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Frequently Asked Questions: Recent Changes to Portland Election Code

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Woman and dog with thumbs up next to drive-by Multnomah County ballot box
On April 19, 2023, Portland City Council voted to amend City Code Elections Code 2.08 to ensure implementation of voter-approved Charter amendments. The information below will help Portlanders understand the impact of the amendment
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1. Why is the elections code being updated?

A:  The changes align City of Portland code language with the newly adopted changes to the City Charter. According to the charter language, Portland City Council must adopt an election code for the administration of ranked-choice voting. These changes will allow our election partners in county elections offices time to prepare for a November 2024 election, including having voting system software updated and certified by the State of Oregon.

2. What changes to the City of Portland election code were approved on April 19, 2023?

A:  The changes include:

  • Eliminating a primary for candidate elections.
  • In 2025, special elections will no longer be used to fill vacancies.
  • Establishing ranked-choice voting to elect the mayor, the auditor, and the 12 councilors.
  • Providing a system for write-in candidates to certify their candidacy seven days prior to the election.
  • Adding important definitions to improve clarity.
  • Removing redundant sections, shortening language, or converting sections to an administrative rule to streamline the code.

3. How were the changes developed?

A:  A working group made up of representatives from the City Transition team, City Attorney’s Office, City Auditor’s Office, Multnomah County Elections Division and the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center collaborated on the development of a draft election code that would pair best practices with the desired outcomes of the Charter Commission.

Then, the City Transition team initiated stakeholder engagement outreach.  The draft code was posted to the website and presented to stakeholders and the community to obtain feedback and public comment. A community listening session was held, staff presentations were made at community meetings, and online comments were collected with the purpose of obtaining feedback about the proposed code amendments and voter education needs. This collaborative effort resulted in the final version of the proposed code language that was submitted to the City Council for consideration and adoption.

4. Are the four geographic districts that will be used for electing the expanded city council specified in the code?

A:  No. The districting process is managed by the community-led Independent District Commission. Visit the commission’s website for more information about the districting process and how to submit comments.

5. What is the Multnomah County Elections Division’s role during elections?

A:  State statute specifies that counties are responsible for conducting elections. Each county conducts all local, city, county, state, and federal elections for the voters of all political districts within the respective county.

6. What is the City of Portland’s Elections Office’s role during elections?

A:  The City of Portland provides candidate education, receives and processes candidate filings, and refers qualified candidates to Multnomah County for inclusion on upcoming ballots. Once tabulation is completed by the County, Portland City Council certifies those results and provides each elected candidate with a certificate. The City also administers its own campaign finance program and offers periodic voter education campaigns. If the code amendments are adopted by City Council, the City will also certify write-in candidates.

7. What about the voter experience is changing?

Illustration of a sample green ranked-choice voting ballot with 6 columns, six candidates

A:  The biggest change for voters is that they will be able to rank candidates in order of preference for City contests. Filed candidates and spaces for write-in candidates will be listed in a grid, and the voter can rank up to six of the candidates for each contest. Also, for city candidate contests, there will be no primary election. Candidates will be elected in general elections in November of even years. Voters will still receive their ballot and return it by mail or in a drop box. The ballot will look something like the image on the right.

8. Will the updated City elections code affect voters’ opportunity to resolve ballot signature issues?

A:  No. Ballots that are challenged because of signature issues may still be resolved up to 21 days after Election Day.

9. What are other jurisdictions that have similar systems?

A:  According to FairVote, a non-partisan organization that maintains a database of communities  that have adopted ranked-choice voting,  ranked-choice voting has been adopted by more than 60 jurisdictions across the country, and it is becoming popular as more jurisdictions consider this new voting method.

The Charter amendments adopted in 2022 provide that elections for mayor and auditor will be conducted by a form of ranked-choice voting known as instant runoff voting.  In Oregon, the instant runoff form of ranked-choice voting is used in Benton County. Corvallis started using it in 2022 for races with three or more candidates. Multnomah County will start using the instant runoff form of ranked-choice voting in 2026.  

In addition, the 2022 Charter amendments provide that Councilors will be elected by a form of ranked-choice voting known as single transferable vote. This is sometimes called proportional ranked-choice voting. Single Transferable Vote, is currently used in five jurisdictions, including Cambridge, MA, and Minneapolis, MN. Additional jurisdictions have adopted Single Transferable Vote, but, like Portland, they are in the process of transitioning to ranked-choice voting.

10. What is the Instant Runoff form of ranked-choice voting?

A:  Instant runoff RCV is used to elect one seat, for example a mayor, governor, or president. In a single-winner RCV contest, a candidate who receives more than half of the first choices wins, just like in any other election. However, if there is no majority winner after counting the first choices, the race is decided by an instant runoff.

The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and voters who ranked that candidate as their first choice will have their votes transferred to their next choice. This process continues until a candidate receives more than half of the votes in a round of counting.

11. What is the Single Transferable Vote form of ranked-choice voting?

A:  The Single Transferable Vote form of ranked-choice voting can be used in elections for multiple seats. What is unique is that when there are multiple seats, a candidate needs fewer votes to win than in a single-winner election. The number of votes, or the threshold, needed to win is determined by the number of seats to be filled. Any candidate that crosses the threshold is declared elected. If a candidate gets more votes than they need to win, those additional votes are proportionally distributed to the next candidate ranked on each of those ballots. If no candidate gets enough votes to win, the candidate in last place is eliminated. Voters who ranked that candidate as their top choice will have their votes transferred to their next choice. These steps continue until all seats are filled.

12. When will the election results be released?

A:  As usual, Multnomah County will begin releasing unofficial results starting at 8 p.m. on election night and will continue updating results as it processes ballots throughout the certification period. Oregon law allows valid mail ballots to be received up to seven days after the election and challenged ballots to be cured up to 21 days after election day. Results will be certified as final no later than 27 days after the election.

13. What is the City of Portland’s plan for voter education?

A: As required by the City Charter, the City will coordinate a voter education campaign. The voter education efforts will ensure that voters have the information they need to specify their candidate preferences and use the new grid-style ballot to rank candidates. The City launched a request for proposals to design a voter education program and support for hard-to-reach voters that may need additional information to rank candidates.

The program will focus on educating Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color, immigrants and refugees, seniors, people with disabilities, Portland’s minority language communities, unhoused and housing insecure residents, and neighborhoods with turnout below the city’s average. The City of Portland recognizes that other residents may also benefit from focused outreach, like first-time voters.

14. What are the best practices for designing voter education for ranked-choice voting elections?

A: The Center for Civic Design is a leading organization in the design and implementation of voter education for ranked-choice voting.  They recommend that voter education campaigns:

  • Give voters the information they need to prepare to vote. Voters need voter education materials in advance that explain the concept of ranked-choice voting clearly so they can make confident choices on their ballots. 
  • Present all information in plain language to speak clearly to voters with different reading and civic literacy levels. Ranked-choice voting can seem complicated, so making the information simple is essential.
  • Give the right amount of information at the right time to prevent voter confusion.
  • Repeat essential messages across voting materials. Voter education and ballot instructions support each other.
  • Explain why and when ranked-choice voting will begin. Voters want to know when their voting experience will change and why.
  • Use illustrations and visuals to support written explanations of how ranked-choice voting works. Visual instructions help all voters, especially those with lower literacy.
  • Give voters opportunities to practice ranked-choice voting using interactive tools. Practicing a new way of voting before the election is an effective method of voter education for all ages.
  • Work with qualified translators to create in-language materials. Don’t assume that plain language in English translates into plain language in another language.
  • Make sure to test your materials with voters.

Visit this link for more information about the Center for Civic Design’s work.

15. How will the City select the partners to perform voter education?

A:  A Selection Review Committee of people with experience with voter education will be appointed to evaluate responses to a request for proposals. For the purpose of scoring proposals, the Selection Review Committee will evaluate each proposal in accordance with the criteria listed in the request for proposals.

16. What is the fiscal impact to the City of Portland from revisions to the elections code?

A: The fiscal impacts fall into two categories, the administration of elections, and the education required for both voters and candidates running for election. The software used to design and count ballots will need to be updated for ranked-choice voting. Ranked choice voting also requires centralized tabulation of ballots. The three counties where Portlanders live – Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas counties – are working to coordinate administration of elections using ranked-choice voting for City of Portland contests. With ranked-choice voting, the ballots are expected to be longer, which will increase the cost of ballots for the counties administering the elections.

The City elections office will need increased staffing to administer the candidate filing process, and the regulation of campaign finance, lobbying and political consulting. Given the increase in the number of seats available for election, the overall workload of administering elections will also increase. The fiscal impact on the elections office is still unfolding.

The City will need to create voter education materials and is required to invest in voter education efforts overall to ensure that voters can successfully use their ballots.  Additionally, the City will need to increase our investment in candidate education and create new user guides and training to support candidates running for office.

17. What about write-in candidates, skipped rankings and ties?

Less than six rankings: When the total number of filed candidates and write-in lines for a contest is less than six, the number of available rankings will equal that total, unless the voting equipment can only accommodate a lower number of rankings. For example, in a mayoral contest with three filed candidates, a voter may rank up to four candidates (three filed candidates plus one write-in candidate).  

Write-in candidates: Voters may rank write-in candidates. Voters are given as many write-in lines as there are seats to fill in the contest. For example, in a contest to fill three councilor seats in the same district, voters will be provided three write-in candidate lines. 

Skipped Rankings: In the event of a skipped ranking, the voter’s vote is transferred to the next highest-ranked active candidate on the voter’s ballot after the skipped ranking, if any.  

Overvote: If a ballot contains an overvote, the voter’s vote is transferred to the next highest-ranked active candidate on the voter’s ballot, if any.

Inactive Ballots and Undervotes:  In any round of tabulation, an inactive ballot does not count for any candidate. An undervote does not count as an active or inactive ballot in any round of tabulation. 

Elimination Ties: If two or more candidates are tied with the fewest votes in a round, and tabulation cannot continue until the candidate with the fewest votes is defeated, then the candidate to be defeated is determined by lot by the county elections officer or officers responsible for tabulating the contest. The result of the tie resolution must be recorded and reused in the event of a recount.