Is Portland’s ranked choice voting education project stumbling?

By William MacKenzie,

In its early years, the electric vehicle start-up Fisker tried to stimulate public interest by showing off a concept sports car, the EMotion, going down a desert road in a flashy 2017 marketing video. The problem, revealed by the Wall Street Journal,  – the car in the video didn’t have a motor or battery. It was propelled by people hiding inside who were pushing it forward with their feet through a hole in the floor.

To say the least, it was a deceptive start of a good idea, a worthy concept that stumbled in its execution.

Portland’s voter education project on the city’s new ranked choice voting system to be utilized in the November 2024 election seems to be like that.

Request for Proposals on a voter education contract “…from qualified proposers with demonstrated experience in voter and community education and outreach” went out on April 7, 2023 asking that proposals be submitted by May 3, 2023. The intent was to post an intent to award the contract to a specific bidder on June 9, 2023.

The first slip-up occurred when a winning bidder wasn’t chosen until July 2023.

The winner was United Way of the Columbia-Willamette in collaboration with Democracy Rising, Portland United for Change (a fiscally sponsored project of the United Way) and Brink Communications of Portland. United Way of the Columbia-Willamette was the sole legal entity awarded the contract and has oversight over it.

Portland United for Change was tasked with leading the day-to-day management of contract activities and to support subcontractor grant recipients working to implement the education and outreach effort for harder-to-reach voters. Samantha Gladu, Coalition Director at Portland United for Change, was expected to manage the overall project.

Democracy Rising was expected to apply its expertise in voter education efforts in five states on ranked choice voting.

Brink, which described itself as “…a queer woman-owned, BIPOC and LGBTQIA2S+-led marketing and communications agency united around justice, equity and solidarity”, was expected to provide four members of a six-person Project Team working on the voter education effort.

A second slipup occurred two months later, however, when Brink, a 12-year-old 43-employee firm, unexpectedly ceased operations. “The disruptions of the pandemic, the recent economic downturn and upheavals in the marketing industry have been very difficult for our small business,” the company said in a LinkedIn post.

Rather than switch to another bidder, the city left it to United Way to find a replacement firm for Brink. It took until January 2024 for United Way to accomplish that by selecting Hearts & Minds Communications LLC of Portland, a company founded in 2021 which describes itself as “…a growing collective of communicators, designers and strategists united by our approach to center racial justice in our work”.

Hearts & Minds has not responded to inquiries seeking information on who on its staff would replace the Brink employees serving on the Project Team, details on their roles and qualifications and specifics on their projected hourly rates.

Then another problem.

Two months later, on March 13, 2024, Samantha Gladu, Coalition Director at Portland United for Change, abruptly left the organization and transitioned to another employer. She had been expected to be the day-to-day contact with the city, helping to coordinate all the meetings and directing the appropriate people to meetings regarding various elements of the project.

As of May 16, 2024, United Way had still not replaced Gladu and it’s not clear who’s running the show. “I think we can all agree that this is a very competitive market for employees, and we are not at all surprised that Samantha was poached away from her role at United Way. United Way is recruiting for this position,” said Shoshanah OppenheimCharter Transition Project Manager with the city.

All this turmoil occurred while the original timeline for the entire project had  envisioned that two key phases of the project would be underway.

First, Nov. 2023 – Feb. 2024 was supposed be spent identifying and engaging local voter education partners, building out infrastructure and collateral for different campaign focuses and working with election officials on ranked choice voting implementation.

Then, during Feb. 2024 – June 2024, the project team was expected to focus on outreach to coalition partners to extend capacity, the recruitment and training of organizational and volunteer leaders on voter education, and engagement of stakeholders and media to facilitate their understanding of the new election system.

The winning bidder was expected to use this time to offer sub-grants to “…local non-profit and community-based organizations who can assist in disseminating this vital information through trusted mediums to members of populations who traditionally lacked access to inclusive voter education and are most likely to benefit from focused, supplemental outreach.”

United Way’s original bid said the voter education effort aimed “to be operating on all cylinders” in June. The way things are going, it’s doubtful that will be the case.