May 17, 2023

Faculty Provide Election Expertise to City of Gresham

Todd Lochner and Ellen Seljan of the political science department served as consultants to the City of Gresham’s Charter Review Committee. They focused mainly on city council elections, sharing their expertise on electoral systems and local political institutions.

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Just east of Portland is the city of Gresham, Oregon’s fourth-largest city that is home to more than 110,000 people. Every eight years, the Gresham City Council appoints a committee to review the city’s charter, the legal document that defines the city’s structure and operations. The Charter Review Committee then compiles a final report of its recommendations, one or more of which may eventually end up on the ballot.

When the latest cycle of review began in 2020, Kevin McConnell LLM ’04, city attorney, recognized the value of bringing in an outside academic perspective for the “big issues,” particularly when it came to districting matters and possible changes to the way in which the City elects its city council.

Todd Lochner, Dr. Robert B. ... Todd Lochner, Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr. Associate Professor of Government
Credit: Nina Johnson
McConnell reached out to Todd Lochner, Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr. Associate Professor of Government, last spring for assistance, noting his extensive work in election law and districting. Given the committee’s interest in matters of policy, he suggested the involvement of Ellen Seljan, associate professor of political science, who specializes in state and local political institutions. The mandate for the pair was wide-ranging, but focused on the benefits and drawbacks of the City’s current method of at-large plurality elections, where electors are given as many votes as there are seats to be filled, and winners receive the highest number of votes.

“What we needed were experts. People who could come in and offer historical background on these systems, with a real understanding of what works and what doesn’t.”

Kevin McConnell LLM ’04, Gresham City Attorney

Seljan and Lochner began by analyzing the various ways in which comparable Oregon cities ran their elections for city council: how many seats constituted each council, lengths of term, and whether they used at-large or district elections, among other factors. This led to a comparative review of the effects of different electoral systems such as ranked-choice voting, cumulative voting, and at-large multi-member voting, which will be familiar to those who have taken classes with Lochner and Seljan. Over several months of collaboration, the professors’ analysis became more “in the weeds,” providing insight on topics such as the relative costs of different systems and how these systems affected the competitiveness of elections and the diversity of city council composition.

Ellen Seljan, associate professor of political science Ellen Seljan, associate professor of political science
Credit: Nina Johnson
“What we needed were experts,” McConnell said. “People who could come in and offer historical background on these systems, with a real understanding of what works and what doesn’t.”

Lochner and Seljan provided the Charter Review Committee with a series of memos, answering questions from members as needed on complex issues. The two presented their analysis with as little bias as possible, ultimately with the observation that there is no one “correct” way to run a city election. Rather, there is always a trade-off among competing goals.

“It’s good when the winner of city council races can claim that they were elected by a majority vote, because that helps to give a sense of legitimacy and majoritarianism to city government,” Lochner said. “But, by the same token, it also can be good to have institutions that allow representation for minority interests. We listened to what was most important to the committee and narrowed our analysis accordingly.”

For Jane Leo, a policy analyst for the City of Gresham, the in-depth––yet approachable––information from Lochner and Seljan was an indispensable source of guidance for the committee. At one point in the process, Leo had a question on the appropriateness of calling areas districts or wards and needed a brief “hallway conversation” on what might distinguish the two. Lochner drew from his knowledge with an instant response, which Leo calls a testament to the teamwork between the professors and the committee.

Lochner echoed the nature of this rapport, emphasizing that the committee members immersed themselves in the intricacies of electoral systems for over a year, coming to understand the research at a high level. “We were always certain that their questions would be empirically subtle and would recognize the competing ethical values at stake,” he said.

The Charter Review Committee presented its full report to the Gresham City Council in April, with six recommendations. From there, the City Attorney’s Office was directed to provide further information on polling, which will go back to the council in June. It is yet to be seen whether all, some, or none of the recommendations will be forwarded to the ballot. Regardless of the result, McConnell and Leo expressed gratitude for the professors’ continued support.

“Professors at the college level have the skills to explain detailed systems for individuals who haven’t necessarily waded into them very deeply,” Leo said. “That was extremely valuable in explaining what can be very complicated issues to members of the committee who work outside of this field. They write in such a way that anyone reading their work can understand it.”

Political Science