Charter reform in Portland, Oregon
A ballot measure in Portland, OR can provide all voters meaningful, proportional representation
This election season, Portland, Oregon will be voting on whether to adopt a comprehensive change to their city charter, or city constitution.
The proposed change was referred to the ballot by 17 of 20 people serving on an all-volunteer charter review commission after nearly two years of consideration. The measure is substantial: it would scrap Portland’s antiquated commission form of government and replace it with a council-manager system, transition from at-large to district elections, and adopt ranked-choice voting. Each of these reforms will bring positive change to Portland, but most significant of all is that Portland would replace its current winner-take-all elections (the default electoral method in the U.S.) with proportional elections.
If successful, Portland will create a blueprint that each U.S. city and state should seek to emulate – the fate of American democracy depends on advancing proportional elections. This is the growing consensus among political scientists, which is further reflected by the recommendations of organizations like the venerable American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the nationally renowned Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group.
Why? Because The United States is reaching a crisis point of political polarization.
The trend towards extreme polarization started decades ago, but for politicians and voters alike our democracy is reaching a tipping point. Attitudes toward race are the worst they’ve been in 30 years, and they’re likely to get worse. Though there are many disparate causes, an emerging consensus among political scientists is that our winner-take-all election systems rapidly accelerate polarization.
The reason is simple: winner-take-all elections are zero-sum. As a result, they foster an all-or-nothing, us-against-them mindset. A win for one group inherently is a loss for the other. Winner-take-all elections are bad for every American; they hurt both Democrats and Republicans, but they also disproportionately harm communities of color and women. They worsen the way our government is run and endanger the very fabric of our democracy.
Winner-take-all elections cannot be redeemed.
Independent redistricting commissions can only partially defend against partisan gerrymandering. Due to geographic clustering and self-sorting, even the best-intentioned redistricting commissions are limited in what they can do to mitigate the harms of winner-take-all elections.
This is because under winner-take-all elections, there often isn’t any way to provide fair representation to voters who are in the severe minority in their electorates, like Republicans on the west coast, Democrats in rural states and the Deep South, or for sizeable communities of color that live relatively unsegregated in white-majority places like Seattle or Portland. A staple remedy under the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, so-called “majority-minority districts,” often fail to perform for those communities without collateral damage due to modern levels of segregation, and the Voting Rights Act itself has fewer teeth, is harder to enforce, and grows weaker with each passing year.
What’s the solution? Proportional representation.
Proportional elections are the most widely used electoral method among western democracies on Earth. Countries with proportional representation outperform the U.S. on trust in elections, satisfaction with democracy, keeping extremists out of elected office, and better representation for working-class families, women, and ethnic minorities. New Zealand’s beloved government, Finland’s all-women leadership, and Australia’s multi-party Senate are just three notable examples of proportional elections delivering as promised.
If we as a nation are serious about bringing our communities back together, saving American democracy, and providing all voters with meaningful representation, proportional elections are the solution. What’s happening in Portland this November is our first opportunity to dismantle failing election systems and to rebuild a path forward to a better governing body that actually represents we the people. This is an election you’ll want to keep an eye on – the fate of American democracy depends on it.
Assistant Professor Political Science
Visiting Assistant Clinical Professor of Law
Harvard Law School
John M. Carey
Wentworth Professor in the Social Sciences
Lecturer and Researcher, Goldman School of Public Policy
Professor Arend Lijphart
University of California, San Diego
William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy
Professor Rein Taagepera
University of California, Irvine
Professor of Political Science
Georgia State University
District Attorney General
30th Judicial Dist, Tennessee
(Former Bredesen Prof of Law
University of Memphis)
Professor Emeritus, Political Science
University of Pennsylvania
John A. Rapp
Professor Emeritus, Political Science,
Nicholas O. Stephanopoulos
Kirkland & Ellis Professor of Law
Harvard Law School
Associate Professor of Political Science
Virginia Commonwealth University