Buzzword forecast for 2024: Slates.

Two national experts on why Portland should learn to love candidate slates.

Maja Viklands Harris Avatar
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For the first time, voters will have the opportunity to rank candidates, and the number of individuals vying for seats on City Council is expected to reach record levels.

Faced with an abundance of choices, how will Portlanders decide which candidates to support? Two national experts concur: Portland needs slates.

A booming candidate pool.

With the ink barely dry on Portland’s new district map, thirty-plus candidates are already in the mix for the 2024 council race.

Why are so many Portlanders running for office? There are a few reasons. First, there are a whopping twelve council seats up for grabs. Second, voters have repealed the existing government, effectively removing all officeholders, so there are no incumbents. Third, the switch to district-based elections makes running for office less challenging compared to citywide races.

The real game-changer, however, is Portland’s new voting method: Single Transferable Vote (STV). In 2024, STV will use voters’ rankings to elect the top three vote-getters in each council district. Instead of having separate races for each seat, all seats will be elected together. This means that the threshold to win a seat drops from a majority (50%+1) to just over a quarter of the vote (25%+1).

The ultimate goal of this reform is to give every Portlander a better chance of being represented by someone they actually support. For now, its most immediate effect is an ever-growing menu of candidate options.

So, the big question is: How will voters know whom to vote for?

Professor Michael Latner: “Portland needs slates.”

Rose City Reform decided to reach out to two national experts on electoral politics to ask how Portland voters can best make informed choices in the new system.

“The idea that you could leave it to voters to educate themselves on this vast number of candidates is ridiculous,” says Michael Latner, Professor of Political Science at California Polytechnic State University and a Senior Fellow at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy.

“The only way this is going to work is with slates.”

Slates are lists of candidates running together as a team to promote a shared agenda. In countries like Ireland and Australia, where STV has been in place for over a century, robust political parties recruit and organize slates, encouraging voters to rank all listed candidates to increase the party’s share of representation.

Should Portland follow their lead? Not so fast. Portland’s city elections are nonpartisan, which means there are no party labels tying candidates together – and no party machine to turn out the vote.

“If you don’t have strong parties, then you have to have some other organizing and coordinating mechanism,” says Latner, explaining that Portland’s political interest groups can play a similar role by endorsing candidates who commit to championing their priorities.

“That’s got to be the unions, the neighborhood associations – the people with a stake in the outcome. They need to take ownership of the system, start making decisions, and educate voters.”

Slates guide voters and help coalitions win.

The reason parties in STV systems rely on slates? Slates increase their chances of winning seats.

STV has a powerful perk: winning candidates get to pass on their surplus votes to voters’ second choices. What are surplus votes? With STV, there’s a certain amount of votes needed to get elected. If a candidate exceeds that threshold, their additional votes are equally distributed to voters’ second rankings. Naturally, parties want those vote transfers to happen between their own candidates, but that only works if voters rank accordingly. Slates are a way to guard against “vote leakage,” which happens when parties lose votes to each other.

A certain level of vote leakage is normal since voters may have nuanced political opinions. However, slates protect voters from unintentionally giving their vote to the opposition. The same is true in Portland’s nonpartisan elections, Latner says.

“If you’re not telling voters where to put their votes, you risk losing votes to another coalition, and then you’re undermining your constituents,” Latner says, adding that there are no hard and fast rules about how slates should be structured. Some organizers provide instructions to rank candidates in a certain order, while others leave the preference order up to voters themselves.

“The easiest way to get it wrong is to do nothing. Then, it just becomes about name recognition and about who can raise the most money,” Latner adds.

An example of a candidate slate in the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where all council candidates are elected via Single Transferable Vote.
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John Ketcham: Look to Cambridge for a case study.

John Ketcham is the Director of State and Local Policy at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank based in New York City.

“If you’re going to put the additional burden on voters by asking them to rank candidates, then you need to give them something to help guide their decision,” says Ketcham, who has proposed a reform that would allow candidates in New York’s ranked choice voting elections to include endorsements on the ballot.

“The idea is to encourage more local engagement and participation in politics because local groups can really move the dial for candidates,” he says.

Ketcham encourages Portland to look at Cambridge, Massachusetts, for a case study on how slates complement nonpartisan STV elections. In Cambridge, where STV was adopted over eighty years ago, slates have emerged under rubrics such as public transit and housing. Sometimes candidates appear on more than one slate, which Ketcham says can require a delicate balancing act once they are elected.

“Who’s willing to compromise on what, and what is a bright red line can be tricky. Slates aren’t as organized as parties, so coalitions tend to form as needed on an issue-by-issue basis. You have to be prepared for coalitions to shift and for the occasional strange bedfellows.”

First up, a progressive BIPOC slate?

Rose City Reform has spoken to a number of interest and advocacy groups about their plans for the 2024 election. Most are not yet ready to share their intentions regarding slates.

“My guess is slates will be important, especially with so many candidates on the ballot,” says Duncan Hwang, Community Development Director at the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO).

According to Hwang, APANO is already in talks with partner organizations about a collaborative effort to recruit and promote progressive candidates of color. Hwang, who currently serves as a Metro Councilor for District 6, notes that APANO influenced his own decision to seek office. Similarly, the organization played a role in giving Oregon the largest Vietnamese-American representation of any state legislature.

Now, Hwang says, it’s time to replicate that success on Portland City Council.

“Chinese Americans helped build Portland, but Asian-Americans have never had representation or political leadership on the council. The prospect of electing the first Asian-American city commissioner is really exciting.”

Slates may give moderates increased influence.
While no moderate interest groups agreed to comment for this article, John Ketcham – a conservative – thinks that Portland’s system presents an opportunity for moderate interests to form a coalition in a largely left-leaning city.

“I could see the emergence of a “Common Sense Caucus” of Republicans and moderate Democrats, like we have in New York City,” Ketcham predicts.

“City politics don’t necessarily bifurcate right or left like national politics, and Portland’s system may present an opportunity for the Republican Party to rebrand itself into something that’s more palatable to Portland voters, who have a lot of reasons to dislike the national brand.”

Professor Michael Latner says Portland deserves credit for its willingness to try something new in today’s bitterly polarized climate.

“The country is desperately looking for solutions to improve our democracy. I’m delighted that Portland has the courage to take the first step,” he concludes.