Mercury Staff

You may have heard that Portland has an outdated style of city government. You might not know just how outdated it is.

Of the 30 largest American cities, Portland is the only one that still uses a commission form of government in which a small group of city commissioners are responsible for both acting as the city’s legislative body and running its bureaus.

“World War I was when people started moving away from this and towards a different system,” said Jay Lee, a research associate at the Sightline Institute, a Northwest sustainability think tank. “It’s been like one hundred years.”

Lee is not exaggerating. Even Galveston, Texas, the city that invented the commission system of government after a deadly hurricane flattened the coastal city in 1900, abandoned it more than sixty years ago.

Historically, Portlanders have rejected attempts to move the city away from the commission form of government. Portland adopted the commission system in 1913, and by 1917, citizens were rejecting ballot measures to abolish it. In 2007, the last time such a ballot measure came up, more than 76 percent of voters chose to keep the current system instead of moving to a new one.

But this year, there appears to be real momentum for change. The Portland city charter is up for review, and the charter review commission is considering recommending a host of changes both to the city’s system of government and how it elects its city officials.

The mayor and all current city commissioners want to change, as do some 70 percent of voters and a host of influential organizations—including the City Club of Portland, which commissioned a report three years ago urging Portland to make sweeping changes to its city government and elections.

Moving away from the commission style of government could usher in widespread changes to how Portland is governed. It could also, notably, change the composition of the city council.

Currently, Portland elects its mayor and four city commissioners in citywide, or “at-large” elections—a system that gives every Portlander the opportunity to vote in every city council election. That is a necessity in the commission format, Lee said, because the commissioners have to run citywide bureaus.

But that system, too, has fallen out of favor in recent years. Over the last decade, several cities comparable to Portland in size and political ideology have shifted away from electing citywide to district-based elections for city councilors. Seattle made the change to electing a majority of its councilors from geographic districts in 2013, while Austin made the move to districts a year later.

In both cities, journalists and observers say that the change has increased the diversity of their city councils—in ideological, racial, gender, and economic terms.

One of the biggest reasons why is that the power of the city’s median voter—which in places like Austin, Seattle, and Portland tends to be center-left, white, and older—has been diluted.

“We’ve gone from having one median voter to eleven median voters,” Austin public policy advocate Julio Gonzalez Altamirano said. “That change means that the people that all of the sudden can have a voice at city council have changed. So the introduction of more seats elected from more diverse [electorates].”

Both Seattle and Austin have elected socialist council members since the change to districts, while Austin now has a Republican on its council as well. In mayoral elections, which are still contested citywide, relatively moderate candidates have continued to fare well.

It’s not just that the influence of the median voter has been diluted in district elections. Because it is significantly cheaper for candidates to run campaigns in smaller districts than across the entire city, the influence of wealthy campaign donors has been limited as well.

“You don’t necessarily need to be independently wealthy or connected to wealthy people,” said Crystal Fincher, a King County-based political consultant. “If you have a passionate group of volunteers, they can doorbell and make phone calls, and you can actually reach a high percentage of voters in a district and talk to people and get your message out.”

That has been significant in Seattle, where Amazon has poured money into city council races to try to boost pro-business candidates at the expense of progressives and had, at best, mixed results. There has been a similar movement in Austin.

“In the at-large council days, you certainly had council members who had different views on development and growth, but every council member back then had a very keen interest in not upsetting certain neighborhoods,” said Jack Craver, a political journalist based in Austin.“[Now], they don’t have to really worry about backlash from residents in the wealthiest neighborhoods in Austin.”

Since moving to district elections, communities who have not traditionally been able to access and accumulate wealth have been better represented on council—as have women and mothers. So have communities of color, though Lee said that, given Portland’s demographics, it would not be possible to draw a majority-Black, Latino, or Asian American district in the city.

The cumulative effect in Seattle, Fincher said, is a council more attuned to the needs of people who have historically struggled to make their voices heard in city government.

“On a citywide basis, the types of things we’re talking about today are very different from the conversations we’ve had before,” Fincher said. “That [is] driven by people being in closer proximity to people who are struggling and… demanding [councilors] respond to the things that are causing them anxiety and despair and challenges in their lives.”

The move to districts has, in effect, made politics more local—giving residents of different neighborhoods, particularly under-resourced neighborhoods, a clear line directly to city hall.

“There is definitely complete clarity about who is responsible for neighborhood issues now, whereas before, it was not always clear who your neighborhood rep was,” Gonzalez Altamirano said. “Now it is completely clear which elected official is in charge of public improvement in an area, development consultation in an area, infrastructure accountability in an area.”

Gonzalez Altamirano said that much of the long-term impact of Austin’s change to districts remains to be seen. But the new city councils, he said, have been quick to implement changes where their predecessors had been slower.

“What we can say is that there has been an increase in tempo and working majorities between left-center and center-right,” he said. “You’re adding responsiveness, for sure, but to do the responsiveness, you have to tolerate some volatility.”

But in Portland and in cities across the country, it is not just a question of moving from at-large elections to district-based elections. It’s also a question of when those elections are held and how people vote for their favored candidates.

When Austin changed from citywide to district elections, it also pushed back its city council primaries from the spring to November, where they now coincide with federal elections. The result has been a higher rate of participation, another change that has, to a certain extent, democratized the process.

“You had this at-large council that was elected by this tiny May electorate, and the electorate just looked nothing like the city—it was so much older, so much whiter, so much more affluent,” Craver said. “The city council was citywide, but these affluent neighborhoods had a disproportionate impact”

Portland is weighing whether to move its city council elections from May to November as well—a change that could coincide with a move to ranked-choice voting or STAR voting, where voters would have the opportunity to rank multiple candidates by preference instead of voting for only one. The charter commission is also considering expanding the size of the council.

These potential changes, from the system of government to the way city councilors are elected, could have a bigger impact on shaping Portland’s future than any single election or elected official.

Proposed charter amendments that three quarters of the charter review commission approve of will be referred to the November ballot, while amendments that between half and three quarters of the commission approve of will be sent to city council, which can then vote to refer them to the ballot. The commission is currently taking public comment.

“We are in a bit of a political moment where I think people are seeing some of the cracks in the way we have done it for a while,” said Lee,”and that just because this is what we have done for so long, doesn’t mean that it is the best way to address the problems Portland is facing right now.”