NW Policy Blog Has Good Ideas for Oregon Elections

The outstanding Northwest public policy think tank called “The Sightline Institute” (formerly Northwest Environment Watch) has a writer, Kristin Eberhard, who has been on fire lately with an extended exploration of problems in our democratic process, most particularly those in elections.

Last time, I explained how the rise of independent voters and the popularity of party outsiders Sanders and Trump show that American voters want more options, and how the path to change in the United States is through the individual states themselves. Here, I describe a few ways Oregon and Washington could do what New Zealand did: switch from winner-take-all voting to proportional representation voting. By making the switch, Oregon and Washington could spark a movement towards proportional representation in federal elections, too.

Different paths lead to proportional representation. Below are a few configurations, of many possible variations, that Oregon and Washington could consider.

Oregon House: Ranked-choice voting

Article II, Section 16 of Oregon’s Constitution specifically authorizes proportional representation through ranked-choice voting (however, the legislature would have to change election law to implement it). With ranked-choice voting, voters aren’t limited to marking one box for one candidate, but instead are free to express their preference for their first, second, and third (or more) choices by ranking their candidates in order. In single-winner races, like Governor or Mayor, ranked-choice voting is often called Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) because a single ballot simulates a runoff by letting voters indicate who they would vote for in a runoff if their first choice had been eliminated.

In multi-winner races like legislatures or city councils, ranked-choice voting is called Single-Transferable Vote (STV) because voters have just one vote, but their vote can get reassigned to their second choice if their first choice is eliminated or has surplus votes. Legislative candidates run in multi-winner districts, and the top vote-getters in each district win seats. In a three-member district with ranked-choice voting, a third-party candidate can win a seat if more than a quarter of voters support her. Winner-take-all voting makes a third-party candidate with such strong support a spoiler, not a winner.

The Australian Senate, Ireland, Cambridge, Massachusetts, City Council, and other place use STV to achieve proportional representation. Here is an example of a hypothetical ranked-choice ballot for four councilors in Whatcom County:

And here’s how Oregon could adopt ranked-choice proportional representation for the state legislature:

  • A 90-member single-chamber legislature: Combine the 60-member state House and 30-member state Senate to create one 90-member unicameral legislature, like Nebraska has had for almost 100 years. (The Republican who pushed for a single legislature in Nebraska reasoned that the two-house system was outdated, inefficient, and unnecessary. It made no sense, he said, for two bodies of elected officials to do the same thing twice.)
  • 30 districts, with 3 representatives per district: Each of 30 legislative districts (the current Senate districts would suffice) elects three legislators to the new, single-chamber legislature. District representatives speak for the interests of their geographic areas and the values of their preferred party or parties.
  • Ranked-choice open primaries: All candidates for the three district seats run against each other in a single pool in each district. In the open primary, voters rank candidates in order of preference, regardless of the voter’s party affiliation. The top six vote-getters in each district advance to the general.
  • Ranked-choice general elections: In the general, voters rank the six district candidates in order of preference. The top three vote-getters in each district win seats.
  • Who wins: The three candidates with the most votes win the three district seats. Each district would likely send representatives from at least two different parties to Salem. Third-party candidates with sufficient support would win, and unusual candidates, such as rural progressives and urban conservatives, could also win seats, creating bridges and alliances across parties. Voters of all stripes would likely have at least one district representative who reflects their political views.

For example, metropolitan Portland districts might elect a Democrat, a Working Families Party candidate, and a Republican. Rural Oregon districts might elect a Republican, an Independent, and a Democrat. Or two Republicans and one Democrat. Ranked-choice voting would empower voters to choose their real favorite—even a third-party candidate—without fear of throwing their vote away; if their favorite candidate gets eliminated, their vote is not wasted. Rather, it gets reassigned to their second-choice candidate. Ranked-choice voting could open up new avenues for deal-making in the legislature, too, as members of the Independent Party and the Working Families Party win seats alongside Democrats and Republicans, and as legislators from the same district but different parties work together to represent their diverse constituents.

Oregon: Mixed-member proportional voting

Several countries, including Bolivia, Germany, New Zealand, Scotland, and Wales, use Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting, and Canada is considering it. MMP, a hybrid system, might be attractive to former winner-take-all countries such as New Zealand, Scotland, Wales, and Canada, because it retains the familiar winner-take-all vote and adds a party list vote to reach an overall proportional legislature. Each voter gets two votes: one for her favorite candidate, regardless of party, and one for her favorite party. Here is an example of an MMP ballot: ((credit: Mt Holyoke Proportional Representation Library)

And here’s how Oregon might do it:

  • A 50-member single-chamber legislature: Combine the 60-member state House and 30-member state Senate, and reduce the number of members to create one 50-member legislature.
  • 30 districts, with 1 representative per district: Each of 30 legislative districts (the current Senate districts would suffice) elects one legislator to the new, single-chamber legislature. District representatives speak for the interests of their geographic areas and the values of their preferred party.
  • Plus 20 statewide party representatives: 20 statewide party representatives round out the 50-member legislature. Statewide legislators speak not for any particular locality but for the broader philosophy, values, and priorities of the party.
  • No primaries: Parties decide which candidates to run.
  • Two votes: Voters get two votes: one for their favorite local district candidate and one for their favorite party.
  • Who wins the district seats: Voters elect one legislator from each Senate district in the same winner-take-all way voters currently elect senators. The two major parties will likely dominate the 30 local district races.
  • Who wins the statewide party seats: Voters’ party preferences determine how many statewide seats each party gets. Parties appoint enough statewide representatives to “true up” the legislature, ensuring each party holds the same proportion of total seats in the legislature —both district and statewide seats—as the proportion of votes the party won. If 40 percent of voters prefer the Democratic Party, then Democrats would hold 20 seats (40 percent of the 50-member legislature). MMP would empower smaller Oregon parties to obtain seats in proportion to their statewide popularity, even if they can’t win the winner-take-all district races.

For example, imagine that Oregon adopted MMP and the same parties won the same district seats as held Oregon Senate seats in 2015: 18 Democrats and 12 Republicans.

Now imagine that sixteen percent of voters chose the Independent Party with their second, statewide party vote. The Independent Party would appoint eight legislators (16 percent of the 50-member legislature) to represent statewide Independent Party values. If 4 percent of voters chose the Working Families Party, the party would appoint two legislators (4 percent of the 50-member legislature), to represent Working Families Party values.

If Democrats won 44 percent of the party vote, they would appoint four statewide representatives on top of their 18 district seats to reach a total of 22 representatives (44 percent of the 50-member legislature). Republicans, with 36 percent of the party vote, would appoint six statewide representatives on top of their 12 district representatives to reach a total of 18 (36 percent of the 50-member legislature).

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

Washington House: Open list voting

Many countries, including Austria, Norway, Switzerland, and Japan, use open list voting and enjoy more parties and a more representative government. An open list ballot is somewhat similar to what Americans are used to—voters mark one box for their favorite candidate. However, candidates run in multi-member districts, they are listed on the ballot according to party, and a vote counts for both the candidate and the party.

Here is an example of an open list ballot (credit: Mt Holyoke Proportional Representation Library)

Here’s how Washington might adopt open list voting for the state House:

  • Resize the two legislative houses: Reduce the 49-member state Senate to 33 members; increase the state House from 98 to 99 members. Each of the 33 new legislative districts elects one senator and three representatives, compared to one and two from 49 districts at present.
  • 33 districts, with 1 Senator and 3 representatives per district: Voters elect 33 Senators in the same winner-take-all way they do now. Each legislative district also elects three representatives to the state House. House representatives speak for the interests of their geographic district and the values of their preferred party. Each district would likely send representatives from at least two different parties to Olympia.
  • One vote for Senator: Senate elections work exactly like they do now.
  • One vote for House representative: Candidates for the House are listed by party, with up to three candidates per party per district. Voters cast one vote for their favorite district candidate. They may select from any party’s candidates, regardless of voters’ own party affiliation.
  • Who wins: Senate elections work exactly as they do now. In the House, parties win seats in proportion to votes for candidates from their party, and candidates within the party win based on how many people voted for them.

Because each district would elect three representatives on a proportional basis, instead of one representative on a plurality basis, as they do now, minority voters could finally make their votes count. For example, imagine that in a particular district, all Libertarian Party candidates together won 30 percent of the vote (last year Libertarians won nearly a third of the votes in four different Washington districts, but no seats), and all Republicans won 60 percent. That district would send the two most popular Republicans and the one most popular Libertarian to Olympia.

In another district, say Independent candidates won 26 percent (independent candidates made good showings in two Washington districts last election but won no seats), Republicans won 34 percent, and Democrats won 40 percent. That district would elect the most popular Independent, the most popular Republican, and the most popular Democrat, in accordance with its voters’ preferences.

The roughly one-third of voters in Washington’s 15th District who prefer Democrats have probably been feeling thwarted by the election process as they see Republican after Republican supposedly representing them. With open list voting, though, that area of the state would likely elect two Republicans and one Democrat, finally giving voice to rural progressives. Voters would have more voice, and district representatives would reflect the diversity of their district, not just the plurality.

Northwest and national opportunities

Winner-take-all voting makes it all but impossible for parties outside the Democrats and Republicans to thrive, because no one wants to waste her vote on a third-party spoiler. But by adopting one of the above voting systems (or some other variation), Oregon and Washington could better serve the diverse interests of their voters. By giving voice to more voters, these Northwest states could set an example to inspire other states, perhaps helping spur a national transition to voting systems that more accurately reflects the political diversity of the American electorate.

(Reprinted with kind permission of Sightline)