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.

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