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 third of nine installment in the series. For more, visit U.S. Elections and Ranked Choice Voting: An Early History, in Five Acts.
Understudies and Opening Acts, 1843 – 1876
The search for a better way to elect representatives in both the UK and the US was persistent. A significant advance in the principle of proportional representation came shortly after Congress passed the 1842 Apportionment Act, banning the general ticket. In 1844, in Philadelphia, the very city where the US constitutional convention had earlier chosen not to mandate specific voting procedures for the states, a retired business owner named Thomas Gilpin presented a paper titled: “On the representation of minorities of electors to act with the majority in elected assemblies.”
This was not to be the scene in which ranked choice voting makes its first US appearance, for Gilpin’s contribution was actually a prototype for the proportional party-based list systems that are so widely used in the world today. But in the very title of Gilpin’s address to the American Philosophical Society—really, go back one paragraph, and read that title again—we find the essential seeds of the election philosophy that American society mostly continued to ignore for another 177 years and which is also strongly advanced by proportional RCV: that the essential element of majority decision-making is proper and fair representation of minority and majority interests alike. Put another way: the best way to forge true majority decision-making is to fairly represent the different minority perspectives that make it up.
As representative democracy itself spread in the mid-19th century, the quest for a fair way to elect representatives was never far behind. Denmark inaugurated its own parliament in 1849; by 1855, Carl Andrae had invented an even closer version of what we now call proportional ranked choice voting. It was immediately used to elect a partial roster of Danish members of parliament and was entered into the constitution for various uses over many decades in that country. Denmark ultimately moved to a proportional list system, in the spirit of Gilpin’s American model, along with most of Europe.
In what seems to be an independent invention of a system quite similar to Andrae’s, British lawyer Thomas Hare in 1857 created the Single Transferable Vote system now commonly associated with his name, which would later be used in some US municipalities as well as select international usages. Hare believed that “STV should be a means of ‘making the exercise of the suffrage a step in the elevation of the individual character, whether it be found in the majority or the minority.’” This directly foreshadows the belief among British and U.S. reformers that a voter-centric proportional system such as Hare’s, rather than a party-centric list system, is better adapted to their countries’ respective political sensibilities.
Hare’s work might not have caught the attention of election reformers in the US had it not been for its energetic promotion by the well-known British political philosopher John Stuart Mill. It was Mill’s advocacy of what he called Hare’s system of “personal representation” that especially intrigued US Senator Charles Buckalew, of Pennsylvania. Along with Mill’s passionate descriptions of the social and political benefits of proportionality generally.
As the United States emerged from the Civil War, and the Reconstruction constitution began to take shape by amendment, Senator Buckalew chaired a Select Committee on Representation, in 1867. He understood that the principle of proportionality in elections was critical to a successful reconstructionist outcome in the South, “for under it one race cannot vote down and disfranchise the other; each can obtain its due share of power without injustice to the other, and there will be no strong and constant motive (as now) to struggle for the mastery.” He also outlined a laundry list of problems associated with winner-take-all elections generally, and how the principle of proportionality would cure them, that would seem instantly familiar to PR reformers today.
Buckalew ultimately favored cumulative voting, which allows the voter as many votes as there are seats to be filled in a multi-winner election, but with one critical difference from block voting: the voter may give multiple votes to a given candidate, up to and including being able to “plump” all of them for one preferred candidate. Buckalew called this the “free vote,” also as yet untried, and now considered a semi-proportional election method, dependent on party and voter strategy in nominations and elections. While he gave great due to Mill’s persuasive arguments about STV, Buckalew feared what he perceived as the greater complexity of Hare’s system, and believed that cumulative voting, in contrast, was likely to be promptly passed and implemented throughout the US.
Of course, as we now know, that did not happen, though the state of Illinois, spurred by Senator Buckalew, inaugurated a successful 110 year run with cumulative voting for its state House of Representatives, 1870-1980. Yet the supposedly “more complicated, harder to pass” STV of Hare and Mill would claim a place on the world stage before the end of the nineteenth century, which cumulative voting has never been able to do, and eventually also took root in several major America’s cities.
Meanwhile, another milestone in the history of what is now known as Ranked Choice Voting occurred in 1871, and as the trans-Atlantic voting reform pendulum continued to swing, this innovation originated in the US. Strangely, until MIT Professor Robert Ware invented what we now know as Instant Runoff Voting, the single-winner form of RCV, there was only the decidedly more intricate multi-winner Hare system; not so strangely, this single-winner “breakthrough” was dependent on a more efficient multi-winner “quota” for election under Hare’s STV, developed in Britain by H.R. Droop just three years earlier. Ware’s contribution filled out the RCV cast, though IRV would remain very much a minor element among voting reformers until only recently, while their priority remained promoting proportional STV in an effort to end winner-take-all legislative elections in the US.
Ware’s method would eventually be used in some international public elections before ever appearing in the US. But significantly, Robert’s Rules of Order picked it up in its seventh edition, 1970, in which it was called preferential voting. (The multi-winner version in Robert’s Rules is not STV per se). That familiarity in private organizational procedure probably led directly to the first extremely limited opening (one office, one show only!) of IRV in a US public election, in 1974. See, Act IV.
Stay tuned for the next installment, “Ranked Choice Voting in the US, Act I, 1877- 1914,” which will publish on January 28.
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.