The race to be Portland’s first elected mayor in 88 years is in danger of turning into a circus, and we are just getting to the part where we see how many clowns tumble out of the jalopy.

As of this writing, seven candidates have turned in petitions qualifying them for the ballot in November. If that were all of them, it would be manageable, but there are 13 other sets of petitions out there that could swell the final roster to 20.

There is no way the human mind can balance a choice with 20 variables. You can’t evaluate that many choices, and the danger is that a lot of Portland residents just won’t bother. If you are looking for a reason to tune out, just the sheer number of candidates will be enough to give you one.

Whose fault is that?

Since I’m in the blame business, I’ll pick the Charter Commission. We took some of the smartest people in the city and locked them in a room for more than a year to look at all the options and think through all the possible outcomes. What they came up with was a system that makes it easy for anyone to run for mayor, and no process to limit the number of candidates.

Instead, what we will have is ranked-choice voting, which is another thing that could turn off voters in November, if they are looking for a reason to be turned off.

In theory, it makes a lot of sense. We often rank our votes.

If you voted for Democrat Steve Rowe or Republican Peter Mills in one of the last gubernatorial primaries, you had to vote for someone else on Election Day. That person may have been your second choice. Or your third. You may have held your nose and voted for your fourth choice.

With ranked-choice voting, you go through that same process but you do it all at once. Which is fine, if you have something like five choices. But what happens when you have 20?

What criteria do you apply to come up with your 18th choice? How do you decide that the candidate was better than No. 19? Where did they both fall behind No. 17?

The Charter Commission would have done better to give us a two-step process that winnowed the field. A primary and general election or an open election and runoff would have clarified the choices.

Who else can we blame? How about the candidates?

Jay York has gotten a great deal of attention for his anti-mayor campaign. York was opposed to the charter reform question on last year’s ballot and is running for mayor to call attention to what he sees as the inadequacies of the position. He’s using the race to make a case for abolishing the office.

“I don’t want to be elected, but I want to be on the ballot so I can keep talking about it,” York said.

He has made his point. Now it’s time to stop talking. There are too many people on the ballot who want to be elected, and we really should be trying to listen to them at this point.

There are other candidates who have just as little business running for mayor as York and who have until Aug. 29 to turn in their petitions.

They should ask themselves this question: Are you serious about doing what it takes to run a diverse, complicated city, or are you just sending a message? If it’s the latter, keep your petitions and write a letter to the editor. It would be a lot easier and probably more effective.

People don’t have a lot of nice things to say about political parties these days, but avoiding a mess like this is just what they are good at. How many liberal Democrats do we need running for this office? How many Greens? One of each would be plenty.

There are ways to fix the process for future elections, even if it’s too late for this race. It looks like 300 signatures are too easy to get. The charter could be changed to double the number of signatures, or require them to come from all five council districts. It would be a headache for the city clerk’s office, but why not mandate that every resident can only sign one candidate’s petitions? The way it is now, the same 300 people could sign all 20 candidate’s papers.

But since it is too late to do anything about this election, it’s up to us, the voters, to decide who is serious and who is wasting our time.

When they say economic development, I want to hear more. What kind of development is Portland interested in and what are we willing to do to get it?

Should we be more generous with tax breaks, less demanding with zoning? Is all development good, or are only some jobs worth attracting?

The same with schools: Would the candidate raise taxes to make up for a loss of state funding? How many cuts can the budget absorb before the trickle of families leaving the system turns into a flood?

There are two weeks to go before we know what names are on the ballot. Then it will be up to all of us to take this seriously – one of those clowns climbing out of the car is going to be our mayor.

 

Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: [email protected]