Oregon Democrats and Republicans Disagree on Many Points but Both Used Ranked-Choice Voting at Party Summits

The outcomes of the straw polls are less interesting than the method, which activists hope to bring to Portland elections.

At both the Republicans’ Dorchester Conference a week ago and the Democratic Party Summit yesterday at Sunriver, party insiders conducted straw polls using ranked-choice voting, a form of picking winners that some elections experts hope will replace the more typical first-past-the-post style of voting.

Both parties experimented with RCV, as adherents call it, for the first time. The results—long-shot GOP candidate Marc Thielman got the most votes for governor at Dorchester, while former House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) got the most in Sunriver—don’t really signify much because only a few hundred ballots were cast.

But the fact that insiders of both parties were willing to experiment with RCV is significant. Currently in Oregon, Benton County voters are the only ones who have chosen to employ RCV, but it’s in place in many jurisdictions around the country, including New York City.

Rather than just voting for one candidate, voters rank their choices in order of preference. If, on the first tally, no candidate gets a majority, the candidate with the fewest top-choice votes is eliminated. The people who chose the eliminated candidate as their first choice then have their votes go to their second choice candidate. The votes are tallied again, and the lowest-ranking candidate eliminated until one candidate gets a majority.

Advocates say that RCV encourages participation, reduces voters’ feelings that their vote doesn’t count, and discourages the practice of candidates running as spoilers. (Opinions are mixed about whether it was successful in last year’s New York mayoral race.)

“In our current system, many good candidates are discouraged from running for fear of splitting the vote,” said Mike Alfoni, executive director of Oregon Ranked Choice Voting Advocates. “RCV is the solution—giving voters more choice and making it easier for more representative candidates to run.”

Portland voters may get a chance to make up their own minds on RCV this November: The 20-member Charter Review Commission unanimously recommended switching to that model of voting. The panel’s recommendations are undergoing legal review and there will be a series of public hearings on RCV and other proposals in May before a City Council vote on the proposed reforms in the summer.