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 sixth 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!
By Howie Fain
No doubt about it: some of the 22 PR cities in Act II folded almost as soon as they opened, probably from some combination of strangeness, complexity, length of count, and reaction to the specific results.
But many others survived much longer, seemingly successful by most measures even as they endured repeated attempts at repeal. In the period ending in 1960, there were 14 cities that lasted at least five years after their first PR election, and of those the median duration was 14 years. At the same time, the median number of unsuccessful repeal attempts during that time was also two. The deposed machine empires, it seems, were persistent in their efforts to strike back.
Of note: Cleveland, OH endured four unsuccessful repeal attempts in just six years, beginning the year after the first election; the fifth time, however, did the trick, two years later. Toledo, OH saw four unsuccessful repeal attempts in ten years, with the first happening in the same year as they adopted it and went to the polls for the first PR election; after the fourth failed attempt, the fifth succeeded just three years later.
The following are important elements of these dynamics:
- PR was generally one part of a larger package of “good government” reforms (except for NYC).
- PR was adopted by majority vote.
- PR advocates explicitly touted diverse/minority representation as a benefit and likely result of using this election system.
- Repeal attempts required majority votes, which means that Proportional Representation was supported by the majority in unsuccessful repeal attempts; but it was rejected by the majority in successful repeals.
- Some repeal attempts sought rollbacks of the entire package; others targeted just PR and left other parts intact.
Of the fourteen municipal adoptions that lasted five or more years, surviving repeated unsuccessful repeal attempts, eleven of them saw PR successfully repealed in just the short period of Act III, 1947-1960 (while a twelfth managed to make it through that period, and beyond – see Act IV). This group includes three cities that had already used PR for thirty or more years. So… what changed?
Surely, these cities had settled into routines that included the laborious and lengthy hand count, so that can’t explain it. Notoriously mal-administered or corrupt cities like Cincinnati had leapfrogged to winning multiple “All-American City” awards, so that doesn’t explain it. The relentless push for repeal attempts certainly showed that some people—and some particular interests—were not happy with the new order, but time after time, the majority stood behind PR, a system designed to facilitate minority representation.
Until, that is, the majority suddenly rejected the system, in city after city, in fairly short order. Until, perhaps, the majority was no longer so tolerant of minority representation.
Cold war, racism and xenophobia may not be the entire story across all jurisdictions, but the open floodgates of these last repeals cannot be properly understood without accounting for them.
Support for PR in New York City seemed to turn on a cold war dime, once the World War II alliance between the US and the Soviet Union ended right along with the shooting war. Before that, two communists being elected under PR in the early 1940s (one from the multi-seat STV district in Brooklyn, one a Black communist from Harlem in the Manhattan district) was certainly news, but not “sky-is-falling” news. (In fact, the very first Black ever elected to the City Council had also occurred under PR, also from Harlem; it’s sort of shocking to realize that that had never happened under the 65 single-member districts that immediately preceded PR, but did in the 25 seat PR Council, but such is the nature of winner-take-all elections… and districting.)
But turn it did. Many of those who had trumpeted the reform, and the diverse representation and dynamic governance it brought, scurried for cover as the deep cold war freeze settled over the land. Even the city’s Republicans turned against PR in cold war fervor, and of course immediately lost what they had themselves gained on the City Council under it. PR was repealed in November 1947. Two days later, one of the two communists died, and the Council refused to seat the individual nominated by his same party to succeed him, breaking with long-standing custom.
Yet, on that very same election day in 1947, PR was successfully adopted in five Massachusetts cities. In fact, the cold war winds were beginning to blow in the state, and provided additional ammunition for those otherwise intent on repealing PR. Charges that STV-PR was itself “un-American” were prominent when PR finally came down in Lowell (in 1957, after 14 years), and Worcester (in 1960, after 11 years and prior repeal attempts). And that very phrase saw double duty in service to xenophobia, for those who resented the very success previously unrepresented immigrant communities enjoyed under PR in these cities, exactly as intended.
The Massachusetts Legislature had created the PR/Plan E option for cities in 1938, but it wouldn’t be long before they too buckled to the city political machines trying to turn back the clock, fueled by the new ingredient of cold war reaction. Massachusetts repealed their very own enabling statute and all the associated implementation laws in 1949. While barring all future adoptions, they simultaneously eased the rules for repeal votes in the PR cities. The ban on new adoptions was taken up with a vengeance: the emergency preamble meant that the statute went into effect on the very day in 1949 that the city of Gloucester was to vote on adopting Plan E, with PR. Voters there were not fazed by the fear-mongering gathering strength in the state: the question passed with 70 percent of the vote. By order of the court, however, the city was barred from implementing PR.
Cincinnati, OH exposed the ugly undercurrent of race, even after 30-plus years of PR, and nearly as long with at least one Black candidate winning a seat on the City Council. Black representation in the 1930s and 1940s was one thing, but it was another story in the mid-to-late 1950s as the new civil rights movement took shape, and this midwestern city situated directly across the river from the traditional south took notice of it. Amid (false) rumors that a perennially popular Black candidate was going to move to a white neighborhood, and white concern that as a likely Number 1 vote getter, he would have a solid claim to expect the city council to name him mayor, a repeal vote was rushed on to a September 1957 ballot in order to toss PR before that November’s election. Then, just a few days before the vote, federal troops were dispatched to Little Rock, Arkansas in support of Brown’s school desegregation order, and the civil rights era—and white reaction—entered a volatile new phase. A solid majority of white voters in Cincinnati voted to repeal PR, and hold an exclusively winner-take-all multi-winner election two months later. No Black candidates were among the winners of Council seats, for the first time in decades—the popular Black incumbent who was likely to be the Number 1 vote-getter under PR finished 15th in the race for just nine at-large seats.
All of this took place, of course, in the pre-Voting Rights Act era.
The social and political context for this rash of Act III repeals meant that RCV largely went out with a bang. The outlier among the cities that repealed PR during this period even after years of use was Hamilton, OH (a city just outside of Cincinnati), in which PR went out with a comparatively sleepy whimper. PR was first adopted there in 1926, and quietly provided a framework for representative elections until it was suddenly repealed in 1960. Perhaps it was simply following Cincinnati out as it had followed it in decades before, just absent the drama. Certainly, race did not appear to be an issue in Hamilton; in this city with a very small Black population, a few Black councilors had occasionally been elected without any fanfare as part of community slates, and race did not surface as a reason to either keep or repeal PR. Rather, the repeal has been described as a successful effort by some unsuccessful candidates who didn’t like the way the transfers had flowed… and the merely “fainthearted support,” as one commentator called it, of those who recognized the system’s strengths. A cautionary tale for RCV advocates, for sure.
Hamilton’s experience provokes the question for this capsule history: mightn’t it be too simplistic to group the other Act III repeals in PR cities as simply exemplars of pre-Voting Rights Act cold war, racism and xenophobia? Weren’t there likely more ordinary political machinations at work as well? Of course there were, and scholars have documented them well. But the inverse question is equally important, and equally relevant: would these repeals have succeeded in this short time span in so many diverse locations without an increasingly toxic socio-political atmosphere in which a reaction against diverse representation under PR could fester? As just one example, in 1949, would the Massachusetts Legislature itself have been so aggressive in suppressing its further spread without it, a mere 11 years after enabling the reform, amidst cities still wanting to sign up for PR? Very unlikely.
Stay tuned for the next installment, “Ranked Choice Voting in the US, Act IV, 1961-1991“
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.