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 eighth 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!
Intermission: an unusual RCV experience that bridges Act IV and Act V
New York City’s PR elections for 32 Community School Boards, each electing 9 members, running from the mid-1970s until 2002, have been an obscure part of RCV history in the U.S. That should change.
Born of fire (civil and racial conflict) following the 1968 Ocean-Hill / Brownsville teachers’ strike (in large part a response to a Community School Board pilot program), the Boards’ experience is unusual in that their very existence was always at issue. The use of STV-PR was a top-down decision in Albany, as the New York State Legislature had recently taken control of the city’s K-8 schools, and implemented the Community School Boards initiative citywide. George Hallett, a leader of the PR League since 1920, used personal connections in Albany to advocate for STV-PR. There was little public education about the voting system, before or during its implementation. Further, the elections were isolated from all others in the city—three year terms, with elections held in May. Non-citizen parents could vote in the Board elections.
Sharp battle lines in the elections mirrored prior conflict about school control. Yet, unsurprisingly, in the face of all of these obstacles, PR properly, fairly and consistently allocated seats in relation to votes when the tabulations were complete. With changing New York City demographics, amid ample evidence of racially cohesive / racially polarized voting in these contests, the representation of whites, Blacks, Latinx and Asian-Americans were remarkably close to their population numbers, overall and in each of the 32 separate school board districts.
That was one reason that, under Section 5 preclearance in place for parts of the City, in 1998 the U.S. Department of Justice denied a New York City bid to allow a change from STV-PR to Limited Voting (maximum of 4 votes allowed per voter, while electing 9), requested so the City could streamline tabulation by using their regular lever voting machines for the Community School Board elections. (That was a pretty thin rationale: by then, Cambridge was already tabulating their paper ballots on a computer.)
No one would describe New York’s experience with the troubled Community School Boards as a “golden age” (as has been said of the PR years electing the City Council there several decades before), but the system did work as intended, under very tough circumstances. Interestingly, the proportional representation system was never repealed; its use ended only after the boards themselves were abolished when the State returned control over the school system to New York City in 2002.
Stay tuned for the next installment, “Ranked Choice Voting in the US, Act V, 1992-2002”
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.