Kathleen L. Barber

The story of proportional representation in the United States is an important one for contemporary politics. The phrase proportional representation describes an electoral system that allows the majority to elect a majority of representatives while also enabling minority groups to win their fair share of seats on a city council or legislature. Although some think of proportional representation as an untried option, there were at one time twenty-two cities in the United States using proportional representation to elect their councils. Little is known about the experience of these cities, and this book seeks to fill that historical gap.

Kathleen L. Barber locates the roots of proportional representation (PR) in the late eighteenth-century debate about how best to establish a modern democratic state. In the Progressive Era, proportional representation by single transferable vote (PR/STV) was promoted by American reformers as a tool for wresting power from corrupt party bosses and, at the same time, providing representation to partisan minorities and Independents.

At the heart of this examination are case studies of five Ohio cities between 1915 and 1960 that elected their councils by PR/STV. In Ashtabula, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Hamilton, and Toledo, minorities were indeed successful in winning representation on city councils: Independents, African Americans, and ethnic minorities broke through their previous exclusion from seats at the council table. These results were not always welcome, however, and helped to make the electoral system controversial. But the increase in conflict and instability in governance predicted by opponents of PR did not appear. The book concludes with an analysis of the relevance of alternative electoral systems to Voting Rights Act cases and the contemporary "right to representation."

Today, increasing public attention is directed toward alternative electoral systems like PR. Citizens and political activists in many states are proposing the adoption of new election systems, particularly on the local level, to deal with the underrepresentation of political and racial minorities. Much of the debate over PR in the United States rests on its potential effects on the political system. Since this is the first book- length study to offer documented effects of PR on municipalities, it should be of great interest to public officials involved in issues of minority representation as well as to scholars and students of political science, urban history, and election law.

(Material from Proportional Representation and Election Reform in Ohio, by Kathleen L. Barber is reproduced by permission. Copyright 1995 by Ohio State University Press.)

Table of Contents

About the author

Ordering Information

Excerpt: The Introduction

Return of PR Library

"By considering alternative forms of determining our representation in the councils of government, Kathleen Barber's book makes a strong case for the basic reform of our electoral process. She demonstrates, from a broad perspective of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century historical experience in Europe, that political reform was associated with such alternatives as proportional representation (PR) and the single transferable vote (STV). She carries this story forward into the American experience and the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century, when PR/STV was tried in five Ohio cities as a substitute for the old winner-take-all method."

John Anderson -- Chair of the Center for Voting and Democracy and former presidential candidate.

Table of Contents




1. The Roots of Proportional Representation

2. Proportional Representation as a Progressive Cause

3. What Is PR/STV?

4. Ashtabula: The Pioneer Community

Ronald J. Busch

5. PR and Boss Rule: The Case of Cleveland

6. PR in Cincinnati: From "Good Government" to the Politics of Inclusion?

Robert J. Kolesar

7. Hamilton: PR Defeated by Its Own Success

Leon Weaver and James L. Blount

8. PR in Toledo: The Neglected Stepchild of Municipal Reform

Dennis M. Anderson

9. Commonalities and Contrasts: Five PR Cities in Retrospect

10. The Right to Representation and the Future of PR




About the Author

Kathleen L. Barber, formerly professor of political science and head of the political science department at John Carroll University, is now retired. She is the author of several articles published in such journals as Journal of Public Law, Loyola Law journal, Ohio State Law journal, and National Civic Review.

Ordering Information

This book may be ordered at your local bookstore, or from the publisher: Ohio State University Press, 180 Pressey Hall,1070 Carmack Road, Columbus, Ohio 43210, phone: (614)292-6930, fax: (614)292-2065, ISBN 0-8142-0660-3.

Excerpt from Proportional Representation and Election Reform in Ohio


Questions of representation lie at the heart of democratic theory and practice. Because democracy is both so difficult to achieve and so complex to maintain in a rapidly changing world, it is not surprising that the approach of the twenty-first century brings with it both new and old issues about how elections should be conducted. Electoral systems allocate representation, and the power that is represented shapes public policy and the distribution of benefits.

Debates about the nature of representation are taking place today not only in the transition from closed to open systems in Eastern Europe but also in well-established democracies such as Great Britain and France, and in American cities in their legislative, judicial, and school districts. Groups defined by ideology, ethnicity, race, and gender strive to be heard in the cacophony of democratic policy making along with political parties and economic interests.

From Cincinnati, Ohio, to New Zealand, electoral system change is ardently sought through popular initiatives, even government- initiated reforms, and in the courts. In the United States, the right to vote has evolved into the right to representation, but it is a right whose dimensions are fluid and controversial.

Electoral systems have political consequences, often unnoticed or dimly understood by voters. The ways in which candidate choices are structured and votes are counted influence the outcomes of elections and the kind of representation that ensues. Most Americans are accustomed to having their votes counted on the plurality principle: whoever gets the most votes wins. This is so simple and obvious to Americans who have grown up in a winner- take-all system that its impact on representation is seldom questioned.

It is generally believed that the United States is a majority- rule system, but a majority is "the number greater than half." Apart from the problem of the large number of nonvoters, who in many elections are in fact a majority in the United States, "majority rule" among participants even in a single district is the result of a race in which only two candidates contend. In a three-candidate race the majority may have voted for someone other than the winner who captures the prize. The prize is all of the representation.

The United States is joined by only a few other democracies in the use of plurality voting. Most democracies prefer some form of proportional representation that permits seat shares in a governing body to be determined by vote shares. In nineteenth- century Europe, the transition from minority tyranny or oligarchy to political democracy created fear of tyranny by the uneducated majority. This fear led in turn to the invention of electoral systems which would ensure some continued representation by the educated minority. Various forms of proportional representation (PR) were introduced as democracy developed in theory and practice.

In the late nineteenth century, some American reformers were drawn to proportional representation as a means of freeing legislatures from the grip of powerful interests and corrupt political parties. These urban Progressives advocated electoral reform to break the power of city bosses, to improve city government, and to provide representation to independents and to minorities excluded by ward-based, winner-take-all contests. PR was only one of the numerous strategies for municipal reform promoted by progressive and populist forces in early twentieth- century America. Cumulative voting (CV) and limited voting (LV), which were alternative electoral systems (often called semiproportional), were also tried out.

Between 1915 and 1950, the "Hare" system of proportional representation by single transferable vote (PR/STV), named for Thomas Hare and promoted by John Stuart Mill as "among the very greatest improvements yet made in the theory and practice of government" (Mill [1861] 1962, p. 151), was adopted in almost two dozen American cities. Because party machines were viewed as the principal enemy of good government, nonpartisanship ranked high an the agenda of municipal reformers, and PR/STV was adaptable to a nonpartisan ballot. Councils were elected by PR/STV in these cities for varying lengths of time, in some for several decades.

PR was subsequently abandoned in most of the cities that had adopted it. Ashtabula, Ohio, in 1915 the first to adopt, was also the first to abandon its PR electoral system; others followed. In one state, PR was outlawed by the legislature and in two others it was invalidated by the courts. The rest--all but one--were repealed by popular referendum. Today, Cambridge, Massachusetts, is the only American city that has persisted in using a PR system of elections, although school boards in New York City are elected on PR ballots, and a number of private associations find the system to be a viable strategy for fair representation in governance.

This book is an attempt to examine the circumstances under which PR/STV was advocated and adopted, the problems it was intended to solve, the manner of its implementation and operation, its relationship to other proposals for structural reform of American municipal government, its effectiveness, and the circumstances surrounding its abandonment. Its immediate focus, however, is on PR in Ohio.

Between the Civil War and the New Deal, Ohio was an important state politically, sharing the dominant Republican identity of the country, voting consistently for the winner of presidential elections, and indeed sending seven presidents to the White House. Ohio was considered representative of the nation not only in politics but in demographics and economic development. While retaining a strong agricultural component, the state became a significant locus of rapid industrialization, drawing immigrants from Europe and the old South to work in its factories and to crowd its cities (Knepper, 1989, pp. 264-75).

Ohio was fertile ground for municipal reform. Heavy industry had drawn hundreds of thousands of immigrants to its cities, creating unprecedented needs for public services. Modernization was transforming an agrarian society into a chaos characterized by conflicting land uses, unchecked urban growth, and an emergent mass society in which groups supplanted individuals, and small town lawyers and farmer-legislators were replaced in positions of power by corrupt politicians. The rapidly expanding corporate sector allied itself with Mark Hanna's powerful state Republican organization, which in turn worked closely with the dominant urban Republican machines of such legendary bosses as George B. Cox of Cincinnati.

In 1912 Ohio's Progressives, a diverse coalition of Democrats, Independent Republicans, Independents, and labor leaders, won their first major reform battle with the adoption of a "home rule" amendment to the Ohio Constitution. Home rule was meant to enable the boss-ridden cities to initiate local charters and choose their own form of government.

Whereas thirty-eight Ohio cities adopted the better-known features of Progressive reform-the city manager form of government with a small council elected at-large by plurality- five other cities, among them the three largest, added elections by proportional representation to this reform model. Following Ashtabula's adoption in 1915 were Cleveland (1924), Cincinnati (1925), Hamilton (1926), and Toledo (1935). Ohio and its cities seemed to be in the forefront of Progressive reform.

If Ohio and its cities could achieve reform, might not the burdens of modernization be tempered by some redistribution of its benefits, even by social justice? PR was one of the strategies that a substantial body of reformers thought might accomplish this end, and Ohio was the place where it was actually happening. But did it happen? Did PR change anything? These are the questions this book attempts to answer, through case studies of the five PR cities in Ohio.

Most accounts of Progressive activity fail even to mention PR as an item on the reform agenda, an omission this work seeks to remedy. The traditional view of reformers cast them in the role of virtuous, civic-minded stalwarts battling evil monopolists and corrupt politicians. The prize to be won was good government (Godkin, 1894; Steffens, 1906). Mid-twentieth-century revisionists turned this group portrait on its head, presenting the Progressive movement as a reactionary effort of declining elites to reimpose order and upper-class control on an unruly industrial society, whereas the bosses were heroic protectors of helpless immigrants and the poor (Hofstadter, 1955; Link, 1959; Huthmacher, 1962; Kolko, 1963; Hays, 1964). Some of these accounts complained, however, of the paucity of research at the state and local level, and they suggest puzzlement on the part of the authors about what was actually going on (Link, 1959; Buenker, 1973).

Recent historians have identified more complex motivations for reform and have found both reformers and bosses at work in shifting coalitions to address the real problems of their time (Filene, 1970; Rodgers, 1982). The simple dichotomy of boss versus reformer, ethnocultural party politics versus individualistic modernizers, began to disappear as the conflicts within alternative paradigms surfaced. The politics of fluid, issue-oriented groups, organized by activists committed to particular policy outcomes, are revealed as key to understanding the larger transition that was occurring from a simpler, agrarian America to a far more complex industrial order (Buenker, 1988; McCormick, 1986, chap. 7; Teaford, 1982). In this context, the forgotten proportionalists make extraordinary sense.

Chapter 1, then, examines the origins of proportional representation in the context of eighteenth- and nineteenth- century debates in the United States, Great Britain, and France about the danger of majority tyranny in a democracy. Chapter 2 shows how PR entered into a stream of Progressive thought in the United States and was integrated into the strategy for municipal reform. In chapter 3, the theory and mechanics of PR elections are explored. Many versions of proportional and semi- proportional systems have been used, both at the local level and nationally in other countries. The most widely practiced is the party list system, which produces proportional results for the participating political parties. PR/STV is also adaptable to a partisan system, as Ireland's 70 years of successful practice in both national and local elections demonstrates. In contrast, most proportional representation elections in American cities have combined the nonpartisan ballot with the single transferable vote. The PR/STV ballot allows voters to rank order their choices in either at-large or multimember district elections. With each ballot ultimately counting toward the election of one candidate, voters' preferences can be transferred to second or subsequent choices if their most preferred candidate is already elected or has no chance of election, thus maximizing the proportion of effective votes and permitting minorities to win their share of seats.

Case studies of PR elections in Ashtabula, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Hamilton, and Toledo follow. A common framework for the empirical analysis of each city's experience with PR elections provides opportunities for comparison and evaluation. Contemporary accounts of these PR elections are for the most part polemical, depicting vividly the expectations of both advocates and opponents of electoral change. Over time, high hopes were tempered by outcomes shaped by what participants in the struggle saw as human frailty. A judicious reading of this record provides the basis for the history of PR in America.

Daily newspapers in the five cities, biographies of a few reform leaders, and occasional surviving campaign pamphlets were available for research. The American advocates of PR organized the Proportional Representation League in 1893 and reported their progress in its official journal, the Proportional Representation Review (PRR), and in other Progressive magazines such as Equity, from 1893 to 1932. In 1932 the Proportional Representation League, unable to fund its separate existence, merged with the National Municipal League (NML), America's leading urban reform group, which since 1914 had endorsed PR/STV for city elections in its Model City Charter, The PRR was folded into the National Municipal Review (NMR), in which reports of campaigns to adopt and repeal PR continued to appear. Local reform organizations, such as the Citizens League of Cleveland, published newsletters in which the electoral reform debate raged, as well as lists of endorsed candidates and their backgrounds. From 1890 to 1961 the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature listed articles under the category "Proportional Representation,"'

Encyclopedias of the period identified the hopeless position of minorities in plurality voting systems as the defect of the then existing electoral schemes that proportional representation would remedy. In the 1897 edition of The Encyclopedia of Social Reform, W. D. McCrackan wrote of "the inevitable consequence of the manner in which the votes are now taken, to the complete disfranchisement of minorities," a condition aggravated by "the habit of manipulating the boundaries of electoral districts for party purposes ... nicknamed the gerrymander" (McCrackan, 1897, p. 1123). In the 1908 edition, The New EncycIopedia of Social Reform, Robert Tyson revised McCrackan's earlier entry, adding examples of proportional systems that had by then been enacted around the world. These new voting systems, Tyson wrote, provided representation to minorities previously excluded by "defective electoral machinery" (Tyson, 1908, pp, 975-78). In the still later Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences (1934, 1948), political scientist Harold F. Gosnell described and evaluated proportional representation as the single most useful governmental device to protect minorities from exploitation by the majority (Gosnell, 1934, p. 541).

Official records of PR elections in Ohio vary among local jurisdictions, ranging from complete vote counts, including transfer data, in Lucas County (Toledo), to records limited to first counts and final counts in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland). Because of a courthouse fire, no official records exist for Ashtabula elections in the period of the study, leaving unofficial newspaper reports as virtually the only source of electoral statistics.

With these sources, enriched by a few interviews with former participants, the PR experience has been reconstructed here for each of these five Ohio cities. The findings of the case studies are summarized in chapter 9, where representational outcomes are compared and contrasted. Because opponents of PR argued (and still do) that diverse representation on councils would lead to fragmentation and political conflict, the impact of electoral systems on consensus in governing these growing cities has been measured by the percentage of nonunanimous votes cast on ordinances and resolutions by councils elected in periods before, during, and after PR was used. Bases for comparison of policy outcomes from councils produced by different electoral systems proved to be elusive, although outcomes were recognized as a compelling result of any reform.

Great claims were made for electoral reform in the Progressive period. When reforms were adopted, the "problem of corruption" was "solved" in some cities but not others. An analytical problem the authors of the case studies faced was the common adoption of a reform package composed of several structural changes, such as the city manager plan and at-large (or large- district) elections whose impacts were difficult to disentangle from effects of the new way of voting.

In the 1950s reformist belief that political structure made a significant difference in the quality of governance was challenged by behavioralists introducing new modes of inquiry. Political outcomes were attributed to individual and group behavior flowing through institutions and rules rather than being shaped by them (Easton, 1953). More recently, however, scholarly attention has turned again to institutions, building on a more complex and empirical understanding of the interaction between human behavior and constraining forces such as political structures. "Political democracy," write March and Olsen, "depends not only on economic and social conditions but also on the design of political institutions.... They are political actors in their own right" (1984, p. 738).

This academic evolution of ideas both reflects and fuels the current revival of attention to mechanisms that produce representation. Today new electoral systems, both proportional and semi-proportional, are promoted for a different kind of expansion of democracy: to bring underrepresented minorities of race, ethnicity, and gender to the table of public policy making. In an ironic twist, the fear of democracy is expressed now by opponents of PR, who are reluctant to allow too many voices, or perhaps the wrong voices, to be heard.

For many years the struggle by minorities--particularly by African Americans--for the right to vote eclipsed the question of what kind of representation would be achieved by the act of voting. When the right to vote was finally enforced by the federal government through the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (nearly a century after adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment's "guarantee" of the right to vote), it became clear that votes can be not only denied but diluted. Whereas the U.S. Supreme Court's "one person, one vote" ruling established an individual right to equal representation, the implementation of the ruling over time has seldom produced governing bodies representative of groups in the electorate. The right to vote is diluted when voters have formal access to the polls but electoral rules obstruct their opportunity to elect representatives of their choice. The rules that translate votes into seats of power are vital to realization of the promise of democracy.

In 1982 Congress responded to this new understanding by amending the already much-amended Voting Rights Act to ensure that both racial and language minorities have the chance to choose their own representatives. This mandate has brought electoral reform into the federal courts, where minorities are battling winner- take-all systems to achieve fair representation.

Federal judges now recognize that plurality/at-large elections provide an opportunity for a voting majority (whether ethnic, racial, or partisan) to win most or all available seats on a city council. Because of the exclusionary effect of at-large winner- take-all elections, judges have mandated single-member-district plurality elections in most cities where minorities have brought cases under the Voting Rights Act to court.

However, single-member-district elections present two hurdles to the achievement of fair minority representation. First, only minorities that are residentially segregated can use such districts to achieve representation. Second, manipulation of district lines (gerrymandering) may structure representation artificially in favor of some groups and not others. Deference is usually paid to incumbents when lines are drawn.

Frustrated by the difficulty of shaping or even defining fair representation in single-member urban districts, some judges have responded to suggestions that where proportional representation of groups is the goal, the proportional electoral systems should be considered. This judicial debate reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where Justices Stevens and O'Connor have engaged in juridical sallies about what's fair, whereas justices Thomas and Scalia have attacked the Court's majority for adopting proportionality as a "driving principle" (Holder v. Hall, 1994, 62 LW at 4748). A "right to representation" has emerged but its boundaries are unclear and its meaning is hotly debated in the context of racially defined congressional districts of the 1990s.

Finally, chapter 10, oriented to present-day issues, presents my conclusion that PR/STV would respond even more powerfully to the representational needs of contemporary American democracy than it did in the Progressive Era.

Currently, lively debates about electoral systems and their consequences are occurring in Britain and France. In Italy and Japan, new, less proportional electoral systems have been adopted as "cures" for corruption, whereas in New Zealand a more proportional plan for voting has been put into effect. New Zealand's adoption (by referendum) of electoral reform was driven by "overwhelming disillusionment with politicians and the political system" (Nagel, 1994, p. 526).

In the United States, interest across the country in proportional and semi-proportional voting systems has led to the organization of vibrant new grassroots groups that advocate electoral reform. Although the voices of American electoral system activists are often drowned out by the din of rancorous political debate, the decade of the 1990s seems propitious for them to address constructively the widespread alienation from politics and the popular anger directed at its practitioners in this country.

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