PORTLAND, Ore. – Voters in Portland, Oregon, driven by frustration with surging homelessness and a desire to make government more inclusive, have approved a ballot measure that will completely reinvent City Hall, ushering in seismic changes that local officials will have just two years to put in place.
The hotly debated measure will upend almost everything about how Portland is run. It will more than double the number of City Council members, overhaul how voting is conducted and dissolve a power structure that many saw as being plagued by mismanagement and bureaucracy.
Previous attempts to change the system failed, but following the sustained Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 and amid a spiraling homelessness crisis, this time “the broader conditions were really ripe for it to pass,” said pollster John Horvick, senior vice president of DHM Research.
“The combination of dissatisfaction with the city, plus an effectively delivered message around inclusion in elections — that really resonated with a segment of voters,” Horvick said.
Following the passage of the measure, which will update the city's charter for the first time in over 100 years, local officials are now scrambling to assess how to revamp City Hall by the two-year deadline, November 2024. They will also have to figure out how to juggle its multimillion-dollar price tag with the city's other financial priorities, including the construction of a network of campsites for homeless people.
Portland Commissioner Mingus Mapps, who campaigned against the measure, said implementing the reforms will be like “trying to launch to the moon" from an idea scribbled on the back of a napkin.
“I hope people realize that this is not a minor reform or even a major reform," he said. “This is a fundamental reimagining and rebuilding of local government here in Portland."
The measure will scrap Portland's unusual commission form of government, under which City Council members act as administrators of the city’s bureaus, and replace it with the more common mayor-council system. It will expand the city council from five to 12 members, who will be elected by voters in the districts they represent rather by voters citywide. The four new districts will be “multi-member,” meaning they will each be represented by three councilors. The mayor will no longer serve on the City Council, and a city administrator will be hired to oversee the bureaus.
Logistical complexities abound. For one, the current City Hall building, which was completed in 1895, doesn’t have a big enough chamber, or enough office space, to accommodate the expanded council.
“We would certainly have to hold City Council meetings in a different building,” Mapps said. “Literally, our City Hall building becomes obsolete.”
The measure will also implement a form of ranked choice voting known as single transferable vote. Under the system, ballots are counted in rounds with City Council candidates only needing 25% of the vote to win. If a candidate exceeds that threshold, their surplus votes are transferred to the next candidate ranked on each voter’s ballot. If no candidate receives 25% in the first round, the one with the fewest votes is eliminated and their votes are transferred to the next preferred candidate on each voter’s ballot.
Changing Portland’s charter had been on the ballot before — under city law, a 20-person commission must convene every 10 years to review it — and it had always failed to pass. But the most recent charter review process kicked off during the summer of 2020, as protests over the police killing of George Floyd erupted nightly on Portland’s streets and a nationwide reckoning with racism prompted conversations about making government more accountable and equitable.
The group that campaigned for the measure, Portland United for Change, said the new system could boost voter turnout and make government more representative. It highlighted the months of listening sessions held with historically marginalized communities and its endorsements from dozens of community groups, including local chapters of the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Opponents pointed out that no other U.S. city uses this specific voting system for multi-member districts in City Council elections. They also denounced the price tag: City Hall estimates the transition could cost up to $17.7 million over the next three years, and that ongoing costs could reach $8.7 million per year.
Critics say this money is sorely needed to address the city's most pressing problems, including homelessness and crime. Just two days after Election Day, Mayor Ted Wheeler requested $27 million from the City Council to help fund the construction of city-designated campsites for homeless people, after the council's recent vote to ban street camping and create sanctioned camping areas.
Portland United for Change recognized that public outreach and education explaining how the new system works will be vital in the months to come. But the group also pointed to the wide margin of support seen in returns so far as a sign that many voters are open to the changes.
“I think it just truly shows that it was powered by the people and for the people," said Sol Mora, the group's campaign manager. “It just feels so exciting to know that at a time when democracy is under attack across the nation, Portland is serving as a model of the type of representation that all communities can have.”
Under the measure, Portland will hold its first election using geographic districts and ranked-choice voting in November 2024, with the new City Council taking office in January 2025.
Claire Rush is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Claire on Twitter.