Multimember Districts

In November this year, Portland will hold its first district-based council elections in over a hundred years. This marks the end of Portland’s status as the last major U.S. city without district representation on its city council.

Council districts are not entirely new to Portland. Before 1913, the city was divided into ten wards, each electing one representative. Five additional representatives also served the city at-large. However, in 1913, a sweeping reform measure reduced the council to five members, wiped out the ward system, and began electing all council members through citywide elections.

Portlanders greenlighted the return to districts in 2022 by passing a reform measure that undid the bulk of the 1913 reforms. Approved by 58% of voters, it required Portland to be divided into four separate voting districts, each electing three representatives to City Hall.

A system of neighborhood representation.

The task of drawing Portland’s new district map fell to the Independent District Commission, a volunteer body consisting of Portlanders from all areas of the city. In August 2023, the District Commission agreed on a map based on neighborhood boundaries. District 1 encompasses East Portland, while District 2 is made up of northeast neighborhoods. District 3 contains most of central and southeast Portland, and District 4 covers all neighborhoods west of the river as well as the Reed, Woodstock, and Sellwood-Moreland neighborhoods east of the river.

The shift to district-based representation is expected to have the most profound effect on East Portland, which comprises neighborhoods east of 82nd Avenue. This portion of the city, annexed in the 1980s, has historically lagged behind other areas in public services and infrastructure investments. Likewise, East Portland has traditionally had less of a voice on the council, with only two city commissioners calling it home since the area became part of the city. The new system ensures that voters in East Portland will always have three representatives on the city council.

Does proportional representation elect fringe candidates?

A common concern regarding proportional representation is that by lowering the threshold to be elected, the system might invite fringe voices into the legislative body. Fringe voices, or political extremists, are typically defined as politicians whose views diverge significantly from those of the median voter.

The election threshold is the minimum percentage of votes a candidate needs to win a seat. In single-member districts, this threshold is a majority—50% plus one vote. In Portland’s new district-based system, the threshold is set at 25% plus one vote in each district. While this is lower than the threshold in single-member districts, it applies to a much larger population and a more extensive geographic area than if it had been a single-member district.

According to Multnomah County, Portland has 457,047 registered voters, with an average of approximately 114,000 voters in each district. A 25% vote share equals about 28,500 votes. Considering Portland’s expected turnout rate of 70-80%, candidates must secure between 20,000 and 22,800 votes to win a seat. This substantial number of votes suggests that candidates need broad community support to be elected, likely limiting the influence of fringe voices.

District models: A comparison.

If Portland had instead been divided into twelve single-member districts, where the election threshold would be a majority, candidates would have needed between 13,300 and 15,200 votes to secure a seat. In a system with eight single-member districts, the election threshold would be almost identical to that of four three-seat districts: between 20,000 and 22,850 votes.

Under typical circumstances, Portland’s districts will elect representatives with support from a relatively broad base. Exceptions might arise in scenarios where few candidates participate in the race or if turnout significantly deviates from the norm—factors more closely tied to the political climate than the specific representation model.

The 2024 city election is expected to see both record turnout and a record number of council candidates. Only time will reveal how voter turnout and candidate participation evolve within the new system.

Multimember districts are harder to gerrymander.

As cities grow and evolve, the boundaries of city council districts sometimes need to change. In cities with single-member districts, this process is often contentious. Since the largest voting group receives all the representation, redistricting efforts have important implications for the voting majority within a district. Sometimes, district boundaries can be purposefully manipulated to boost or diminish the voting power of specific communities—an illegal practice known as gerrymandering.

Multimember districts, with their multiple representatives and broader geographic and demographic reach, make district boundaries less consequential for voting groups within the district. Moreover, as a district’s population grows, multimember districts offer the option to simply add seats rather than redrawing the entire district map.

As Portland settles into its new representation model, district boundaries and the ideal number of seats will likely continue to be topics of robust community discussion.