Nuts & Bolts

From Vote-by-Mail to Recycling, Here's How (a Few) Things Work in Portland

Now go forth and master.

By Margaret Seiler August 3, 2018 Published in the Newcomer's Guide: 2018 issue of Portland Monthly

Image: Kati Lacker


If you got your Oregon driver’s license when you arrived, you’re automatically registered to vote, but you need to send back the card you received if you want to register with a political party. You’ll have to do that in order to have a say in partisan primary elections. You can also register, change party affiliation, or update an address here. That mailing address is key: all elections in Oregon are vote-by-mail thanks to a 1998 ballot measure.* That means we don’t go to a polling place (though county elections offices do have those curtained booths, if you really need one). Instead, ballots are mailed a few weeks before an election, and they’re due back by 8 p.m. on Election Day. They must arrive at their mailed destination by then, or be in an official ballot box; it’s not a postmark deadline like taxes. Be sure to sign the outer envelope before you turn in your ballot: elections officials can check that against the signature on a voter’s registration.

* Oregon loves ballot measures. Anyone who can collect enough voter signatures can submit something for the ballot. Citizen initiatives have changed the tax system; legalized medical and, 16 years later, recreational marijuana; dictated criminal sentencing; allowed physician-assisted suicide; and done (or failed to do) a lot of other, more boring things.

Image: Kati Lacker

Express Yourself

The Oregon Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld protections for freedom of speech and expression much stronger than the federal First Amendment, protecting actions that might be considered obscene in other places. That’s why cities can’t ban strip clubs or dictate their rules, and why local public access television sometimes gets, um, interesting. It’s also one reason why the Portland mayor’s attempt to shut down an alt-right rally in 2017 (while the city grieved following two homicides by a white supremacist) got a sharp rebuke from the ACLU. And it’s why a local man was acquitted on indecent exposure charges when he got fully undressed at the airport in an act of political protest (but it didn’t protect him from a federal fine for interfering with security personnel). 

Image: Kati Lacker

We’re Weird

While it was once a common practice, today Oregon and New Jersey are the only states that still mandate full-serve gas stations, largely as a jobs protector. As of 2018 gas stations in Oregon counties with fewer than 40,000 people can let customers pump their own, thanks to a law passed by the state legislature last year. But you’d have to get far from the population centers of the Willamette Valley for that to take effect. We’re also oddballs with our lack of a sales tax, joining just four other states (Alaska, Montana, Delaware, and New Hampshire, which all have much smaller populations). Oregon does have a significant state income tax, while neighboring Washington has a sales tax but no income tax. Visiting shoppers and business boosters might rave about the lack of a sales tax; those who fret over funding state services and K–12 education budgets might be less enthusiastic.

Image: Kati Lacker

Get Around

Myth: Portland has amazing public transit. Reality: it’s good for a midsize US city, but that’s a pretty low bar. Within the city limits (unless you’re deep in Forest Park) you’re never too far from a TriMet stop: the agency has buses and light-rail trains, and it operates the city-owned streetcar. But is that bus or train late? Is it running only every 45 minutes? Does that line not run on weekends? Will it still be going when the bar closes? If you moved here expecting a transit wonderland, prepare to be a mite disappointed. But, hey, unless you moved from somewhere with an actual subway (or any European, Australian, or Japanese city of any size), maybe it’s better than where you came from. It sure beats paying to park downtown. TriMet, which also uses Apple Pay, Android Pay, etc., is in the process of changing over from paper tickets and passes to pre-loaded Hop cards; see and for tools to pay your fare and plan your trips.

Image: Kati Lacker

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Well, the first two, at least, and do your best on the third. The usual Chinese buyers have recently stopped taking some recycled plastics and paper from the US. Metro, the tricounty regional government that oversees Portland’s waste, admits some recycling streams are getting backed up while everything gets figured out, but still urges residents to keep sorting: within Portland it’s paper, cardboard, metal, and certain plastics in the blue containers, food and yard waste in the green, glass in the yellow. Some house dwellers leave redeemable cans and bottles out of the containers so can collectors trying to scrape up a little extra dough can get them more easily. Be careful to note what you can’t put in curbside recycling: plastic bags (get some totes!), coffee pods (but you’re already hooked on bulk beans from local roasters, right?), and clamshell takeout containers (good thing a lot of food carts participate in returnable-container program GO Box).

Image: Kati Lacker

Vice Management

Like alcohol? Portland has the most breweries of any city in the world, a growing number of urban wineries, and a burgeoning distillery row. While you’re drinking local, you can get a good meal, too: any place with a full liquor license has to serve food, by law. The Oregon Liquor Control Commission even has requirements about the number and variety of dishes. Like pot? See this OLCC site for reminders that you can’t take marijuana across state lines (even though it’s also legal in most states Oregon borders) and that there are limits on how much a person can have. Landlords are free to ban cannabis on their property. Like naked people? Your new corner bar just might be a strip club. When you go, bring cash so you can tip the dancer a couple of bucks per song. No touching, no pictures, thanks.

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