A proportional council, if you can keep it.

Portland’s new electoral system has historically faced an uphill battle in the United States. Could this time be different?

Maja Viklands Harris Avatar
sliced cake on white ceramic plate

This November, Portland will make history by bringing proportional representation (PR) to the city council.

But this won’t be the first time a major U.S. city takes a stab at PR, an electoral system originally designed for multi-party systems.

Rose City Reform spoke with Professor Douglas J. Amy, an expert on electoral reform, to understand what lessons Portland can draw from other cities that have adopted – and often discarded – proportional representation.

Let’s play a game. Guess the city.

Can you guess which city I’m describing?

A major U.S. city, grappling with government dysfunction, convenes a commission to reassess its city charter. Inspired by a national reform movement, the commission decides that a radical overhaul was necessary.

Commissioners propose a system where each council district would elect multiple representatives, and voters would be able to rank candidates on the ballot. Amidst calls for greater government accountability, the charter amendment passes with approximately 60% support.

Sound like Portland? Close! But this is New York City in 1936.

The promise of PR: disrupting party monopolies.

Throughout the early twentieth century, two dozen U.S. cities, including New York City, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Sacramento, adopted a European voting method known as the single transferable vote (STV). This is the same system Portlanders will use later this year to elect three council members per district.

STV leads to proportional representation (PR), meaning parties or candidates receive seats in proportion to their share of the vote. That’s different than America’s winner-takes-all model, where only the top vote-getter wins a seat.

While PR is popular worldwide, STV has never been a widely used voting method. So why did U.S. reformers favor it? The more prevalent PR systems required candidates to be listed by party, but American progressives wanted a model that could be combined with nonpartisan elections.

Anti-party reform succeeds, but PR goes away.

Douglas J. Amy is a Professor Emeritus of Politics at Mount Holyoke College and an expert on electoral reform. He says PR adoptions in the United States were often part of broader reforms to weaken the stronghold of party bosses over urban politics.

“In the early 1900s, there was a huge push by progressive reformers to dismantle the corrupt party machines that ruled urban politics. That led to reforms like nonpartisan elections and professional city managers, and sometimes PR was added to that mix,” explains Amy, whose brief on PR’s history in the United States follows the evolution of the system.

Yet, while nonpartisan elections and city managers soon became American civic mainstays, PR’s short stint is now largely forgotten. So forgotten, in fact, that Oregon’s largest newspaper described the combination of STV and multimember districts (a hallmark feature of the system) as “untested and unused by any other city in the nation.”

Strong coalitions defended PR. Then they got tired.

By 1960, PR had vanished from all city councils except Cambridge, Massachusetts, which continues to elect its nine council members via STV.

Why was it so hard for cities to hold on to PR? The simplest explanation is that the major parties didn’t like it. With winner-takes-all elections, it wasn’t unusual for the dominant party to control almost all the seats on the council. PR often meant that a major party lost some seats to the opposition or to independent candidates. 

Amy says PR faced an onslaught of repeal efforts from the get-go. Clevelanders, for example, rejected four measures to overturn PR before the fifth was accepted. This made PR increasingly dependent on robust reform coalitions that could invest resources and effort in its defense. In Cincinnati, where PR lasted thirty years, its advocates even formed a political party to support pro-PR candidates.

Over time, however, even the most organized coalitions began to fade.

“What eventually happened was that the reformers who put it into place lost their energy, moved away, retired, or even died. So when the next attack on PR came, the coalition wasn’t there to defend it. If there’s one thing to learn from the past, it’s that the coalition that supports this type of election system has to keep active,” Amy observes.

White backlash and mistrust of political minorities.

Amy believes some of PR’s midcentury struggles were reflections of an era marked by racial tensions and skepticism of political minorities. In Cincinnati, the election of the city’s first Black council members triggered a white backlash, he says, and PR was overturned by an explicitly racist campaign.

In New York City, where PR had cost the Democratic Party nearly a third of its seats, geopolitical instability allowed PR opponents to cast shade on the system. Although most seats had been lost to Republicans, Democrats seized on the fact that some Socialists and one Communist had been elected to the council and branded PR as “un-American.” 

“For eight years, Democrats had tried unsuccessfully to overturn PR,” Amy recounts, “but with the onset of the Cold War, they could exploit Cold War fears to turn public opinion against it.”

A new era, a new opportunity for PR?

Despite PR’s past setbacks, Amy is optimistic about its future prospects. He notes a renewed interest in proportional representation among scholars and national reformers and says the public’s attitude toward minority representation has changed.

“I think the conditions now are very different. Today, most people agree that everyone should be able to get representation, including racial, ethnic, religious, or political minorities.”

He adds that Portland’s outgoing system, which requires council members to win a majority of the citywide vote, offers slim chances for minority groups to elect their preferred candidates.

“If you’re not among the majority, you basically have no representation. In Portland’s new proportional system, more people will be represented than before, and they will be represented in fairer proportions than before,” he reflects.

“You’ve got to tend the garden.”

Amy is quick to point out that reviews of the new system may be mixed.

“Any change to the voting system is going to create some dissatisfaction, especially among groups that benefited from the past system and are not getting those same benefits from the new one.”

Likewise, the mechanics of vote transfers – a key characteristic of single transferable vote – can be perplexing to both candidates and voters. This is especially true when a candidate leading in the initial round gets overtaken by vote transfers in subsequent rounds, Amy notes.

“That puts the onus on the reform coalition to educate voters, respond to criticisms, and explain how the system gives more groups representation. With electoral reform, it’s not enough to plant the seed. To see it thrive, you’ve got to stick around to tend the garden,” he concludes.

Note: The title of this post is a wordplay on a famous quote by Benjamin Franklin. When Franklin left the Constitutional Convention, a group of citizens supposedly asked him what kind of government the delegates had chosen. Franklin is reported to have answered: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

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