Fair Voting for Portland’s Street Fee

Tony Jordan is a software engineer by day, but a rabble rouser all of the time. He is particularly interested in seeing Shoupian parking policies in place on Portland’s streets. Tony has a BA in Politics from UC Santa Cruz and serves on the board of the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association as well as on several parking related stakeholder committees.

Since January 2014, Mayor Hales and Commissioner Novick have proposed a variety of ways charge the average Portland resident some amount between 90 and 150 dollars a year for road safety and maintenance.  None of the plans have been particularly popular with the public and it seems likely that any fee passed by council will be referred to the voters.

In the first week of the new year, Novick and Hales floated an “advisory vote” to take place in May 2015.  They will ask voters to choose the most palatable of an array of fee options.  It’s not yet certain what the options will be, but the list will probably include a progressive income tax, a local gas tax, some sort of property tax, and a flat monthly assessment.

With three to six official proposals on the ballot, there’s a good chance we’ll end up with a muddled mess of votes and no clear winner.  Indeed, Novick himself is “not sure a majority can agree on any particular solution” in the election.  Fortunately, there is more than one way to conduct an election and this non-binding hold-your-nose ballot is a perfect opportunity to try a different scheme.

Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) and Approval Voting (AV) are excellent fits for this type of poll.  In each system voters would be allowed to select multiple options from the ballot.  With IRV voters rank selections order of preference, with AV the voter simply selects any item they approve of.  We can avoid the chance of this election providing no real insight into the will of the people by adopting a system which will produce a clear winner.  Under an IRV system the first choices are tallied, if there is no clear winner the worst performing option is thrown out and those votes are given to their respective second choices.  The process continues until a winner is chosen.  AV is even simpler, the most “approved of” option wins, no runoff required.

Neither of these methods is particularly new.  AV has been used for centuries and IRV was devised in 1870 and is used all over the world.  In fact, IRV is used in Portland, Maine for mayoral elections!

Determining a clear winner is important, but perhaps an even better result of using AV or IRV is the ability to put more, and better, ideas on the ballot.  Novick says that a pseudo-gas tax based on income is “the best user fee [he] can come up with after a year.”  Perhaps he should pay a little more attention to his constituents.

Since the first town halls in February of 2014, constructive Portland citizens have proffered hundreds of suggestions on how to set and collect these fees.   PBOT seated three separate committees to brainstorm ideas and there are dozens of threads on blogs such as this full of suggestions.  At a June 2014 town hall, for example, transportation activist Jim Howell proposed a “triple nickel” solution consisting of a 5 cent local gas tax, a 5 cent commercial parking space tax, and a 5 cent per pound annual vehicle registration fee.  For whatever reason, Novick and Hales haven’t promoted compound ideas like these.  Other than a local gas tax, which has problems of it’s own, direct user fees have been notably absent from official proposals.

Let’s try a more fair voting system in May.  Expose the public to some innovative solutions and let us choose the best in a meaningful way.  It can’t be any more frustrating than the process we’ve endured already and perhaps an experience with IRV or AV will lead to their adoption in other elections as well.

Update: As noted in the comments, coverage by the Mercury suggests that one option Council is contemplating is a series of yes/no questions, which would be a form of Approval Voting.

21 responses to “Fair Voting for Portland’s Street Fee”

  1. Based on the Merc’s live blog of Fritz’s comments on Thursday, my interpretation was that the city is currently planning to put a bunch of separate yes-or-no issues on the ballot:

    “Fritz just clarified again that the plan in May is to refer several ballot items, not a list of suggestions on one ballot item.”

    Isn’t this basically the same as AV?

  2. The series of yes/no questions would be better if more than one option could “win.” If only one option can win, then each option will compete against every other option IN ADDITION to the yes/no preference of the voters. In other words, something that more than half of voters would support might not get a very high “yes” vote because of some voters giving it a “no” because they want another option to win.

    Instant runoff sounds like an interesting alternative option.

    • It’s unclear what would happen if more than one funding mechanism drew significant support.

      One option could be for city council to do them all at relatively lower rates. An advantage to that is starting out with multiple taxing mechanisms could increase the chance at least one survives a ballot referral. A disadvantage is that admin costs may not scale down (I’m thinking in particular of the income tax and anything fee-ish).

      Alternatively council could pick one from among the winners, but that could be contentious. Depending on which mechanisms did well I could see us being thrown back into gridlock.

      • Don’t worry, none of them will get any significant support. Voting no on everything will be the way most people send a message to the inept leadership at the City Council. These guys are a total embarrassment.

        • And yet they continue to be elected overwhelmingly.

          So perhaps the “embarrassment” is among those of you on the Right who continue to fling poo-poo on the walls in your entitled tantruming.

    • Approval Voting is much better than Instant Runoff Voting.

      > In other words, something that more than half of voters would support might not get a very high “yes” vote because of some voters giving it a “no” because they want another option to win.

      Look what can happen with IRV.

      Voting theory is incredibly counterintuitive. I highly recommend reading “Gaming the Vote” to get a solid foundation in this subject.

  3. A question on the property tax option. I assume that would apply to commercial as well as residential property, right? Would that then eliminate the need for a separate street fee on businesses?

  4. I believe that most citizens view this whole new tax thing as another attempt by the lovely city Of Portland to rip us off.

    This ‘select the tax option’ is a tricky way around having a real referendum on the issue.

    • I think your belief is somewhat correct (i.e. some voters suspect they are being taken for a ride), but what would a “real referendum” cover (as opposed to “pick the tax you want to pay” referendum)?

      • I suspect some folks would be happier if the list of choices included an option to divert general fund dollars to help close the transportation gap (a significant general fund contribution would require cuts to police, fire and parks).

        Commissioner Novick has suggested some general fund contributions (he frequently mentions Streetcar service, since in some ways that is a development expense), but Council has not seriously considered a major reallocation of general fund dollars toward transportation.

  5. The property tax angle is a bit thorny since some seniors & disabled residents have there property taxes paid via loan from the state. I read the application online.

  6. You are completely missing the point. Novick and Hales lack vision, the ability to clearly communicate and have zero leadership skills. They are at best policy wonks when the city craves for a leader.

    Here’s what I would do. I would publish a CLEAR list of what is to be built and paved with the tax. Then select a tax, any tax and put it on the ballot. I’m confident that if people were voting on a project rather than on a tax, the chance of passage would be strong. That’s leadership folks.

    What these fools are doing is doomed for failure. Their mistake is focusing on the tax and not what we get with it.

    • You have a good point. But then you open that old “neighborhood envy” can of worms. That’s not to say it isn’t appropriate to list the projects, just that it would cause a different set of complaints.

      Basically, nobody in modern day America wants to pay taxes for anything. Saint Ronnie convinced everyone that we can “trim” and “slim down government” so much that everything becomes free.

      It’s a happy delusion, but a delusion nonetheless.

  7. I’ve used approval voting for running clubs, where we have to pick the most popular 4 or 6 out of a large number of choices. (When deciding what projects the club will take on or what events we will run.) It is *extremely* effective. Everything else we’ve ever tried has caused acrimonious arguments over whether the voting really represented what people wanted.

    Approval voting makes it crystal clear what was most popular.

  8. PDC money is available in Lents, Gateway, North Portland (Interstate URA) to pay for sidewalks, safety improvements, bikeways or whatever else (but not maintenance)…if the case can be made that those expenditures will attract (leverage) private investment and stimulate economic growth. I think a first rate separated bikeway in the Williams corridor (Interstate URA) would do just that as well as the North Portland Greenway to and thru Swan Island (also Interstate URA).
    If Salem raises the gas tax, a portion will go to localities, and Portland can dedicate that to the maintenance backlog. Projects can be funded with SDCs, LIDs, and PDC TIF money.

  9. There are 7 ways we are going to take more of your money, pick one. How about we cut DOT Management Salaries 25%? They are admitting with this execs, that they did not do their jobs.

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