Innovation, not supression, benefits Oregon voters
Not in our shared lifetimes have Americans seen the level of voter suppression currently underway in this country.
In the wake of the 2020 presidential election, a tsunami of bills have washed across our nation's state capitals, mostly fixated on making it more difficult to cast an absentee ballot or qualify as a voter.
The Brennan Center for Justice, a bipartisan law and policy institute, is reporting that as of March 2021, 361 bills aimed at voter suppression had been filed by legislators in 47 states. The biggest offenders are no surprise — Texas with 49 bills, Georgia with 25, and Arizona with 23.
At a time when our country is searching for the big answers that ensure each citizen has equal voice and opportunity in the democratic process, these shameful bills attempt to make it more difficult for people to count — particularly people of color, the elderly, college students and people with disabilities.
Thankfully, we live in a state where we celebrate voting rights and stand apart as an example to the rest of the country. Oregon was the first state to pass comprehensive vote-by-mail in 1998, setting an example that would spread to other states. In 2010, Oregon launched online voter registration. And in 2015, Gov. Kate Brown signed the "Motor Voter" bill that automates voter registration through the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles.
Oregon's Democrat-controlled Legislature did not allow the introduction of voter suppression bills (one of just three states to stand up to the pressure to do otherwise) in the recently ended legislative session. Instead, lawmakers passed an "expansion" bill, House Bill 3291, that will allow ballots postmarked on election day to count if county elections officials receive them within seven days.
Closer to home, the citizens of Troutdale are putting a stop to the circus of contentious elections by changing the way they select their city councilors. Rather than creating contested races for individual seats, council candidates now run as one large slate. Every two years, council candidates will run for the three seats en masse, and the top three vote-getters are elected. No more head-to-head races, and no more unopposed candidates. Troutdale will use this new system for the first time in 2022.
But Troutdale isn't a groundbreaker with this form of local elections. Estacada and other municipalities have been successfully electing their city councils via the slate method for decades.
The advantage of the slate method is that candidates must sell voters on their own merits, rather than tearing down other candidates in head-to-head slug fests.
But we think Oregon can do even more.
While the rest of the country is working to roll back voter rights, Oregonians should continue to think big with innovations that strengthen voter choices. One such method is known as "ranked-choice voting," which is beginning to take root in communities all across the nation. New York City debuted ranked-choice voting in its recent mayoral race. The system confused some voters, as you might expect of any new system, and it raised concerns over historic corruption within the city's Board of Elections. Despite the growing pains, it's worth trying.
Like the slate system, ranked-choice voting reduces negative campaigning by forcing candidates to run on their own merits and build coalitions with other like-minded candidates. It has the advantage of giving voters greater influence over those who are elected.
Here's how it works:
• At election time, voters rank all candidates (or just their favorites) for a given office by preference on their ballots. If any candidate wins an outright majority (50% plus one), that person wins the election.
• If, on the other hand, no candidate gains an outright majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated.
• All ballots for which that candidate was the top choice are "re-cast," with their second choices counted for the other candidates.
• A new tally is conducted to determine whether any candidate has won an outright majority of the adjusted voters.?
• The process continues until one candidate rises to the top with a majority of votes cast.
Ranked-choice voting has been used in Benton County since 2020 and a report by the City Club of Portland last year concluded that ranked-choice voting would make elections in Portland more equitable and ensure, and that voters have more of a say in the final outcome. The report noted that after Minneapolis, another majority-white big city, adopted a form of ranked-choice voting in 2006, diversity on the city council has increased.
While other states are battling over the preservation of voters' rights, we encourage Oregonians to keep the pressure on elected leaders to consider innovations such as these that provide even greater latitude for voters.
Collectively, Oregonians are worn out by negative campaigns and weary of contested races that frequently offer little or no choice between inexperienced and objectionable candidates. Ranked-choice and slate voting change that paradigm.
Let's continue to do everything possible in Oregon to keep voters in the drivers' seat.
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