Accountability and Preference Voting in Eugene, Oregon

PR Initiative Campaign Seeks 1996 Vote         Kevin Hornbuckle

        The Campaign for Representative Democracy has launched an initiative campaign to adopt preference voting for city council elections. After collecting signatures in the fall of 1995, the campaign seeks a vote by the people in 1996.
        Our campaign for preference voting is based on the need for better representation. Recent history has shown repeatedly that the Eugene city council is out of touch with the needs of the people in our city. As in all cities, there is of course the need for an electoral system which will produce a representative city council. But because we believe that preference voting alone would not suffice in reforming representative government in Eugene, we have addressed several additional issues in our initiative.
        Additional factors that play a decisive role include: lack of pay for city councilors; domination of elections by monied interests; and the city manager form of government which makes the council powerless and unaccountable. Each of these areas are targeted for reform in our initiative.

Eugene and its Government

        Eugene is a city of 120,000 people with an annual total budget of over $200 million. City councilors like myself are, as a general practice, kept in the dark as much as possible. All information flows through the city manager's office and is carefully shaped into briefings and model motions which are at our places each meeting. Being a volunteer discourages one from independently researching city issues. City council workload regularly reaches 30 hours per week, and the need to hold a paying job effectively prohibits councilors from straying from the city manager's line.
        Consequently, opportunism rules council policy, and the social consequences build in the form of homelessness, regressive taxation, environmental destruction, privatization, crime, unemployment, etc. Observing these results, the people of Eugene have begun to wonder what democracy really means. They look at the current councilors and see that over half of them were appointed to the council by various means rather than first elected by voters.

Preference Voting Innovations

        Preference voting is at the center of our initiative. Currently, eight councilors are elected from wards, while the mayor is elected citywide and can resolve tie votes (but otherwise does not vote). The initiative would increase the size of the council to ten members, who would be elected at-large by preference voting. Our initiative argues in its introduction that the current system fosters resentment at forced votes between the lesser of two evils, leads to many uncontested races, encourages mudslinging and avoidance of issues and undercuts councilors' accountability.
        Preference voting directly addresses these problems. Although the principle behind our proposed system of preference voting is the same as the preference voting system now used in Cambridge and once used in a number of cities in the United States, we have introduced several innovations that I believe improve the system. These include:
        • Providing candidates with the option to run as part of a self-identified slate that would appear on the ballot ("The Environmental Coalition," "Citizens for a Growing Economy," etc.).
        • Instituting the mathematical model method of transferring surplus ballots, in which ballots are transferred at a 'vote value' based on the principle that only that portion of the vote necessary to help elect a candidate is deployed for that candidate. The rest transfers on to successively ranked candidates. Ballots transferred from eliminated candidates retain their whole value.
        • Allowing voters the option to cast some "tie votes" if they do not want to rank candidates (this is also called duplicate rankings).

Money and Politics
        The pay provision in the preference voting initiative bases the salary for city councilors on the median income. The political consequence of paying councilors will be the abolition of the informal (but very real) financial screen which exists for volunteers. Historically, in order to be on the council one has had to be independently wealthy or work for a business which benefits from City legislation and policy. The vast majority of working class taxpayers are prohibited from helping decide how their taxes are spent. We are finding in the campaign that there are two responses to the initiative's pay provision: "I can't believe the councilors aren't paid now!" and, "Good. Maybe some good people will be able to afford to run for office."
        Many such would-be candidates are surfacing to help pass the preference voting initiative. Without the pay provision, voters in Eugene would do preference voting only for business owners; there would be more democratic representation of business owners, but not of the people in general.
        Campaign finance reform is built into preference voting. But here we have been able to add a degree of public financing. The city and state publish voters' pamphlets every election which are distributed to every household. The ballot access provision of the initiative guarantees all formal candidates a place in the city voter's pamphlet. The $50 filing fee is the only monetary cost.
        The significant cost is the labor power needed for collecting nomination signatures. Our premise is that all candidates should have a basic amount of publicity if they work for it politically. That work is defined as persuading voters that they (the prospective candidates, either running alone or as part of a slate) should be put on the ballot. Candidates for re-election get no break on ballot access. All candidates must make themselves available to the people in this way.
        The initiative also would shift a significant amount of power away from the city manager. New duties for councilors would include: having a role in choosing the department heads; overseeing the financial auditor and city attorney; reviewing contracts of more than $25,000; and ratifying collective bargaining agreements. All these functions are expressly prohibited by the current city Charter, even though most citizens believe the council already has these powers.

A Commission on PR        

        The initiative also requires the formation of a "Commission on Proportional Representation and Voting Democracy." It would purchase publications on proportional representation for the public library, advise community groups on how to hold preference voting elections, instruct prospective candidates on ballot access rules and distribute copies of the Charter amendment to anyone who requests one. If the initiative passes, the commission will popularly institutionalize preference voting, which will protect it from possible repeal attempts.
        We have also required that a description of preference voting and how it was won be included in the voter's pamphlet. If we are victorious, all voters will know how to use the system, and they will know it was won by grassroots activism. Perhaps they will send copies to their friends around the country who are also hungry for representation.

Countering Arguments Against the Initiative

        Our campaign to reform the city council will be based on public interest arguments, especially accountability to the voters and citizen participation. Already the response has been positive. Recruiting campaign volunteers has not been difficult, and our first public education event with a mock election for a "Dead Actors Hall of Fame" drew 100 people. A very conservative city councilor who attended remarked, "The only problem I have with preference voting is that I can't figure out the disadvantages. There has got to be some."
        We know that there will be opposition. It will arise most powerfully after we attain ballot status. But we have every reason to remain confident so long as we stay focused on carrying the message of democracy directly to the voters. We will create media opportunities whenever possible, but never will rely on the media to replace grassroots activists in communicating our basic message.
        Ironically, based on our experience to date, proportional representation is not of concern to voters and therefore is not ideologically central to the campaign. To many people it is a complex term, yet they understand the concept of vote transfers. Supporters are most enthusiastic about not having to waste their vote, and also being able to help elect more than one candidate.
        If we win the initiative, voters' understanding will mature into an appreciation of preference voting as an elegant way to attain what they will come to know as proportional representation. However, we are quite satisfied to take things one step at a time toward victory. Small steps come first. But even at this early stage we seem to be leading local voters on the march away from the alienating single seat election and toward electoral democracy.

        Kevin Hornbuckle is a city council member in Eugene, Oregon. For a copy of the preference voting initiative, request one from the Campaign for Representative Democracy: P.O. Box 10654, Eugene, OR 97440.

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