Oregon voters will decide on adopting major electoral reform next year

Oregon lawmakers voted largely along party lines on Sunday to place a measure on the ballot next year that would ask voters whether to reform the state's electoral system by adopting a form of ranked-choice voting. Lawmakers also unanimously voted to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would empower legislators to impeach and remove statewide executive officials for abuses of office.

If approved by voters, the ranked-choice proposal would cover primary and general elections for president, Senate, House, and statewide executive offices, though it notably would exclude elections for the state legislature itself. Local governments would also be allowed to choose whether to adopt ranked-choice voting for their own elections.

Ranked-choice voting works by letting voters rank the candidates from their first preference to last preference. If no candidate wins a majority among first-preference votes, then the last-place candidate gets eliminated and has their votes reallocated to each of their voters' next preference. This elimination and reallocation process repeats until one candidate takes a majority of the remaining votes.

The proposed reform's most likely impact would be to significantly reduce the risk of similarly positioned candidates splitting a majority of the vote and enabling another candidate opposed by the majority of voters to win with a plurality. However, since some voters who back eliminated candidates may also choose not to rank additional candidates and therefore see their ballots "exhausted" by the final round, it's possible that the ranked-choice winner won't necessarily win with a majority of all ballots cast.

This measure's advancement comes just months after a competitive 2022 election for governor where Democratic state House Speaker Tina Kotek prevailed only 47-44 over Republican state House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, with moderate former Democratic state Sen. Betsy Johnson taking 9% as an independent. Democrats widely viewed Johnson as a potential spoiler candidate for Kotek given her Democratic past, and it's possible that this close call spurred them to take action on ranked-choice voting.

Regardless of Democrats' motivation, support for ranked-choice voting in Oregon had already been building in recent years. Last fall, voters in Portland, the state's largest city, passed a ballot measure to adopt the system for mayoral races. (They also backed a variant of a related approach known as proportional representation for contests for the City Council, where a ranked ballot will be used to elect three members in each of four districts starting next year.) Some other local governments in the state have likewise adopted ranked-choice voting, and more may follow if this measure becomes law.

Sunday's vote also marks the first time that a state legislature in the U.S. has led the way in pushing to adopt ranked-choice voting at the federal or state levels; Alaska and Maine both use ranked-choice systems, but both were passed thanks to citizen-initiated ballot measures. The Oregon proposal is similar to the one Maine voters enacted in 2016, since it preserves party primaries. That stands in contrast to the "top-four" version Alaska voters approved in 2020, which abolished party primaries and has all candidates regardless of party run on a single primary ballot where the top-four finishers advance to a ranked-choice general election.

Oregon lawmakers' ranked-choice proposal isn't the only major electoral reform effort that could appear on the ballot next year, however, as two citizen-led efforts are currently gathering signatures. One of those efforts would adopt a "top-five" primary and ranked-choice general election similar to Alaska's system that would also cover elections for legislature and local offices. It would additionally move Oregon's May primaries to March for president and August for downballot offices. Like the legislature's proposal, though, this measure is statutory in nature.

A rival campaign is backing a constitutional amendment that would abolish party primaries and have all candidates run on a single primary ballot where the leading candidates would advance to the general election, which critically would not be required to use ranked-choice voting. It's also unclear exactly how many candidates would advance to November, since the amendment would give lawmakers two years to decide on the specifics before the new system would take effect in 2027.

There's no guarantee that either of these two citizen-led efforts will end up making the ballot next year, but if they do,it could complicate the prospects for the legislature's proposal if more than one measure were to pass. While a constitutional amendment would supersede a statute, Oregon law does not specify what would happen if competing statutory measures—namely, the legislature's measure and the top-five primary—were to both pass, though lawmakers also face no limits on amending or repealing statutory measures initiated by voters.

Separately, the amendment establishing impeachment would end Oregon's distinction as the only remaining state without such a process. Impeachment would require a two-thirds supermajority in the state House, after which the state Senate would hold a trial where a two-thirds vote in that chamber would be needed to remove statewide executive officials and potentially bar them from running for state office again. The proposal allows impeachment only for instances of "malfeasance or corrupt conduct in office, willful neglect of statutory or constitutional duty or other felony or high crime."

In just the last decade, two statewide officials (both Democrats) have resigned due to scandals: former Gov. John Kitzhaber in 2015 and former Secretary of State Shemia Fagan last month. If they hadn't voluntarily left office, lawmakers would have had no ability to remove them. Currently, only a recall election initiated by voters can lead to a statewide official's removal prior to the next regular election, a much more expensive and time-consuming process than impeachment.