Proportional Representation: The Good Government Municipal Reform that Wouldn’t “Stay Put”

Back to Spring 2024: Volume 113, Number 1

By Mike McGrath

On November 9, 1947, New Yorkers went to the polls for a referendum on the city’s controversial method for electing council members, “proportional ranked choice voting” (P-RCV). For an election about elections, the referendum campaign was unusually heated and hard fought. Historian Charles Garrett would later describe it as “one of the most dramatic and emotionally charged campaigns ever waged in New York City over an issue that didn’t involve the election of candidates to public office.”

Precinct captains pounded the pavement. Debaters squared off on the radio and in public forums. Labor leaders, clergy, newspaper columnists, businesspeople and reformers all weighed in. “The battle over proportional representation gained momentum today,” reported the New York Times, “as the city’s voters found their mailboxes stuffed with vigorous arguments for and against the present method of electing city councilmen. The mailed broadsides appeared as follow-up to the thousands of pro and con posters which have been pasted on walls throughout the city in the past few days.”

Leading the charge for repeal was Manhattan’s Tammany Hall Democratic Party machine, the bane of New York City reformers since the days of William M. Tweed, the kleptocratic party boss satirically immortalized in the cartoons of Thomas Nast. Tammany Hall and the outer borough Democrats formed an alliance of convenience with the state Republican machine and assorted members of the local power elite. On the other side were the city’s venerable good government groups, leftwing labor organizations, and the NAACP.

The New York Times editorial board, which supported the change to P-RCV in 1936, reversed its position to join the repeal ranks. The News, Mirror, World Telegram, Sun, and Catholic News also endorsed repeal. Opposed to the ballot measure were the left-liberal dailies—the Herald Tribune and P.M. and the Communist Daily Worker. Noting unusually high voter registration figures (about 2.3 million) for an off-year election, Tammany leader Frank J. Sampson confidently predicted that “this foreign political theory” would “meet its Waterloo on the sidewalks of New York.”

According to an axiom known as Duverger’s Law, voting systems determine party systems. The winner-take-all (or simple plurality) system tends to foster two-party party systems. Proportional representation tends to result in multi-party systems. By lowering the threshold for winning office, proportional systems allow smaller parties to gain a foothold. The axiom wouldn’t be postulated until the 1950s. But it didn’t take a French political scientist to state the obvious. The results in New York were evident.

In the first P-RCV election in 1937, council seats were won by Democrats, Republicans, and candidates from two independent parties—City Fusion, a nonpartisan reform coalition, and American Labor, a New Deal era party founded by radical union leaders. Machine Democrats hated the new system, as did some members of the city’s business establishment. Robert Moses, the city’s all-powerful commissioner of parks, spoke for many in 1947 when he said, “I want a return to the two-party system, instead of the three, four, and five-party system which now exists.”

Of course, what New York City had before the advent of proportional representation wasn’t exactly a two-party system, at least, not when it came to aldermanic elections. As Ted Landsman and Jesse Doctor described local elections in a report for Fair Vote, “Carefully gerrymandered winner-take-all districts, coupled with established third parties that consistently split votes ensured grossly disproportionate outcomes in council elections…” Between 1931 and 1937, “Democrats received between 51 and 66 percent of the vote but won between 75 and 98 percent of the seats on the board of aldermen.”

For decades, good government groups had battled Tammany Democrats in a vain effort to clean up city hall. A coalition of reform minded Republicans, Democrats, and independents would mount a “fusion” campaign, elect a machine-busting mayor, but the board of aldermen would remain in the party’s grip. In the next election, the fusion mayor would be turned out and the corruption/scandal/reform cycle would begin again. Most reformers viewed the board of alderman as little more than a rubber stamp for a succession of unelected party bosses. Meetings were often perfunctory and policy decisions were seldom debated in open forums.

In 1930, the reform-minded Governor Franklin Roosevelt appointed Judge Samuel Seabury to head up a commission to investigate allegations of corruption and patronage in New York City’s police department and municipal courts. The city’s flamboyant Tammany backed mayor, Jimmy Walker, was forced to resign and in 1934 Fiorello La Guardia, a progressive, reform-minded Republican was elected mayor.

The son of immigrants, La Guardia was of Italian-and Sephardic Jewish descent. His election symbolized a change in the class and ethnic composition of reform politics in New York City. In years past, the fusion coalition enjoyed the support of well-educated middle-class (and mostly white Protestant voters), while Tammany and the other local Democratic organizations had the support among immigrants and the working-class. But in the 1930s, an energized labor movement, a rupture between Tammany leaders and Roosevelt supporters, and La Guardia’s popularity shifted the battle lines.

In 1936, a fusion/labor/New Deal coalition mounted a successful campaign to amend the city charter, converting the board of alderman into a 23-member city council elected borough-wide with ranked choice voting (RCV). Years of near monopolies ended with one simple charter change. Machine Democrats had the largest number of seats of any single party, but the fusion-labor coalition held an equal number. No more rubber stamps, council decisions were now debated and decided in open, in often noisy, public meetings.

Devised by a British mathematician in the early nineteenth century, ranked choice voting was independently discovered by a Danish mathematician in the 1850s, and later championed by philosopher John Stuart Mills in his book, Considerations on Representative Government. The ingenious system employed what was originally called the “single transferable vote.” Voters would list their choices for candidate in order of preference (1,2,3, etc.) and votes would be transferred from losing candidates (and those with surplus votes) until enough candidates received the “quota” required (in New York City it was 75,000) to fill the available seats.

When ranked choice voting is tallied in multi-member districts (or in the case of New York, boroughs), it is also a form of proportional representation. There are different kinds of proportional and semi-proportional representation. The most widely used form in Europe is the “party list” system. Members of the public vote for the party, and if the party wins 40 percent of the votes, the party gets 40 percent of the seats.

One advantage of the proportional ranked choice voting system is that it greatly reduces the number of “wasted” votes, that is, votes that are cast for losing candidates. In the more traditional “winner-take-all” or simple plurality system, if 51 percent of voters get the candidate of their choice, 49 percent of the voters get nothing. The proportionality of ranked choice voting depends on the number of seats in each district. The more seats in the district (or borough), the more proportional the outcome.

P-RCV appealed to Progressive Era municipal reformers in the U.S. (unlike party list voting) because it could be twinned with nonpartisan elections. Reformers hoped the system would loosen the stranglehold of party machines on local governments and improve the quality of councilmembers. In 1914, the National Municipal League included P-RCV in the second edition of the Model City Charter, along with nonpartisan, at-large elections for small city councils, and the council-manager from of government. Between 1915 and 1947, two dozen cities adopted the new system, a list that included Boulder, Colorado, Cleveland and Cincinnati, Ohio, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Sacramento, California.

When New York City, the country’s largest and most visible municipality, adopted the P-RCV system, it gave heart to voting system reformers throughout the country. “Word has come to us of new or increased activity to secure (proportional representation) in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Providence, Detroit, Columbus, Cleveland, Springfield (Ohio), Springfield (Mass.), Rochester, Schenectady County, and Richmond,” reported George Hallett Jr. in the pages of the National Municipal Review. “In a number of these places the prospects of adoption in the not distant future seem good.”

But wherever and whenever the new voting system gained a toehold in an American city, the most powerful local or state party organization would resist it. “Other reforms have a way of staying put,” wrote the National Municipal League’s Richard Spencer Childs, a lifelong advocate of P-RCV. “Cities hardly ever go back on nonpartisan elections or council manager charters or the merit system in civil service or shortened ballots, but (proportional representation) greatly irritates politicians and they do come back at it unceasingly.”

New York was certainly no exception. When the charter amendment was passed in 1936, Tammany’s lawyers immediately filed a lawsuit to prevent the change from taking effect. Failing that, they mounted repeal campaigns in 1938 and 1940, failing both times. In Albany, Democrats and upstate Republicans joined forces in effort to ban the practice statewide. They also failed. “Like the Bourbons of old,” observed Hallett, machine leaders “never learn and never forget.”

And in 1947, critics of the system had a powerful new argument. In the aftermath of the last failed repeal campaign, two Communists were elected to the council. With the Red Army fighting nationalists in China, and Italian communists vying with Christian Democrats for control of the Italian parliament, machine Democrats declared their own Cold War on P-RCV.

The “first beachhead of communist infiltration” had landed in America, warned Tammany’s Frank J. Sampson. No effort would be spared, he promised, “to throw out this Stalin Frankenstein.” New York Secretary of State, Thomas J. Curran, who also served as a county Republican chair, endorsed the repeal initiative, complaining that P-RCV served the interests of a “well-disciplined, organized group whose main purpose is to alter the form of government.” As if the Red Scare wasn’t scary enough, Curran upped the rhetorical ante, noting that Hitler had also “used proportional representation to take power unto himself in Germany.”

The fearmongering about communists and fascists was a potent, if misleading, argument. Though it was true that Communists were elected to the council during the 1940s—a unique period in the history of American communism when the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were allies—it’s unlikely that they would ever come close to winning a majority of seats during the Red Scare years when its leaders were being blacklisted and jailed. As for Hitler’s rise to power, Weimar Germany did have a form of proportional representation—a party list system—but so had Norway, Sweden, and the Netherlands. More to the point, Germany had a parliamentary system, so it was an apples-to-oranges comparison.

On the other hand, there was a serious question to be considered—and one that was close to the hearts of New York’s sizable population of first and second-generation immigrants. Why hadn’t the United States gone fascist or communist during the 1930s? Unemployment levels rose to dangerous heights. Hungry workers waited in bread lines as radio demagogues preached hatred and sedition to millions of listeners. Yet thanks to our stable and orderly two-party system, or so it was argued, the US was spared the turmoil and violence that shook Europe during the 1930s. Perhaps there were worse things in life than party bosses and one-party, patronage regimes.

The adoption of P-RCV in NYC would be the movement’s high-water mark, and with repeal. the tide would begin to recede. Yonkers, and Long Beach repealed P-RCV not long after the NYC referendum. The Massachusetts Legislature passed a moratorium on P-RCV elections, and Boulder, the second city in the country to adopt the system, pulled the plug after 40 years of P-RCV elections. Cincinnati, the last sizable city with P-RCV—and one of its real success stories—held out until 1957.

The efforts to associate P-RCV with communism were successful. Even the board of the National Municipal League backed away, opting for winner-take-all voting when the Model State Constitution was revised in the early 1960s. Today, it is a seldom remembered fact that proportional representation was an important part of the municipal reform agenda in the early twentieth century or that New York City had once enjoyed a vibrant, multi-party democracy.

No voting system is perfect, nor is any reform. There were certainly downsides to P-RCV, especially in those years before computers counted votes and the tabulations could be lengthy and time consuming. P-RCV elections were not always successful in accomplishing what reformers hoped they would accomplish—better councils. If a scandal arose or a particular council majority did not perform well, P-RCV took the blame. In some cities—most notably in Cincinnati—P-RCV opponents played the race card, exploiting white fears of desegregation and Black political power to fuel a repeal process. By 1960, all but one of the two-dozen cities that adopted P-RCV, Cambridge, Massachusetts, had abandoned it.

Within the last few years, there has been a revival of interest in ranked choice voting in city and some state governments, including, ironically enough, New York City. But most of these cities and states are using RCV for single-winner elections, which is not a form of proportional representation, Portland, Oregon being a recent exception.

RCV has the potential of changing political culture by alleviating the binary, “us versus them” logic that arises in winner-take-all elections. Proportional representation might help balance our legislatures and councils, broadening the range of who can get elected and putting more emphasis on what the public wants instead of the never-ending jockeying of elected leaders for partisan advantage.

P-RCV had not been devised when the Framers wrote the U.S. Constitution, decades before the disadvantages of simple plurality voting were fully understood by political philosophers and reformers, decades before the invention of P-RCV. Ours was the first modern democracy and, ironically, is in some ways the least modern and democratic. The nations that came late to democracy in Northern Europe and the Antipodes had the benefit of knowing about proportional voting systems. I can’t help wondering whether the Framers would have endorsed the idea had they known of its existence.

Mike McGrath is the National Civic League’s Director of Research and Publications.

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