:

You have voted with your super-majority to refer this directly to the residents of the City of Portland. Obviously, you are their body, not our body, and our comments here are truly for informational purposes only, as opposed to policy making.

As of today’s Circuit Court ruling, the fate of changes to Portland’s form of governance and method of electing city officials will be in the hands of November’s voters.

Between now and November, however, the charter reform measure will face organized opposition. Both Commissioner Mingus Mapps and former Council candidate Vadim Mozyrsky have political action committees which will oppose the full suite of changes proposed in the measure. As BikePortland previously reported, Mapps’s Ulysses PAC will host forums on alternatives to the current measure, and Mapps himself plans to put forward a draft alternative proposal for the Spring 2023 ballot.

Mozyrsky has teamed up with Chuck Duffy and Steven Moskowitz, former staffers of late Mayor Bud Clark, to form Partnership for Common Sense Government which brashly opposes the ballot measure.

But the measure also has a growing number of proponents, including the City Club of Portland, the League of Women Voters and the Urban League. And a recently formed group, Portland United for Change, is a coalition of organizations working to support the CRC measure.

Stay tuned as we continue to cover this story.

Mapps will work on his own charter reform proposal

Source: Friends of Mingus Mapps

Mingus Mapps drew the charter reform battle lines more clearly yesterday when the city commissioner announced he would craft an alternative to the proposal put forward last month by the city appointed Charter Review Commission. In an email to supporters Tuesday, Mapps laid out a path to challenging the commission’s plan.

It is a deft political move by Mapps on an issue that is a snoozer for those who do not follow local politics closely.

The city charter is our “constitution,” it is the document that describes how Portland’s government is organized and how we elect the city council. As such, it touches every issue facing the city today, from policing to housing affordability to transportation. It affects how the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) is run and how it sets its priorities. If you have a gripe — and as a comment moderator I know a lot of BikePortland readers do — the charter reform debate should be important to you.

Mapps made charter reform a a central issue in his 2020 city council campaign, and the former political science professor has been outspoken about the need for charter reform, “Portlanders deserve a modern city council.”

As BikePortland recently reported, some of the changes which the Charter Review Commission has put forward for the November ballot are broadly supported — including by Mapps: elections by district, a larger city council, and the replacement of Portland’s current Commissioner form of government with a City Manager system.

But their proposed system of voting, ranked choice voting with multi-member districts, is controversial. This would divide the city into four districts with voters in each district selecting three council representatives using a ranked-choice method. The system allows voters to rank their preference for multiple candidates, and its supporters point to research that shows that it approximates proportionality by better securing representation for non-majority viewpoints.

Heat map showing People of Color (POC) voting age population (VAP) for citizens and non-citizens from the MGGG Redistricting Lab’s analysis of Portland City Council voting.

This is one of the elements of the current proposal with which Mapps does not agree, calling it “an untested experiment not used by any other city in the United States.”

Mapps proposes to put forward a draft alternative proposal in October, a month before the election, and commits to “leading a City Council effort to submit this as a referendum in early Spring 2023” if the voters were to reject the Charter Commission proposal in November. Prior to that, Mapps will be polling the electorate, organizing focus groups and hosting forums and debates on alternatives to the current proposal through the Ulyssess PAC, a political action committee he formed last year to support charter reform.

Source: Charter Review Commission materials.
Charter Commissioner Candace Avalos

His “draft alternative proposal” will give voters who might be skittish about the ranked-voting, multi-member district aspect of reform the possibility of still enacting the reform’s more broadly popular elements. The job of the Charter Commission becomes making voters comfortable with a more complicated algorithm for tabulating votes, and will involve outreach and education.

In a recent interview published by Rose City Reform, Charter Review Commissioner Candace Avalos talked about the reasoning behind the commission’s proposals, saying

We thought it was important to present a vision to voters. This is a big bold change, and we want voters to buy into this with us. For it to work as we intended, you’ve got to accept the whole vision. You can’t piecemeal it.

Mapps’s task is simpler, he just needs to stoke fear and uncertainty and position his draft as a more moderate alternative.

Things are heating up, and it’s not just the weather. Stayed tuned as BikePortland follows this issue.

Ride with me on a path to Portland charter reform enlightenment

Charter Commission members. (Source: Portland Charter Commission)

Our city hamstrings itself by putting city commissioners — who possibly have no management experience, background or interest in a bureau — in charge of running them.

Portland took another step toward good governance with the recent Charter Commission vote to advance their reforms to the November ballot. This City Council appointed, 20-member group of volunteers has been grappling for a year and a half with how to improve the way we run our city, this vote was a milestone in their efforts.

With their recommended changes to Portland’s charter more formalized, I decided it was time to become better informed about the issue.

With an open but skeptical mind, I plunged into the Commission’s materials. It only took a few hours for me to realize that I wasn’t bringing a very big pole to this pond.

How to design fair elections is a well-studied field and there is a lot of expertise involved, much of it technical. Probably the most useful thing I can do for the BikePortland reader is to summarize and link to the sources that most helped me become “informed enough” about charter reform.

So on that note, what follows is a link-rich synopsis of my path to charter enlightenment.

The Big Picture

Portland has had a “commission” form of government for over a century. It is an antiquated system in which each commissioner, in addition to their roles of passing ordinances and responding to constituents, oversees a portfolio of bureaus. In other words, commissioners have both policy and executive roles. This type of governance was long ago abandoned by other major US cities, with Portland being the last hold-out.

Currently, we elect four “at-large” commissioners and a mayor using a winner-take-all system. Voters get to choose candidates in all four races and are not restricted by having to live in a particular district. The candidate who receives the majority of the vote wins the seat, although this may take two rounds of voting, a primary and a run-off.

Oregon Public Broadcasting published a helpful article by Rebecca Ellis which describes our current system and the proposed changes.

Graphic explaining how proportional ranked choice voting works. (Source: The Charter Committee Progress Report #5.)
(Source: Charter Committee Progress Report #5)

What the Charter Commission is proposing

The Commission has proposed three changes to the way we elect our Commissioners and run the city:

• Allowing voters to rank candidates in order of their preference, using ranked choice voting

• Four new geographic districts with three members elected to represent each district, expanding the city council to a total of 12 members

• A city council that focuses on setting policy and a mayor elected citywide to run the city’s day-to-day operations, with the help of a professional city administrator

They write that “it is the Commission’s belief and desire that this proposal will make Portland’s government more accountable, transparent, efficient and effective, responsive, and representative of every area of the city.”

The Charter Commission Progress Report #5 discusses the proposed changes in detail beginning on page 23. UPDATE (6/29/2022): Soon after our original preparation for this story, the Charter Commission released Progress Report #6 which is a summary designed “to give a high-level view of the approach and work of the Charter Commission at this stage in the process.”

How did they come up with that?

There are two main parts to the proposed changes: 1) moving management of the bureaus away from the commissioners and to the mayor/city manager and 2) changing the way Portlanders elect the City Council.

Concerning jettisoning the commission structure, the Charter Commission conducted discussions with bureau directors and elected officials, as well as 106 sessions with community groups and the public. There does not seem to be significant opposition to dropping the commission system from any quarter. On the contrary, the idea appears to have a lot of support. One vocal supporter, City Commissioner Mingus Mapps, said of the commission system, “It’s a crazy way to run a city, and it’s one of the reasons Portland underperforms on everything from homelessness to permits, time after time.”

The Progress Report summarized what Portlanders believe are the main weaknesses of our current way of doing things including: lack of accountability, failure to move forward on complicated issues, lack of coordination, silos, inconsistent and unqualified management, micromanaging, et cetera. It is a long list.

Broadway bike lane last fall. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Portland’s homelessness crisis serves as a good example of this government dysfunction. Last week’s BikePortland Monday Roundup included an article about Houston’s success in addressing homelessness and their use of a “Housing First” model. They credited getting everyone “to row in unison”—the city and the non-profits—with their success.

But Portland’s more fundamental problem is getting the city bureaus to row in unison. As Mapps told KOIN 6 in March,

One of our challenges right now is to get different city bureaus to work together. I know Portlanders are furious with the state of houselessness out there, but one of the reasons why we struggle is that we have about five different bureaus that play a role in solving houselessness. It’s not just a matter of providing housing, houselessness is often a mental health issue, and a public safety issue. And if you’re camping in a park, it becomes a Parks issue, if you are camping on a sidewalk it becomes a PBOT issue.

One of the things we have failed to do over and over again is to get these different bureaus to work together to solve problems like getting people off the streets to safe, supportive housing. You see the results of what the status quo does. If we move toward a coordinated system run by professionals, I believe we would do much better.

To sum up, our city hamstrings itself by putting city commissioners — who possibly have no management experience, background or interest in a bureau — in charge of running them.

The problem with Portland voting

(Source: Sightline Institute)

I didn’t realize we had a big problem until I read a series of outstanding articles by Kristin Eberhard for The Sightline Institute. If you only have time to read one piece I’ve linked to in this post, I recommend Want to Give Portlanders of Color a Voice on City Council? Districts Won’t Help.

Eberhard makes a strong case for proportional ranked-choice voting and brings to life the analysis that the MGGG Redistricting Lab at Tufts University did of Portland voting.

It is the MGGG (Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group) mathematical models of how various voting schema would play out in Portland that informed the Charter Commission’s recommendation of ranked choice voting for multi-member districts. And although MGGG used race as their model for underrepresented voters, Eberhard points out that “the results apply to Portlanders who are in the minority for any number of reasons: small business owners, people who are dependent on transit, those who get around by bike, youth, or parents of school-age children.”

The Charter Commission concluded that four multi-member districts and ranked-choice voting will bring fairer and fuller representation to city government, could improve participation, and also promote more issue-oriented, civil campaigns with less negative campaigning.

But it wasn’t a unanimous vote. One of the three commissioners who voted against the reforms was recent city council candidate Vadim Mozyrsky. Similarly, City Commissioner Mingus Mapps has not taken a strong public position in support or in opposition to the whole package, although in an April interview with the Rose City Reform substack he expressed doubts about some aspects of it. So there are dissenting voices, but it is probably too early to detect an organized opposition. The Charter Commission work sessions were taped, and around 1:18:00 of the June 6th meeting, you can listen to the comments of two dissenting commissioners, as well as an impassioned rebuttal by the committee co-chair.

The takeaway

The four-district, multi-member proposal combines elements of both geographical representation and of fairer representation of non-geographically defined minority concerns. The tension between geography (with neighborhood associations often being the stand-in representative) and minority interests (such as better bicycle infrastructure) underlies many of Portland’s political skirmishes. The changes the Charter Commission recommends could result in a more productive political dynamic with more non-majority concerns achieving a voice on the city council.

UPDATE (6/29/2022): Yesterday the Willamette Week reported that two newly-forming PACs (political action committees) will be taking opposing sides on charter reform. Vadim Mozyrsky has recruited Chuck Duffy and Steve Moskowitz (two former Bud Clark aides) to his yet-to-be-named PAC which will oppose the package of reforms advanced by the Charter Commission, and Building Power for Communities of Color is starting a PAC to support the reforms. Mingus Mapps’s existing Ulysses PAC will most likely be hosting “educational forums” about the reforms, as a softer way of pushing back against the bundled changes. Mapps and Mozyrski favor adopting a mayor-manager system but are against aspects of the other commission-proposed reforms.