The system of proportional representation practiced in American city elections was the Hare Single Transferable Vote. Under it, access to the ballot was by petition. All candidates were placed on the same ballot. The individual voter could vote for as many candidates as he or she wished, but needed to rank each according to the voter's preference. In multi-member districts, a "quota" was calculated (quota = (total vote cast/(number of seats to be filled + 1)) + 1). If candidates fulfilled the quota on the basis of first choice votes, they were declared elected. Votes over and above the quota ("surplus votes") were redistributed to the next preference listed on each ballot. In addition, the candidate with the fewest votes was eliminated. These votes also were redistributed to the individual voters' next preference. The ballot-transfer process continued until all seats were filled.
Although deriving from the Progressive era of electoral reform, with the political realignment of the New Deal, and continuing through and immediately after World War II, there was a surge of interest in the use of PR. By the early 1960s, however, PR had been repealed in almost all the jurisdictions which used it (only Cambridge, Massachusetts, retained it beyond then). In the Cold War period opponents of PR successfully stigmatized PR as "un-American." They frankly argued that PR—"this Stalin Frankenstein" as Tammany Hall called it—should be abolished in order to prevent the election of Communists. Furthermore, as African-American political candidates increasingly seemed to benefit from PR, charges that PR fostered racial bloc voting became increasingly important. As a result, by the 1960s PR had been eliminated as an electoral system within the United States, except as a curiosity.
In 1932, after two decades of intensive effort on the part of advocates, only three cities in the country had PR city councils. But new possiblities appeared with the political volatility and realignments of the Depression and New Deal. Early in 1933 George H. Hallett, secretary of the Proportional Representation League, reported new interest in PR in Pennsylvania, Michigan and New York. The following year Hallett reported more progress. The annual meeting of the PR League "was pervaded by a spirit of hope for the future of P.R. as the sine qua non of truly representative government." Reformers in Toledo, Ohio, won a campaign modeled on that undertaken in Cincinnati a decade earlier; Wheeling, West Virginia, reformers did the same in 1935.
New York City brought the most stunning victory. The city's Board of Aldermen had long been regarded as a particularly outrageous example of the problems of single-member districts. To counter Tammany's advantage, reformers looked to PR. At the least, PR would provide a vigorous minority in the city's legislature; but even more hopefully, PR might provide the means for Tammany's divided opposition to come together in a new reform majority, as reformers had in the 1920s in Cincinnati against the Republican machine there. In 1936 voters approved PR by a large margin.
New York's adoption provided an enormous impetus to the hopes of PR advocates and inspired more initiatives. The PR League's annual dinner two weeks after the vote was "a gala occasion." In January, George Hallett reported that, "Since the adoption of proportional representation in New York City on November 3, word has come to us of new or increased activity to secure P.R. in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Providence, Detroit, Columbus, Cleveland, Springfield (Ohio), Springfield (Mass.), Rochester, Schenectady County, and Richmond. In a number of these places the prospects of adoption in the not distant future seem good." In April he added the cities of Schenectady, New Rochelle, and Yonkers to the list of "definite movements." Yonkers, New York City's neighbor, first followed its lead, adopting PR provisions modeled almost word for word on the New York City charter in 1938. In Massachusetts, permissive state legislation and inclusion of PR in one of the five standard charters for cities began a decade of PR adoption campaigns. While proponents lost their first efforts, they won a major victory in Cambridge in 1940. Success also brought more discussion of PR in general-interest publications, and presumably, popular awareness.
Adoption in New York City also brought serious consideration at higher levels of government. PR promoters had always looked upon its use in city council elections as a prelude to its application to state and national legislatures. Within weeks of the New York City vote, Judge Samuel Seabury, a firm advocate from the start of the reform process in New York, urged that it be used for the New York State legislature as well. His proposal drew strong support from leaders of the state constitutional convention the following year, and PR seemed ready to be added to proposed state constitutional reforms.
Resistance to PR then stiffened. On the last morning of the New York state constitutional convention a combination of Tammany Democrats, not reconciled to PR in New York City and not wanting to see it extended to the state legislature as well, and upstate Republicans, themselves threatened by PR in their own secure bastions, combined to kill the proposal. In Schenectady, that same year, the Republican organization smothered a drive for PR. Five days before the vote, the chairman of the Schenectady Citizens Council for P.R. reported, "By radio, direct mail, a house-to-house canvass and by newspaper publicity they branded P.R. 'radical and un-American,' 'a minority system, which would result in electing Communists, Socialists, and the like to the council.' The timing of their drive made effective rebuttal impossible...." The following year Republican organizations in New Rochelle and White Plains defeated PR with similar tactics.
In New York City, in Cincinnati, and in other cities where PR was in place, political party organizations initiated repeal campaigns. In Cincinnati, where the Republican organization had tried and failed in 1936 to repeal PR, another repealer was launched in 1939. "Heart of the [repeal] campaign," according to Forest Frank of the Cincinnati Charter Committee (PR supporters), "was a wide-flung appeal subtly linking P.R. with Hitler, Mussolini, and the Communists." The local CIO chapter's support of PR also was used against it. In New York, Tammany launched its third attack on PR in 1940. Having failed in the courts and through state constitutional amendment, it now backed a repeal referendum. The attacks on PR, made most strongly by political organization leaders, also gained credence from the contemporaneous arguments of a scholarly critic, Ferdinand Hermens. In a series of publications starting in 1938, Hermens, a political scientist, and a refugee from Europe, attacked PR for weakening the effectiveness of government.
This brought from PR proponents a vigorous new defense of their conception of representation. Previously their arguments had dwelt most strongly on the "good government" aspects of reform: the inequities of single- member districts, the efficiency of council-manager government, the wider constituent base of at-large elections or large multi-member districts, and weakening of political parties. But they had at hand a stronger, more positive rationale for the representation of minority opinions as well. In direct response to Hermens, Hallett picked up the charge that opponents had long made—that PR was "un-American"—and threw it right back at them:
As a matter of fact the result of disregarding minorities in election returns has often been the creation of a one-party system rather than the two-party system which adherents of majority elections are wont to eulogize. We have only to think of the solid Democratic South or the unanimous Republican council for twenty years without interruption until recently in the city of Philadelphia. There is, to be sure, a gulf which separates even the worst of our American political despotisms from the despotism of Adolph Hitler, but the gulf is neither as wide nor as deep as most of us would like to see.In 1942, Walter J. Millard, long-time field agent for PR (first for the PR League, then the National Municipal League), contended that the war redoubled the need to protect PR from attack: "We cannot tolerate any backward steps in our own democracy while the war is going on. We cannot, for example, permit electoral justice to be taken away from minorities where it has been gained within this country. Yet we are aware that politicians-for-power, to be found in both parties, are proposing to do this in Yonkers, New York, and elsewhere." The war, he continued, brought new opportunities to extend democracy at home as well as abroad: "In planning ahead we must plan for more democracy, not less, and that must include equality of representation for all citizens...."
PR's local supporters also vigorously responded to continued attacks from both political parties. In Cincinnati in 1939, red-baiting brought a concerted (and successful) response from the City Charter Committee, the labor movement, and independent Democrats. In New York City, Tammany's effort to repeal PR in 1940 failed by more than 200,000 votes. In Yonkers in 1942, Republicans and Democrats alike attempted to red-bait the issue. Voters rebuffed their crude appeals by a 2 to 1 margin. Two years later, Hamilton, Ohio, voters rejected a fourth repeal attempt in that city. In 1945, Toledo did as well, by a substantial margin. During the war new gains were made, too. Lowell, Massachusetts, became the second city in that state to adopt PR, in 1942, and the Long Island, New York, community of Long Beach did so the year after.
In New York, Tammany leaders tried to use Communist Peter Cacchione's 1941 election from Brooklyn to discredit PR, but failed. Cacchione's new colleagues on the council defended his election. Two years later Cacchione led all candidates in Brooklyn, and was joined as a Communist on the council by Benjamin Davis (an African- American) from Manhattan. PR supporters continued to defend the voters' judgment. Hallett emphasized Davis's education at Amherst College and Harvard Law and his role as "spokesman for the special needs of the Negro community." He also pointed to Cacchione's creditable record in the Council. Significantly, over the course of three elections which brought Communists to office, efforts to repeal PR gathered little support.
With the end of the war PR advocates saw renewed opportunity. They eagerly welcomed the widespread adoption of proportionalist principles in the reconstructed governments of western and central Europe. If democracy could expand so spectacularly in Europe, they reasoned, it should do so here as well, explicitly comparing weak, unrepresentative American city councils to the supine legislative bodies of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. It was not too much to claim in the immediate post-war years, as did George Hallett, that "A new struggle for political rights comparable to the woman-suffrage movement seems to be well under way. Proportional representation is already accepted in principle in many of the most civilized countries and has gone far enough here to be recognized as a major threat by old-style politicians throughout the nation."
In Massachusetts, attempts to repeal state authorization for the use of PR made little headway. In 1947, four more Massachusetts cities—Worcester, Quincy, Medford, and Revere—joined Cambridge and Lowell in adopting PR. Two years later Somerville did as well. Where PR had been adopted previously, repealers continued to be successfully resisted. In Toledo in 1946 PR prevailed again; the following year, opponents abandoned their repeal effort. In Cincinnati in 1947, another repeal campaign "was shrewdly timed to link P.R. with communist infiltration. The 'red' menace was portrayed in a steady crescendo of front-page news articles, newspaper and billboard advertising, street car cards, posters, placards, leaflets, book matches, personal letters and radio spot announcements." The campaign failed to excite anxieties about Communism; PR's margin among the voters increased significantly from the previous two repeal attempts.
In New York City in 1947 the result was very different. There, the Tammany campaign against PR finally succeeded. One issue stood out above all others—the election of Communists and other leftists. The five Democratic county leaders met and "decided unanimously to go all out for repeal"; in Queens the Democratic party distributed "thousands of cards" describing PR as "an un-American practice which has helped the cause of communism and does not belong to the American way of life." The director of Tammany's Manhattan repeal campaign directly linked PR to Soviet Communism: "There must be some reason why all Russian-dominated countries are so fond of the PR system of voting. There must be a reason why Molotov demanded its use in all German elections. It has saved the Communists of Western Europe from extinction and tends to do away with any government faintly resembling the two-party system.... This political importation from the Kremlin has had a ten- year trial and has failed miserably...." The linkage of PR to the Soviet threat stood at the center of an official resolution from the Tammany executive committee, as well:
Whereas, the Communists of nine nations have revived the Comintern to fight the United States, andTammany leader Frank J. Sampson added that PR "has elected to our City Council the only two communists elected to office [in this country]. Communism is opposed to the ideal of our American democracy.... Under PR, there is no way to take them out of office. Under PR, the majority cannot vote against a minority candidate. The only way to get them out of office is to repeal PR." By an overwhelming vote, the voters did, reversing their judgments of 1937 and 1940 in favor of PR.
Whereas, the Proportional Representation method of election is the first beachhead of Communist infiltration in this country with two Communist members already in the City Council, ....
Therefore be it resolved, that we, the Executive Committee of the Democratic organization of the County of New York, do hereby condemn the PR method of electing Councilmen as being a foreign importation designed to weaken the American structure of government, and
Be it further resolved, that we will do all in our power to inform the electorate of New York County that in the interest of restoring the American system of majority rule and democratic government no effort will be spared to throw out this Stalin Frankenstein known as PR on Election Day, Nov. 4, 1947.
That Communism was the repeal campaign's predominant issue, and that Tammany was PR's chief attacker, was clear to observers at the time as well as later analysts. But three other considerations also deserve some emphasis. One was that PR's supporters refused to retreat from their commitment to the representation of ideological minorities, even when confronted with the virulent anti-Communism of 1947. PR's supporters argued that it was attacked for providing exactly what it was supposed to provide—the representation of minority opinion in proportion to its strength within the electorate—and refused to compromise on that principle.
Second, PR lost support within the Republican party. While Tammany had opposed PR from the beginning, that had not been the case with Republicans, a minority within the city, and presumably a beneficiary of PR. But Governor Thomas Dewey had run against "splinter parties" in 1946. Given their good showing in 1946, in 1947 Republican leaders calculated that they stood to elect as many councilmen from districts as they did through PR, and that PR had favored independent Republicans at the expense of organization candidates in any case, and thus threatened the party even if it had helped the election of Republicans. The Republican county leaders worked openly with Tammany to defeat PR, declaring it "a threat to the two party system."
Thirdly, while the Communist issue was the major focus of the repeal campaign, PR's opponents also complained that it encouraged racial and religious voting. Councilman Benjamin J. Davis, a Communist and an African-American, bluntly prophesied that black representation would be lost with the repeal of PR. The Amsterdam News, a Harlem weekly, opposing repeal, crediting PR for "freeing Harlem from the ghetto system." Similarly, the leader of the Republican Club in Harlem's 11th Assembly District refused to support repeal, commenting that those who did "say their aim is to keep Ben Davis and the Communists out of the city council. We think the effect will be to keep Ben Davis and all other Negroes out of the City Council." In New York in 1947, race was not the most consequential issue, but it was to become so elsewhere.
PR's repeal in New York City marked a decisive shift in its progress. In New York, the lopsided repeal vote discouraged PR proponents' efforts to bring it quickly to the polls again. During the New York campaign, the publicity Tammany generated fueled comparable efforts in neighboring Long Beach and Yonkers, succeeding in 1947 and 1948. In 1947 Boulder, Colorado, voted to end PR, in use there since 1917. In 1949 the voters of Toledo, Ohio, overwhelmingly reversed their earlier support for PR. Supporters never assembled a creditable campaign in its defense. In November 1951 Wheeling, West Virginia, joined the list of cities that repealed PR, also by a crushing margin.
The international situation, which during and immediately after the war had been a source of hope to PR proponents, and a goad to action at home, increasingly became a liability. In Europe PR seemed to many to weaken democracy in its struggle against Communism. Ferdinand Hermens' arguments against the principles of minority representation, which had been effectively rebutted, gained renewed attention. PR advocates anxiously studied European PR election returns for evidence that Communist advances had been turned back. In 1952, however, opposition to PR in Europe seemed to become an official U.S. foreign policy. In Greece, Ambassador John E. Peurifoy objected pointedly to its use. The State Department backed him in statement issued March 15, "taking the position that minority representation endangers stability of government..." By that point, PR's use abroad had ceased to be a positive argument for its American advocates.
In Massachusetts, where important gains had been made in 1947, PR came under siege. With little more argument than "P. R. is a Communistic system," renewed efforts to bar its municipal adoption were brought in the state legislature. After three attempts, PR's opponents in 1949 passed a ban on further adoptions in the state. Cities that already used PR (Cambridge, Lowell, Worcester, Medford, Revere, and Quincy) were allowed to retain it, but state legislators added provisions to ease the repeal process in those cities. The state courts, enforcing the ban against new adoptions, barred PR's use in the cities of Gloucester and Somerville, even though voters had approved it. In 1952 the number of signatures required to bring repeal to a vote was reduced from 10 per cent to 5 per cent of voters.
Repealers brought that fall under the terms of the new legislation succeeded easily in Quincy, Medford, and Revere. In Cambridge, a repeal effort narrowly failed; in Worcester, opponents did not collect enough signatures to place repeal on the ballot. Five years later, a second vote for repeal in Lowell, after a first had been invalidated on a technicality, left Worcester and Cambridge the only cities with PR in the state.
The 1949 repeal of PR in Toledo left Cincinnati and Hamilton the only remaining PR cities in Ohio. In Cincinnati, where a repeal attempt led by the Republican organization had been rebuffed in 1947, opponents in both major parties brought forward another attempt in 1954, losing narrowly. Three years later, Cincinnati, which for three decades had provided the most successful case history for PR in the United States, finally succumbed to attacks on it.
The Cincinnati Republican organization in 1957 focused its efforts not on the issue of Communism, which had failed previously, but on the more general charge that PR fostered "bloc voting." By this they meant voting on racial, ethnic, or religious lines. "Whether by design or by chance this campaign exploited current social tensions in a manner disastrous to P.R.," Forest Frank reported, including "widespread word-of-mouth rumor-mongering to the effect that 'if P.R. is retained, a Negro will be the next mayor.'" In white precincts, PR lost by a 2 to 1 margin; voters in black precincts supported its retention by 4 to 1. Three years later, with little organized effort in support of PR evident, nearby Hamilton, the last Ohio city to retain PR, repealed it as well.
The loss of PR in Cincinnati devastated continued hopes for its use in this country. Despite their many defeats after 1947, PR proponents could, and did, believe that the setbacks were "a serious but temporary reverse" due to the unusual showing of Communists in New York City, "at a time when the United States and Soviet Russia were friendly allies." They still had faith in PR's future prospects. A year before Cincinnati's repeal, George Hallett reported that attendees at the annual PR League meeting felt that the "P.R. movement has now weathered the worst of the recession brought on by the repeal in New York City and should soon be on its way again." The mood was much different at the meeting the following year, after the Cincinnati vote, when it was widely questioned "whether people generally are now interested in minority representation."
Repeal in Worcester, Massachusetts, ended all expectation for PR's future. There, well-organized support for PR, centered in the Citizens' Plan E Association (CEA), modeled on the Cincinnati Charter Committee, waged a determined and smart fight to preserve it. In 1959 the CEA vigorously, and successfully, fought an attempt to replace Council-Manager government. But immediately after the vote, their chief antagonist, city councilman George Wells, signaled his intention to renew his fight, saying that "PR is un-American and a divisive force in the community and has been kicked out of every polyglot city except ours." The state legislature helped Wells by requiring the city to hold another referendum on PR in the 1960 general election. Although the CEA did support PR once again against repeal, there was apparent disagreement among its member as to its continued viability. Their campaign was intentionally low-key, "in the hope that many voters, interested chiefly in the presidential contest, would neglect the PR question." The strategy failed. "Ethnic" voters rejected PR, seeing it as favoring Yankees and Jews of the middle-class and Republican West Side. As Robert Binstock, who completed an academic study of Worcester politics during the repeal campaigns of 1959 and 1960 noted, "The issue over retaining Plan E is inextricably mixed with ethnic rivalries."
The problem which confronted PR proponents in Cold War America was more fundamental than the election of Communists; it was the more intractable division of American society by race and ethnicity. A subordinate issue in New York in 1947, it formed the primary lines of division in Cincinnati ten years later and in Worcester in 1960, both cities where the threat of radicalism was negligible. While PR proponents had always vigorously championed the utility of the representation of minority opinion, they were less enthusiastic about racial, ethnic, or religious group representation. They never denied the reality that voters made judgments on such grounds, and never denied their right to do so. But they were not interested in encouraging voting by racial preference, and went to some pains to demonstrate that under PR, such divisions played no greater a role that they did in districting. Many hoped that PR would obviate such voting behavior: after the first PR election in Lowell, Massachusetts, for example, an enthusiastic PR supporter happily reported that, "The voters ignored those old and odorous red herrings of race and religion, too, and proved that when given the chance they vote on the only real issue—fitness for office." In Worcester, PR's defenders responded to charges "that it sets up race against race and so on" similarly:
The PR system of voting does not do this. Under any system of voting racial groups tend, for a generation or two, to vote together. This is not because of PR and PR does not encourage it. What PR does do is make it possible for any group of people who think alike generally on issues and which is large enough to be entitled to representation—to get representation. Racial groups have better opportunity and are, if anything, encouraged under PR to line up in voting groupings other than racial.While PR advocates did not ignore the Civil Rights revolution of the 1940s and 1950s, they did not seize it as an opportunity. George Hallett, for example, at the National Conference for Government in 1956 did argue that PR could aid the "establishment of a two-party system in the south, where it would also assure the election of Negroes to share in the responsibilities of government." But it was unusual for PR proponents to frame arguments that included a positive, direct, and continuing role for racial, ethnic, or religious representation. Whether a matter of tactics or conviction, their hesitancy to do so may have contributed to making their cause increasingly irrelevant to a polity that would soon be rent by issues of racial and ethnic identity.
On November 15, 1960, the PR League held its annual meeting in Phoenix, Arizona. It was a quiet event. There was some discussion of repeal in Worcester, and in Hamilton, and "some discussion of the continuing basic need of P.R." But the hopes that had been so alive fifteen years before were gone. It had fallen victim first to the Cold War and second to newly heightened racial tensions. There was more than a little irony, and perhaps some tragedy, that American democracy lost a tool that could have provided equitable racial representation five years before the federal government made its long belated commitment to guaranteeing those rights in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
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