The Big Apple is buzzing with the potential for election reform.
The New York City Charter Commission, in its preliminary staff report released April 23, recommended that the 15-member committee approve ranked choice voting (RCV) for a citywide referendum in November. If approved, it would mark the first time since 1947 that a form of RCV was used in citywide elections.
In fact, multi-winner RCV has a fascinating and tumultuous history in NYC.
In the 1920s and early ‘30s, the Democratic Party’s political machine, known colloquially as Tammany Hall, dominated New York City politics. Through pork-barrel politics and patronage, the party was able to maintain a stranglehold on power in the city—particularly on the notoriously corrupt and inefficient Board of Aldermen, the precursor to today’s city council.
Between 1931 and 1937, in Board of Aldermen elections, Democrats received between 51 and 66 percent of the vote, but won between 75 and 98 percent of the seats on the board. Furthermore, in aggregate, between 1925 and 1937, Democrats received 61 percent of total votes and won 91 percent of all available seats. The numbers just didn’t add up—and, because of that inequity, thousands of citizens were left without adequate representation.
After scandal rocked the Democratic Tammany Hall machine in the early 1930s, Republican Fiorello La Guardia swept into the mayoral office with a mandate for reform. His reform task force recommended proportional representation via multi-winner RCV--also known as single-transferable vote (STV)--to combat the nefarious effects of partisan corruption that had enveloped the city in the years prior.
The adoption of multi-winner RCV and subsequent proportional representation led to a golden age in municipal politics.
According to “Proportional Representation In New York City,” a 2017 FairVote report, “For the first time in decades, Democrats had to make deals with members of other parties in order to achieve their legislative agenda.” The public became more involved in the dealings of the council, with “public attendance…now regular” at meetings as “broadcasts of the city council became one of the most popular radio programs” in the city.
For the first time in city history, the legislature was actually representative of the political preferences of the electorate. While the average proportionality gap (the difference between percentage of votes for a party and percentage of seats won by that party) before RCV and proportional representation was 14 percent, the gap shrunk to 1.8 percent after implementation.
This allowed alternative political parties to reflect the political diversity of the city, gain seats at the bargaining table, and influence meaningful legislation—which included subsidized housing projects, rent control, and a centralized traffic commission. As the aforementioned report noted, “The council was producing substantive legislation, and it was doing so with the input of minority parties” which “illustrated the connection between fair representation and good government.”
Alas, RCV and proportional representation in Board of Aldermen elections, doomed by red-baiting and the Republican Party’s about-face on the issue (for fear of being usurped by third parties), was repealed by referendum in 1947. This left the only vestige of RCV in the city as community school district boards, which were abolished in 2002.
After the referendum of 1947, Democrats quickly regained dominance of the Board of Aldermen, winning 96 percent of the seats with only 53 percent of the vote in the 1949. This historical dominance has continued through recent times, with Democrats winning 94.1 percent of seats with 79 percent of the vote in 2013 city council elections.
Today, while RCV would not be used to achieve proportional representation (the charter commission is only considering single-winner RCV) nor be motivated by any perception of rampant partisan corruption, it would, nonetheless, greatly benefit New York City.
It would give third parties and independents an enhanced voice in city politics, reduce the “spoiler effect,” save millions of dollars in expensive runoff elections, encourage increased candidate diversity, promote positive campaigning, and, ultimately, lead to an increase in New York’s historically anemic turnout rates.
Borne of imagination and political will, this incredible period in NYC’s history illustrates the transformative power of alternative election methods. New York should embrace this history and be a beacon of electoral reform for the rest of the nation.
As Frank Sinatra might have said, 'If RCV can make it there, it can make it anywhere; it's up to you, New York.’