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Early American Adoptions of Proportional Representation

Kathleen L. Barber

In the early 1900s, particularly from 1913 to 1932, the Proportional Representation League pursued a vigorous campaign for the single transferable vote (e.g, preference voting) form of proportional representation elections. Its staff traveled the country to testify, exhort, write PR charter provisions, provide expert advice on the conduct of PR elections and defend existing PR systems under attack in repeal referenda.

By 1926, several renowned reformers had joined the PR League's council, including historian Arthur N. Holcombe of Harvard and economist Paul H. Douglas of the University of Chicago, journalist Walter Lippman, suffragists Carrie Chapman Catt and Belle Sherwin (the first and second presidents of the National League of Women Voters) and U.S. Senators George W. Norris of Nebraska, Robert L. Owen of Oklahoma and George Wharton Pepper of Pennsylvania.

Ohio an Early Leader


In Ohio, PR ranked high on the agenda of Progressives along with such local priorities as the city manager plan, the municipal initiative, referendum and recall, the eight-hour day for city workers and municipal ownership of utilities.

As in the earlier battle for Home Rule in Ohio, independent Democrats and Republicans affiliated with the state's Progressive Party were leaders in the campaign for electoral reform. Toledo Mayor Brand Whitlock and Columbus city council member Washington Gladden continued to travel and exhort on behalf of the Progressive agenda.

They were joined in the fray by Democratic attorneys Florence Allen and Susan Rebhan of Cleveland, and by populist minister Herbert Bigelow and Democratic attorney Edward Alexander of Cincinnati, who held out successfully for proportional representation (PR) elections in exchange for supporting a small at-large council for their city. Anti-machine Republican leaders such as attorney Murray Seasongood, later mayor of Cincinnati, Agnes Hilton and Marietta Tawney of Cincinnati, campaigned both in their respective cities and in national forums for the adoption of PR.

Ohio was known as "a particular arena of struggle where the League of Women Voters was in the center of nearly every effort." Among women's clubs nationally, the Women's City Club of Cleveland and the Woman's City Club of Cincinnati were known for their skill in organizing workers to canvass for votes on behalf of new charters embodying the city manager plan and PR. With these local activists as known resources, it is not surprising that the national Proportional Representation League would pour its resources into winning over voters in Ohio.

Ashtabula was just one of many Ohio cities visited by the PR League's Clarence Hoag in the wake of the adoption of Home Rule, but there he met a sympathetic local labor leader, William E. Boynton, a railroad engineer and former city council president who invited him to return for further conversations with other leaders and eventually an appearance before the city charter commission. The seed planted by Hoag would grow by 1914 into the adoption of a new charter with the city manager plan, and by 1915 into the first American adoption of PR.

Adoptions followed in Boulder (1917), Kalamazoo (1918), and Sacramento and West Hartford (1921). Because these were relatively small cities, there was jubilation in the movement when Cleveland adopted PR elections with its new charter in 1921. Not only was Cleveland the largest city yet to try this electoral system, it was ethnically and religiously the most diverse -- "polyglot," in the reformers' terms. With favorable press emanating from Cleveland and intense intercity campaigning by reformers in Ohio, Cincinnati (1925), Hamilton (1926) and Toledo (1935) also adopted PR charters, as did nearby Wheeling, West Virginia (1935).

New York Adopts Proportional Representation

In 1936, over the strenuous opposition of the Tammany organization which had a virtual monopoly on council, the nation's largest city adopted PR. New York City was alone in adopting PR without the usual corollary feature of a city manager plan. The new charter and a separate issue providing for PR council elections carried all boroughs except Staten Island. Here in the 1930s the reform spirit, with its interest in changing political arrangements, persisted at the local level and blended into the national revival of the spirit of Progressivism in the New Deal.

    PR did what it was supposed to do... Ethnic, religious and racial minorities, the partisan minority in single-party-dominant cities and, in many cases, women were elected to council seats for the first time. These results may not have been well understood; in many cases they were not welcome.

It must have been more than coincidence that PR and a new city charter were adopted by the voters of New York City on the same ballot with their overwhelming election of Franklin D. Roosevelt for his second term as President. In the 1936 campaign, the Democratic city organization warmly supported Roosevelt and stridently opposed both PR and the new charter. Proportional representation had been presented to the voters as a separate issue, lest it drag the charter down to defeat, but the voters swept both local innovations to success along with their presidential preference....

Loss of Proportional Representation in Most Cities


During the Great Depression, however, the PR League was struck by declining financial support. Lack of funds forced the Proportional Representation League to merge into the National Municipal League in 1932, and its continuing efforts were conducted by volunteers. Still the innovation continued to spread. By 1964, 160 PR elections had been held in the United States, including 37 school board elections in Massachusetts cities....

The municipal referendum, however -- itself a Progressive reform tool to expand popular participation in government -- became a formidable weapon in the hands of PR's opponents. Forty-nine repeal issues were placed on the ballots of American PR cities between 1920 and 1961, with several cities experiencing several referenda; 21 cities ultimately repealed PR.

No single factor adequately explains the wave of repeals by popular vote.... In Cleveland, it was voted out as a corollary of rejection of the city manager plan. PR opponents generally attributed the losses to the complexity of the PR count and its time-consuming character. Proponents blamed the continuing opposition of machine politicians who had lost power in reformed cities and sought to recover it....

Although repeal votes have been attributed to a changing political climate less friendly to experimentation and reform, the use of PR was still spreading during the period of repeals. The last two successful repeal votes did not occur until 1960 (in Hamilton, Ohio and Worcester, Massachusetts). Cambridge (Mass.) voters defeated four repeal referenda, the latest in 1961, and the city continues to practice PR today, over 50 years after its adoption. These are instances of the Progressive influence still at work at state and local levels among the forces of organized labor, urban Democrats and Independents, Independent Republicans, social workers and champions of public power, all of whom were among the persistent advocates of PR....

A Victim of Its Success

It would seem that the search for explanations of repeal must be conducted in the context of particular cities and their social and economic development. Yet an underlying explanation for repeal seldom recognized in the literature is the fact that PR did what it was supposed to do -- that is, facilitate the representation of minorities of various sorts.

Ethnic, religious and racial minorities, the partisan minority in single-party-dominant cities and, in many cases, women were elected to council seats for the first time. These results may not have been well understood; in many cases they were not welcome in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. The election of two Communist Party members in New York City in 1945, and of African Americans in Toledo and Cincinnati, figured prominently in repeal campaigns. The history of the repeal campaigns shows that voters generally were not as open to diversity as PR's sponsors had been.

This article is excerpted and adapted from Kathleen Barber's Proportional Representation and Election Reform in Ohio (Ohio State University Press, 1995), which focuses on the use of PR in five Ohio cities. Dr. Barber is professor emerita of John Carroll University and a founding Advisory Board member of the Center for Voting and Democracy.