While electoral reform can sometimes feel hopelessly foreign or futuristic, one of the most ambitious ranked choice voting reforms ever developed was conceived of and implemented in America's largest city 81 years ago. Today, FairVote releases a report analyzing that reform, New York's 10 year experiment with Proportional Representation. The full report can be found here, and you can read our summary below.
The New York City Council is not known for its diversity of parties or spirited debate. Its current makeup is eight percent Republican and 92 percent Democratic. Most votes are taken behind closed doors and are nearly unanimous. Yet 80 years ago, New York City was the largest member of an experiment trying to create a better municipal democracy. Recognizing how the push for better representation in New York initially succeeded before eventually failing is key to understanding how to pursue similar reforms today.
Before 1936, the city council had major electoral problems. The Democratic Party dominated elections, and with guaranteed supermajorities it had no need to compromise with political opponents. With safe elections and no electoral accountability, graft and incompetence festered.
A cause of this dysfunction was winner-take-all districts that created outcomes that did not proportionately represent the people. The table below shows the proportionality gap, which measures the difference between votes received by a party and seats won on the New York Board of Aldermen. Democrats had a consistent, structural advantage.
In 1936, New Yorkers voted to change how their city council was elected, beginning the largest experiment in proportional representation in American history. The electoral reform combined ranked choice voting with multi-winner districts (each borough electing council members borough-wide) to guarantee fair outcomes and minority party representation.
Proportional representation transformed the city's legislature into an influential, deliberative, and democratic body. For the first time ever, elections now represented voters proportionally, as the city’s heterogenous opposition to the majority Democratic Party gained representation. Third parties were given the chance to run and had significant electoral appeal. Proportional representation produced the most ideologically diverse council in the city’s history, depicted below.
https://e.infogram.com/_/RSgpQhDD3c8hBaRzfKBq?src=embedParties on the City Council357no0border:none;allowfullscreen
Eventually, proportional representation became a collateral victim of the second Red Scare and, ironically, some of its own success. Advocates of repeal, who sought to restore machine dominance, could not defeat proportional representation on its merits. Instead, repeal advocates blamed proportional representation for the election of communists to the city council. While the communist issue might have doomed proportional representation, the true deathblow came when the Republicans joined the Democrats to oppose it. Republicans had been early champions of proportional representation, but defected due to their dwindling role within a diverse and mostly progressive minority coalition. Proportional representation was defeated with a referendum vote in 1947. The Democratic Party regained comprehensive dominance of the city council and has maintained it since.
The impact of proportional representation is visible in the graph above.
https://e.infogram.com/_/iZdIABjEliBRLh1zspEz?src=embedPopular Vote vs Representation729822no0border:none;allowfullscreen
While America is long past the era of dominant party machine rule, the electoral structures that enabled its rise remain intact. Winner-take-all elections produce unrepresentative results, parties exacerbate the problem by gerrymandering advantages for themselves,and third party perspectives are shut out by plurality elections.
Proportional representation remains the best solution. Rep. Don Beyer has introduced the Fair Representation Act, a bill that would use the best of the New York system by mandating ranked choice voting and multi-winner districts for U.S. House seats. Better elections are within reach.
For more information on proportional representation in New York, read the full report here.