As part of the ongoing Politics and Policy Lecture Series, the Reed Political Science Department hosted a roundtable on March 27 to discuss the ongoing work of the Portland Independent District Commission, a critical part of the city’s transition to a new form of government. The roundtable was moderated by Professor Paul Gronke, Director of Reed’s Elections and Voting Information Center. Also in attendance were Dr. Todd Donovan, a professor of political science at Western Washington University, himself an elected county commissioner in Whatcom County, WA, as well as Dr. Melody Valdini, a political science professor from Portland State University and a selected member of the Independent District Commission.
Last November, Portland voters passed Measure 26-228, a proposal to significantly alter the city’s unusual, and widely regarded to be outdated, form of government, in which four city commissioners are elected city-wide, and are each assigned a portfolio of city bureaus and organizations to oversee. The approved measure makes three primary changes to the city’s charter: first, it requires that the mayor have the power to hire a City Administrator, who would take on the task of overseeing city bureaus and their management. The mayor would also no longer be a member of the City Council. Secondly, the City Council would be expanded from four to twelve members. The city would be divided into four electoral districts of equal population. Each district would elect three councilors. Thirdly, all city elections would be conducted via ranked-choice voting. In city council districts, members are elected via “single transferable vote,” in which any candidate must receive at least 25% of the vote in order to be elected. Voters will rank candidates by preference, and any candidates exceeding the threshold will be elected. If all three seats are not yet filled, an instant runoff will occur until the remaining seats have councilors-elect.
The roundtable discussion was focused primarily on the work of the Independent District Commission, which has been tasked with drawing the city’s four electoral districts from which city councilors will be elected. Dr. Valdini, being a member of the commission, recused herself from some audience questions, as she was unable to opine on a number of topics regarding the redistricting process, but was nonetheless able to outline the goals and requirements of the commission, and gladly accepted public input from the audience. Dr. Donovan spoke more widely about the impact that these reforms would have on city governance, as well as challenges the commission may encounter in crafting districts that would allow for diverse representation in city government.
Professor Gronke led a discussion concerning the commission’s goals in terms of representation. He argued that the proportional nature of the city’s districts would guarantee diverse representation in a way that single-member districts would not. He used Portland’s African-American population as an example, demonstrating that Black Portlanders only make up approximately 6% of the city’s population. They are not necessarily concentrated in one neighborhood as they often are in cities with a history of redlining. It would be impossible to draw a single-member district of majority Black residents. Still, in the case of the city’s multi-member districts, a well organized community could elect a representative to the district’s second or third seat.
This same principle applies to any “community of interest” throughout the city, although both Professor Gronke and Dr. Valdini admitted that identifying these communities has been among the commission’s most challenging tasks. The question of whether a certain community has both the numbers and the political clout to be considered is an incredibly delicate one. Professor Gronke noted that Portland has sizable Ukrainian and Roma communities, leaving the question open as to whether these would be considered viable communities of interest, and the inevitable dissatisfaction that will occur when one group is included or excluded. The 8% of Asian Portlanders can be further divided by country of origin, with people of Vietnamese and Chinese descent taking up the lion’s share. Would it be appropriate to consider these distinct communities? The panel attempted to demonstrate the hard questions that continue to arise while in the midst of this process.
Despite the considerable geographic size of the districts, and the proportional system, gerrymandering can still occur by diluting the votes of certain communities through “cracking,” or splitting neighborhoods between multiple districts. Dr. Valdini stressed that the commission is sparing no amount of caution to ensure this does not happen. She listed the kinds of interests that the commission is considering when drawing districts, such as: neighborhood associations, school districts, public transportation lines, voter precincts, parks, fire stations, hospitals, religious gathering places, libraries, and current district boundaries (such as for state legislative seats). Determining how each of these factors influences the boundaries of a district affects not only representation, but also the assets within a city councilor’s jurisdiction. Large-scale public infrastructure assets, such as the Portland Airport or MAX lines, will certainly be affected by the communities and councilors that may have eventual jurisdiction over them.
Dr. Donovan and Dr. Valdini also explained more in-depth the advantages of the proportional system, not just for representation, but for political cooperation. One audience member brought up the problem of alliances, in which a pair or group of candidates can tell each other’s supporters to rank them together, in order to lock an opposing candidate out of the election threshold. This was attempted during the 2021 New York City Democratic mayoral primary, in which candidates Andrew Yang and Kathryn Garcia briefly teamed up to stop then-candidate Eric Adams from winning the nomination. Dr. Donovan and Dr. Valdini argued that despite the complaints of this phenomenon by some candidates, alliances could actually foster closer cooperation between competing candidates, and could result in far less polarization and gridlock in city government. If candidates have to work together to get elected, instead of simply accusing the other of being a danger to democracy, then they will be far more likely to work productively if they are elected.
According to the transition page of Portland’s government website, the city is scheduled to hold its first elections under this new system in November of 2024. The Independent District Commission is required to publish its final map for Portland’s new city council districts by September of this year. The commission is currently in the process of voting on the criteria to be used for the drawing of the districts, and is open for public comment by anyone who wishes to share their input, and will be holding public meetings throughout the spring and summer, to which anyone can attend. Dr. Valdini will be working with her colleagues on the commission, and she highly recommended that everyone participate in the process of making sure all Portlanders are represented in their next city council. You may find all the information about the commission and its work at the Independent District Commission page at Portland.gov here.