Voices & Choices

The forgotten results & future promise of ranked choice voting in Ohio

The forgotten results & future promise of ranked choice voting in Ohio

The following blog was released as a new FairVote report.

Ohio - New century, same old problems

Ohio has a rich history of being an electoral battleground. Consequently, it also has a deep record of being the frontline for struggles encompassing voter disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, and fair representation issues. Historical examination of this struggle reveals that Ohio’s communities have a history of using ranked choice voting (RCV) as a means to combat the partisan interests that have long swamped the state. Ohio should look to its past use of RCV for solutions to its current election woes. Ohio’s cities were the first in the nation to adopt single transferable vote (STV), as part of their reform efforts. STV is the proportional, multi-winner form of RCV advocated by FairVote.

Progressive reformers at the beginning of the 20th century, responding to governance concerns and the disproportionate power of party bosses, helped lead campaigns to adopt STV in Ashtabula (1915), Cleveland (1924), Cincinnati (1925), Hamilton (1926), and Toledo (1935). The story of why those cities adopted STV, and how RCV systems came to be victims of their own success, is still relevant a century later.

At the turn of the 20th century, as in the present, the share of Ohio’s congressional seats won by any political party had little to do with the percentage of votes cast statewide for each party’s congressional candidates. Gerrymandered congressional districts, among other factors, resulted in distinctly non proportional representation. However, unlike today, the lack of sophisticated map drawing techniques and hyper partisanship meant that the switch of a small margin of votes from one party to the other could swing a significant number of districts into the other party’s camp. Party control of the Ohio delegation swung back and forth from Republican to Democrat in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and each party took opportunity of its temporary advantage by redistricting, seeking to gain a further foothold by manipulating the line drawing of districts. Between 1876 and 1886, every election brought about the enactment of a new districting plan.

In a critique that is still salient today, James A. Garfield, a Republican congressman from Ohio and future president, lamented that gerrymandering and first past the post elections resulted in disproportionate elections. Ohio’s districts, he said, made “a large portion of the voting people permanently disenfranchised...There are about ten thousand Democratic voters in my district, and they have been voting there for the last forty years, without any hope of having a Representative on this floor than of having one in the Commons of Great Britain.”

But not all elections were so driven by districting. Ohio statehouse seats were elected from large multimember districts that provided relatively more political diversity than the single member federal districts. In 1857, 1889, and 1893 Ohio constitutional amendments to change multi-member districts for state legislators into single member districts were initiated and subsequently defeated. These proposals were rejected by voters aware of the power of gerrymandering in single member districts, and leery of replicating the problem of gerrymandering into Ohio’s statehouse districts.

Focus on cities

Progressive reformers in Ohio didn’t just look at beating back further attempts to gerrymander. They also experimented with electoral reform in order to cure the ills of partisanship. They first looked at Ohio’s burgeoning cities as opportunities to experiment with fairer forms of governing and more proportional systems of electing office holders, with hopes of eventually exporting these systems to statewide and national elections. In Ashtabula, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Hamilton, and Toledo, these reforms included switching city council elections from winner take all formats to ranked choice voting elections. Elections previous to STV had often been dominated by party bosses in these cities who were elected from single district wards. The ward system was accused of electing officials unresponsive to the needs of citizens who were not part of their voting base. Ranked choice voting, was then, and is now, seen as a fairer way to provide elected representation more responsive to the needs of citizens and more reflective of the makeup of a city’s population. Following Ohio’s lead, other cities across the nation adopted RCV methods, including Cambridge, New York, Boulder, and Kalamazoo.

STV in Ohio’s cities succeeded. In addition to adding new political perspectives and having well-run elections, all cities who adopted STV began to elect members of minority groups in far greater numbers after adoption. Cincinnati, Hamilton, and Toledo all elected their first African American city council members after adopting STV. Cleveland had elected a solitary African American to its city council through single member ward elections before adopting STV in 1924. It elected three African Americans in the years following STV adoption—a number that proportionately reflected the city’s African American population at the time. In 1950, while only 15 percent of Cincinnati’s population was African American, 22 percent of its council members were African American because of STV elections. Other cohesive minority groups at the time, such as Irish Catholics and Polish Americans, were also able to secure greater representation under STV. Women benefitted as well. No woman had ever been elected in Cleveland before STV elections. Eight women were elected over the course of just five elections that used STV.

Backlash

Gains by previously unrepresented groups caused a stir in the social order. STV worked so well in electing council members who reflected the makeup of their cities, party bosses and business interests became concerned about limiting the political access of “undesirable” populations. As minority groups gained electoral power in proportion to their numbers—and as more members of those groups were elected to office—opponents of reform were able to exploit racial anxieties, ultimately leading to STV’s repeal.

STV first faced court challenges from opponents of reform. Notably, one example of the nation’s growing diversity helped save STV. The Ohio Supreme Court upheld STV in 1923 in an opinion by Florence E. Allen, the first female judge to serve on a state supreme court. After STV was declared constitutional in court, reform opponents shifted tactics to focus on the ballot box. 49 ballot initiatives in American cities focused on repealing STV systems between 1920 and 1961, with 21 ultimately being successful. All five Ohio cities who adopted STV voting eventually repealed it.

Ashtabula was the first to repeal RCV in 1929, after three attempts. STV elections, in what would become a frequent pattern, provoked backlash after electing previously unrepresented groups. After the prominent elections of Italian, Irish, and Polish members of the community, the Ashtabula Star-Beacon endorsed the repeal of STV, writing that “Minorities are overrepresented”. The claim was untrue. Even though white protestants made up a numerical minority in Ashtabula, they were used to holding a majority of the city council seats. Ethnic minorities in Ashtabula were proportionally elected according to their population under RCV, but the visible presence of ethnic minority elected officials provoked concern among upper class members of the community.

In particular, a small spike in Italian immigration after World War I and the subsequently election of Italian city council members caused intense backlash. Animus against those considered foreign was extended to describe the voting system that allowed these ethnic communities to elect members of choice to the council. Motivated attacks on Ashtabula’s RCV system are evidenced by local letters to the editor referring to the voting system as “European”, “Un-american”, and “smack(ing) of bolshevism”.12 Two of the seven city council members were Italian under the STV elections of 1919, 1925, and 1929. After the successful repeat of STV, only one Italian council member was elected. They served a single term in 1933, despite Italian Americans being the city’s largest ethnic group.

Cleveland repealed STV in 1931, on its fifth attempt. STV was opposed by both major political parties there, which frequently collaborated to control the cities wards via party boss style favoritism and graft. Political corruption, along with racial politics, drove most of the repeal efforts, with suspect tactics used in repeal campaigns. In the first attempt to repeal STV in Cleveland, a ward system plan was introduced as a ballot measure replacement for STV. As evidence of chicanery, fewer votes in favor of the replacement plan were cast than the number of signatures that supposedly had been validly gathered to petition the replacement the RCV system. After Cleveland’s repeal of STV in 1931, representation of women plummeted, with no woman elected to city council until 1949.

African Americans in Cleveland benefitted under STV elections, with African American representation on the city council growing from one member to three. Despite this gain, RCV proponents at the time were largely uninterested in outreach towards the African American community, or publicizing the gains made by African Americans, due to racial attitudes of the period.

Cincinnati repealed STV in 1957 on its 5th repeal initiative attempt, holding the first non-STV election in the city in 30 years. The city at that time was 35 percent black, but elected zero African American council members. Proponents of repeal made explicitly racist arguments, charging that due to STV African Americans had too much influence in city hall. Two years prior to repeal Theodore Berry, an African American city council member, had almost become mayor due to garnering the highest amount of first choice votes. After repeal, Berry was the only incumbent councilman of his party to lose a bid for reelection, despite having virtually universal backing of the Cincinnati African American community.

In Hamilton, the story was much the same. African American candidates were elected for the first time in the history of the city under STV. After the repeal of STV in 1960, African Americans lost all representation on the city council. Likewise, women achieved representation in Hamilton under STV elections, but failed to win (and were less likely to run) in the five years after it was repealed.

Similarly, Toledo had an African American population of 8 percent during the period of its STV elections, and was able to elect the first black member to city council in the city’s history to the nine-member council. This gave them roughly proportional representation, until the repeal of STV in 1951 resulted in that council member losing his seat.

Overall, the repeal of STV in Ohio’s cities took multiple campaigns organized by entrenched interests and were characterized by racial and political animus. After the repeal of STV, each city’s council became less reflective of its demographic makeup, elected fewer women and minorities, and ceded greater influence to traditional party politics. Many cities repealed STV and returned to at-large, winner-take-all elections. Others switched to ward elections dominated by party bosses.

The repeal of ranked choice voting systems had stark consequences for minority representation, and the civic health of Ohio’s cities. Cincinnati, for example, suffered two race riots in the decade following STV’s repeal. In 1967, the year of the first riot, Cincinnati’s black population had reached 135,000 out of the city’s 500,000 residents. In the 1950s there had been more representation on the city council (under STV), even with a far smaller African American population. African Americans rightly attributed this to the deliberate dilution of their vote through abolition of the STV election system. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, investigating the causes of nationwide race disturbances, found that winner-take-all, at-large voting contributed to many urban African American residents feeling unrepresented throughout many American cities. Their report states, “[I]t is clear that [winner-take-all], at-large representation, currently the practice in many American cities, does not give members of the minority community a feeling of involvement or stake in city government. Further, this form of representation dilutes the normal political impact of pressures generated by a particular neighborhood or district.”

Cincinnati would continue to experience intense racial acrimony, and go on to be the scene of riots in 1968 and 2001.

Relearning old lessons

Progressive reformers never achieved their dream of a more fair and representative election system in Ohio. In part this was due to the racial attitudes that the population, including many of the reformers themselves, held. From a modern perspective however, Ohio’s period of civic experimentation with STV elections seems like a success that should be replicated.

Ohio’s congressional districts have only gotten more gerrymandered, but the Fair Representation Act, which would implement a national STV system for congressional elections, would fix the line drawing problems and gerrymandered districts that Ohio has faced since the early 1900s. On a local level, STV systems in Ohio’s major cities are historical traditions that are worth repeating. Currently, many municipalities use single winner RCV (though Cambridge continues to use multi winner STV elections) to produce more proportional and fair outcomes in their communities. 2018 elections featuring RCV systems have voter turnout that surpassed expectations, smooth and inexpensive implementation, few errors, and elected winners with broad bases of support that often reflect the diversity of their residents.

In the early 20th century, RCV might have been ahead of its time. Today, fairer elections where voters have power are long overdue. Lawmakers, courts, and citizens should relearn the lessons of Ohio’s use of RCV and implement it once again in order to address the state’s current challenges.

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Photo illustration by Mikhaila Markham

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