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A Brief History of Proportional Representation in the United States

Douglas J. Amy
Department of Politics
Mount Holyoke College

(An earlier version of this article was previously published as "The Forgotten History of the Single Transferable Vote in the United States," in Representation 34, number 1 (Winter 1996/7).)

The United States has always had a tradition of single-member district, winner-take-all elections. So it is hardly surprising then that few Americans are aware of our history of experimentation with proportional representation (PR) elections. Admittedly these experiments were few in number. During the first half of the 20th century, two dozen American cities used for a time the single transferable vote (STV)--a form of proportional representation that is often called "choice voting" today. The story of how proportional representation came to be adopted and eventually abandoned provides some useful information about the history of this voting system, its political effects, and the politics of voting system reform.

THE HISTORICAL ROOTS OF PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION

The political roots of proportional representation in the United States originated in the Progressive Movement of the early 20th century. Besides such issues as child labor laws, anti-monopoly legislation, and women’s suffrage, Progressives were also interested in government reform. Many were particularly concerned about the corruption in urban governments. Large cities often were dominated by ‘party machines,’ of which Tammany Hall in New York City was the most infamous. Bribery, kickbacks, favoritism, and voting fraud were rampant in these cities. The Progressives wanted to clean up these cities and blunt the power of the party bosses.

Their urban reform program included such things as the non-partisan ballot and replacing elected mayors with appointed city managers. Some Progressives also added proportional representation to this reform agenda. They argued that winner-take-all, single-member district elections served to reinforce the power of urban political machines. It was not unusual for machines to win almost all the seats on city councils, based on only 50%-60% of the vote. PR was seen was a way to break these one-party monopolies and to allow for the fair representation of a variety of political parties.

The Proportional Representation League of the United States was also instrumental in promoting the use of PR. Founded in 1893, the League soon followed the lead of English electoral reform groups and endorsed the single transferable vote as the most preferable version of PR. The League eventually began to enjoy some political success when it decided in 1912 that its most realistic goal would be to promote the adoption of PR on the city level. Cities presented the fewest legal and procedural obstacles to PR. Usually cities would only need to change their charters to adopt PR elections. This change could be made by referendums that would be voted on directly by citizens, thereby avoiding the need to convince government officials to pass this reform.

Proportional representation received an important boost in 1914 when the National Municipal League, a leading proponent of urban reform, included PR elections in its model city charter. Soon afterwards, in 1915, Ashtabula, Ohio became the first American city to adopt PR elections. Before long, Boulder, Kalamazoo, Sacramento, and West Hartford followed suit. In the mid-1920s, the first large urban areas, Cleveland and Cincinnati, adopted PR elections, and two other Ohio cities, Toledo and Hamilton, soon joined them. The greatest victory of PR advocates came in 1936 when voters in New York City approved the adoption of PR elections by a large margin. Interest in PR jumped dramatically as a result, with it eventually being adopted in eleven other cities, including seven in Massachusetts. In all, two dozen American cities joined the PR camp.

EFFECTS ON REPRESENTATION

What political effects did proportional representation have on the cities that adopted it? In particular, did PR fulfill the political promises of it proponents to reduce corruption, ensure fair representation, and increase voter participation? Or did it confirm the fears of PR critics who predicted confused voters, lower turnout, and increased political divisiveness?

Scholars have begun to shed some light on these questions. The most extensive research to date has been produced by Kathleen Barber and several colleagues. Their study, Proportional Representation and Electoral Reform in Ohio, systematically analyzed the political effects of PR in five Ohio cities. In many cases their findings were also confirmed by results in other PR cities. For example, Barber found that choice voting produced fairer and more proportional representation of political parties. In particular, it eliminated the tendency of winner-take-all systems to exaggerate the seats given to the largest party and to underrepresent the smaller parties. In the election before the adoption of PR in Cincinnati, the Republicans won only 55% of the vote, but received 97% of the seats on the council. In the first PR election, the results were much more proportional, with the Republicans winning 33.3% of the seats based on 27.8% of the vote, and the rival Charter party winning 66.7% of the seats on 63.8% of the vote.

Similarly, in the last pre-PR election in New York City, the Democrats won 95.3% of the seats on the Board of Alderman with only 66.5% of the vote. During the use of PR, the Democrats still had a majority of the seats, but it was a much smaller one that reflected more accurately their strength in the electorate. In 1941, proportional representation gave the Democrats 65.5% of the seats on 64% of the vote. Moreover, it also produced representation for the Republicans and three smaller parties in proportion to their voting strength. Similar results occurred in the other PR cities, demonstrating that this system greatly improved the accuracy of partisan representation.

Proportional representation also encouraged fairer racial and ethnic representation. It produced the first Irish Catholics elected in Ashtabula, and the first Polish-Americans elected in Toledo. In Cincinnati, Hamilton, and Toledo, African-Americans had never been able to win city office until the coming of PR. Significantly, after these cities abandoned PR, African-Americans again found it almost impossible to get elected.

EFFECTS ON POLITICAL MACHINES

At times, proportional representation helped undermine the power of political machines and party bosses. In several cities, such as Cincinnati, the machines lost their majorities and their grip on power. After the transition to PR, Cincinnati went from a city with one of the worst reputations for corruption to one that won praise for the integrity and professionalism of its city government. Interestingly, even in cities where the dominant party retained its majority, PR sometimes helped to curb the power of the party bosses. It did so by allowing the election of independent Democratic and Republican candidates--candidates nominated by petition and not beholden to party bosses. PR proponents were correct, then, in predicting that this candidate-centered system would take power away from party leaders and give more of it to voters.

 

EFFECTS ON WASTED VOTES

Proponents of proportional representation also believed it would minimize wasted votes. They argued that the ballot transfer process would ensure that most people would cast effective votes--votes that actually elected someone to office. The evidence supports this claim. In Cincinnati, the number of effective votes improved dramatically, rising from an average of 56.2% in the three pre-PR elections to an average of 90% for the 16 PR elections. Similar effects were found in other PR cities. In Cleveland, the number of effective votes increased from an average of 48.3% in the pre-PR period to an average of 79.6% during the PR period. And in New York City, the number of effective votes grew from an average of 60.6% to 79.2% with PR.

EFFECTS ON THE PARTY SYSTEM

How did proportional representation effect the size of the party systems in these cities? Did it subvert the traditional American two-party system, as some critics feared it would? Not always. In some cities, PR produced a stable two-party system. In Cincinnati, the PR elections were contested between the Republicans and the Charter Committee, with no minor party candidates winning representation. Indeed, only once in all of the PR elections in the five cities in Ohio did a minor party candidate win office--a Socialist in Ashtabula in 1915.

The situation was different in New York City--an intensely cosmopolitan area with a variety of political cultures. PR nurtured a vigorous multi-party system, where at any one time the Democrats and Republicans were joined on the city council by three smaller parties, including the American Labor party, the Fusion party, and the Communist party. In general, however, PR did not seem to automatically favor a multi-party system over a two-party system, but instead it tended to produce a party system that reflected whatever degree of political diversity already existed in particular cities.

EFFECTS ON VOTER TURNOUT

Proponents of proportional representation had predicted higher voter participation, reasoning that having fewer wasted votes and more choices at the polls would give citizens more incentive to vote. Opponents had forecast a drop in turnout, with voters discouraged by complicated ballots and incomprehensible vote counting procedures. In reality, however, PR seemed to have little effect on voter turnout. Barber and her colleagues looked at turnout rates before, during, and after the use of PR in five Ohio cities and found little correlation between voting system and the degree of voter participation. She concluded that "the emergence and disappearance of local issues and candidates appear to have had more to do with the act of voting than did the form of the ballot." (1) The scattered evidence from other PR cities seems to confirm the importance of local factors, with some cities seeing increased turnout with the adoption of PR and others seeing a decline.

EFFECTS ON POLITICAL STABILITY

Another common concern of PR critics was that it would increase political conflict and divisiveness. They worried that it would encourage so-called ‘bloc voting’ along ethnic, racial, religious, and class lines, and that the resulting city councils would be paralyzed by conflict. In practice, PR often did result in substantial bloc voting. But as defenders observed at the time, so too did winner-take-all elections. As noted earlier, PR also produced some city councils that were more demographically and politically diverse. But there is no evidence that this increased political pluralism had any detrimental impact on the workings of these city councils. In the five Ohio PR cities, Barber and her colleagues found "no systematic evidence of greater dissension on PR elected councils, compared the councils elected by other means.... Indeed, striking decreases in conflict were found after PR/STV was implemented in Hamilton and Toledo." (2) This lack of increased conflict may have resulted from the ballot transfer process in choice voting, which may have encouraged politicians to be more civil to each other so as not to risk alienating potential supporters.

THE OVERALL EFFECTS OF PR

On the whole, from the available evidence, proportional representation seemed to have a beneficial effect on the cities that adopted it. It clearly produced more representative government and, where voters wanted it, a more diverse party system. Large increases in the number of effective votes were also enjoyed in these cities. It may not have resulted in the substantial increases in voter turnout that proponents predicted, but neither did it produce the increases in voter alienation that critics feared. And finally, even though PR city councils were often more diverse politically, this did not seem to impair their political efficiency or effectiveness.

THE ABANDONMENT OF PR

If proportional representation amassed such a generally favorable record, why was it eventually rejected by all but one U.S. city, Cambridge, Massachusetts? The answer to this question is complex, with a number of factors playing a role in the abandonment of PR. Sometimes the reasons were primarily local. In a few cities dissatisfaction grew over other elements of the reform charters, such as the city manager, and when the reform charter was thrown out, PR went with it.

However, there were several common factors at work in many of the cities that abandoned proportional representation. For instance, this system universally came under attack from the politicians and parties who lost power and privileges. In Michigan and California, the dominant political parties mounted legal challenges and the courts in these states ruled that PR violated their constitutions. A more common attack was the effort to repeal PR by popular referendum. The referendum was a two-edged sword for PR--initially making it easier to adopt this reform, but also making it easier for opponents to challenge it. In Cleveland, well-financed opponents sponsored five repeal referendums in the first ten years of PR, with the final one succeeding. Similarly, PR opponents in Hamilton finally won their repeal effort after four failed referendums in 12 years.

Another common factor contributing to the demise of proportional representation was the inability of supporters to defend it effectively. By 1932, the PR League was losing steam. It was unable to finance its separate existence and had to merge with the National Municipal League. In some cities, the progressive political coalition that supported PR gradually disintegrated. Important reform leaders lost interest over the years, moved to the suburbs, or died. Two exceptions to this trend were Cincinnati and Cambridge, both of which had active and well-supported organizations dedicated to defending PR. In Cincinnati the Charter Committee aggressively defended proportional representation and it survived there for over thirty years, despite repeated challenges. The Cambridge Civic Association has also proved to be an energetic and capable defender of PR and has defeated every repeal effort to date.

Another factor working against defenders of proportional representation in many cities was the controversial nature of minority representation. Many Americans in the early twentieth century were hostile to political and racial minorities--the very groups aided by PR. Opponents of PR were not above fanning the flames of prejudice in their efforts to get rid of this reform. In particular, critics often played upon two of the most basic fears of white, middle class Americans: communists and African-Americans.

In Cincinnati, race was the dominant theme in the successful 1957 repeal effort. The single transferable vote had allowed African Americans to be elected for the first time, with two blacks being elected to the city council in the 1950s. The nation was also seeing the first stirrings of the Civil Rights movement and racial tensions were running high. PR opponents shrewdly decided to make race an explicit factor in their repeal campaign. They warned whites that PR was helping to increase black power in the city and asked them whether they wanted a "Negro mayor." Their appeal to white anxieties succeeded, with whites supporting repeal by a two to one margin.

In New York City, fear of communism proved the undoing of proportional representation. Although one or two Communists had served on the PR-elected city council since 1941, it was not until the coming of the Cold War that Democratic party leaders were able to effectively exploit this issue. As historian Robert Kolesar discovered, the Democrats made every effort in their repeal campaign to link PR with Soviet Communism, describing the single transferable vote as "the political importation from the Kremlin," "the first beachhead of Communist infiltration in this country," and "an un-American practice which has helped the cause of communism and does not belong in the American way of life."(3) This "red scare" campaign resulted in the repeal of PR by an overwhelming margin.

Just as the adoption of the single transferable vote in New York City prompted other cities to consider this reform, its well-publicized defeat there also encouraged repeal efforts in other PR cities. PR was abandoned in neighboring Long Beach and Yonkers in 1947 and 1948. Repeal campaigns also won in Boulder (1947), Toledo (1949), and Wheeling (1951). The PR movement never recovered from these defeats; and although supporters remained optimistic, the 1950s saw the repeal of PR in one city after another. By 1962, only Cambridge, Massachusetts retained this system.

While the repeal of proportional representation in these American cities is taken by opponents as evidence that this voting system failed, proponents argue that it is more accurate to conclude that this system was rejected because it worked too well. They note that PR worked well in throwing party bosses out of government--bosses who never relented in their attempts to regain power--and it worked well in promoting the representation of racial, ethnic, and ideological minorities that were previously shut out by the winner-take-all system. For advocates of PR, then, it was the very political successes of this system that set the stage for a political backlash that was effectively exploited by its opponents and eventually led to the its demise in most of these cities.

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1.  Kathleen L. Barber, Proportional Representation and Election Reform in Ohio (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1995), p. 295.

2.  Barber, Proportional Representation, p. 305.

3.  Robert J. Kolesar, ‘Communism, Race, and the Defeat of Proportional Representation in Cold War America’ (University Heights, Ohio: History Department, John Carroll University, 1996), pp. 4-5.