By Howie Fain
Rank the Vote is proud to publish this historical overview of ranked choice voting in the US, authored by Howie Fain. A retired public school teacher from Worcester, Massachusetts, Howie was a co-founder of FairVote in 1992. Find more of Howie’s work at www.prvoting.com
This is the seventh of nine installments on the history of RCV. We hope the history that unfolds in these posts is as revelatory and inspiring for you as it was for us. Let the curtains rise and the knowledge drop!
Ranked Choice Voting in the US, Act IV, 1961-1991
The PR light in the United States was nearly extinguished by the end of RCV Act III; Cambridge, MA alone kept it lit. This fourth largest city in its state, which sits across the river from Boston, held its 41st biennial PR City Council and School Committee elections in November of 2021, each of them always hard-fought, each always fairly representing majority and minority people, interests, opinions and neighborhoods alike. While the city has long since settled into a comfortable PR routine, it wasn’t always that way, as the party machines that had dominated the ward system in the 1930s didn’t fade away any more easily in Cambridge than they had in other PR cities.
Opponents of PR in Cambridge have twice turned to the courts, and twice the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has rebuffed the claims. The Moore case at the outset of PR in 1941, meticulously assessed both of the main elements of STV-PR: “preferential voting” (via ranked ballots), and the “limited voting” provisions ensuring proportional outcomes in relation to votes actually won (voters being limited to casting just one effective vote in a multi-seat election), and both were decisively upheld. The Court noted that all of the successful and competitive groups of voters in the city were effectively “self-selected” by both the single vote limitation and the rankings.
Fifty-five years later, in McSweeney (1996), a dispute over a minor technical issue (filling a vacancy) was broadened by the plaintiff to include an equal protection claim, and the Court again sprang to the defense of this proportional multi-winner ranked ballot system, but with even more gusto: “[A] preferential scheme, far from seeking to infringe on each citizen’s equal franchise, … seeks more accurately to reflect voter sentiment … This purpose is not a derogation from the principle of equality but an attempt to reflect it with more exquisite accuracy.”
Sandwiched in between these two times the governing Court swatted away challenges to the PR-STV system, it was the City of Cambridge that actually turned to the courts, in self-defense.
The year was 1972. The Massachusetts legislature had long since repealed the PR enabling legislation, barred future adoptions, and successfully greased the skids for all the other Massachusetts jurisdictions to hold repeal votes. In fact, since Worcester had repealed in 1960 (on a specially-allowed state ballot question, after a Plan E repeal had failed in a 1959 vote on a municipal ballot), along with Hamilton, Ohio, Cambridge was the only PR jurisdiction left in the country (discounting the very recent “discovery” by the RCV movement that the very tiny planned “single-tax” village/art colony of Arden, DE, founded 1900, has long used STV-PR to elect its principal governance body, the Board of Assessors, which continued even after public incorporation in 1967). Cambridge itself had already endured five repeal attempts, repeatedly deflected by supportive majorities, the last one being seven years prior, in 1965. It wasn’t unreasonable to think that the legislature might just let this sleeping dog lie. It did not; instead, as described by the Supreme Judicial Court, it passed “Statute 1972, c. 596, requiring that a question regarding a change to plurality voting be placed on the ballot to be used at the biennial state election in any city or town with proportional representation voting but in fact, when enacted, applicable only to the city of Cambridge.” (Belin, 1972) The Court determined that this overt harassment violated the state’s own Home Rule provisions, and bluntly told the state to back off.
And with that exclamation point placed on Cambridge’s sole-survivor status in the state as well as the entire nation, a new mythology seemed to take hold. Cambridge is a multi-university city with a longstanding town-gown divide (well-managed by PR-STV). In this telling, the city’s election system became completely separated from its national political reform roots, and was now more likely to be thought of as a strange home-grown concoction cooked up in a dusty basement lab. Unfortunately, this perception was shared equally by both those inside the city who celebrated PR, and those outside who derided its strangeness as “just a Cambridge thing”—wink, wink—a fate that probably wouldn’t have been shared if, say, Worcester or Hamilton had instead been the last PR city standing.
Not surprisingly, the system just kept on working, exactly as intended: fair representation of voters in fair proportion to the numbers of votes won, in hard-fought elections that spawned vibrant, competitive slates, both reflecting and bridging the city’s inherent divides. The number of people of color on the Cambridge City Council and School Committees have essentially kept pace with their population numbers since 1963, as part of cross-community political alliances, unlike all other cities in the state. As a related function of both phenomena, Council seats consistently mirrored popular opinion on hot-button, high-profile public policy questions, such as rent control, mixing and matching from traditional alliance lines to accomplish that.
At the tail end of Act IV, a related development began stirring in Voting Rights litigation in the United States, following the 1982 amendments to Section 2, allowing challenges to discriminatory voting practices, not necessarily resulting from intent. Jurisdictions were employing a variety of winner-take-all voting practices that continually advantaged white voters. Many of these were multi-winner elections using block voting: each voter was allowed as many votes as there were seats to be filled, but no more than one per candidate, allowing the majority to shut out the minority. To some advocates and litigators like Lani Guinier, relying on single-member and race-based districting remedies was a flawed strategy, for both the short-term and long-term goals of political equality; why not confont the winner-take-all elements of the discriminatory systems, and not just substitute one for another? Once again, as with Senator Buckalew post-Civil War, STV-PR didn’t get the part, probably for similar reasons, including perceptions of relative complexity. In 1988, Chilton County Alabama adopted cumulative voting as a remedy to a Voting Rights lawsuit, and several other jurisdictions and states followed suit, whether with cumulative or limited voting—both considered semi-proportional systems, in part because of the way in which their success in representing minority voters relies on strategic nomination and voting considerations.
Before that, though, the Uniform Congressional Districts Act of 1967 had offered protection against schemes that would use multi-member or even statewide winner-take-all elections to deny African-Americans a fair chance at representation in congressional elections. Of course, the problem wasn’t the multi-winner elections, but the block voting used in them. But in the dark days of RCV’s Act IV, that had never been addressed as an option, though the nation should have been far more prepared to do so, compared to the last time it tackled the same issue, in strictly political majority-minority terms, in 1842, with the federal Apportionment Act barring use of the “general ticket.” It was like the many decades of practical experience in the U.S. with the principle of proportionality had never happened.
Apparently, the faint embers of PR in Cincinnati had not been entirely extinguished following the repeal of PR-STV there in 1957: the old Charter Party coalition attempted to bring back PR, in 1988, and again in 1991, narrowly missing both times, while winning a majority of the Black vote. Rob Richie and Cynthia Terrell worked on the 1991 campaign, immediately prior to co-founding FairVote the following year.
On a different track, right smack in the middle of Act IV, the Instant Runoff form of RCV made its first ever appearance in a public election in the United States, in 1975. One city (Ann Arbor, MI). One position (mayor). One election. One immediate repeal, though the results were as classic an IRV outcome as one might possibly expect—and, therefore, the right one. When approved, the system was known as “preferential voting,” likely lifted right out of Robert’s Rules, which had only recently incorporated and recommended the system under that term in its seventh edition. There is no indication that proponents were aware of any other use of ranked ballots in prior elections, past or present, or were influenced by a more generalized reform movement; rather, they saw a problem with plurality results in the fast-changing political dynamics within the city, and sought to change it, successfully. Some who didn’t like the results immediately sought to change it back, also successfully.
Stay tuned for the next installment, “Intermission: an unusual RCV experience that bridges Act IV and Act V“
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Rank the Vote, its members, supporters, funders, or affiliates.