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Proportional Representation through Ranked Choice Voting

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Editorial by Howie Hawkins, 2020 presidential nominee, Green Party of New York State

The platform of the Green Party of the United States calls for proportional representation (PR) for legislative bodies and ranked-choice voting (RCV) for executive offices. With the movement for ranked-choice voting gaining unprecedented momentum, now is the time for Greens to push for multi-seat RCV for PR in legislative bodies.

Replacing plurality voting with RCV for single-seat executive offices solves the “spoiler” problem that pushes progressives to vote for centrist Democrats instead of progressive Greens in order to defeat right-wing Republicans. But

RCV in single-member districts for legislative bodies doesn’t solve the winner-take-all problem.

Single-member-district, winner-take-all elections produce legislatures dominated by two major parties, whether plurality voting or RCV is used.

Two-party domination under single-seat RCV is clearly demonstrated in Australian elections where the House of Representatives is elected by single-seat RCV and the Senate is elected by multi-seat RCV. In 2019 under single-seat RCV, the Australian Greens received 10.4% of the first-choice votes for the House nationwide but only 1 of 151 seats. In the Senate under multi-seat RCV, the Greens won 9 of 76 seats, which was 11.8% of the seats and close to their 10.2% of first-choice votes. The vote percentages were nearly the same and seat numbers exactly the same for the Greens in 2016. Single-seat RCV magnifies the popular vote for the two major parties in Australia into disproportional over-representation. In 2019, the Liberal/National Coalition received 42% of the vote and 51% of the seats, while Labor received 35% of the vote and 45% of the seats.

RCV PR elections have been conducted in some U.S. jurisdictions for over a century. It was adopted by two dozen cities in the Progressive Era, including Ashtabula, Boulder, Cambridge, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Kalamazoo, New York City, Sacramento, Toledo, and Worcester. More parties elected representatives to these city councils. In New York City, for example, where Democrats had long held nearly all the seats, four or five parties elected councilors after each of the five city council elections under PR from 1937 to 1945.

Andrea Merida in Washington for ballot petitioning for Hawkins/Walker

PR also enabled ethnic minorities to elect representatives: the first Irish Catholics in Ashtabula, the first Polish-Americans in Toledo, and the first African-Americans in Cincinnati, New York City, Toledo, and other cities. The first African-American elected to the New York City council was Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in 1941 as a third-party candidate of the American Labor Party.

The success of RCV PR in creating multi-party, multi-racial municipal democracies is what undermined it in the reactionary McCarthy Era. In the context of the rising post-war civil rights movement, the election of African-Americans was used by Democratic machines in cities like Cincinnati to mobilize a white backlash against PR. The election of two Communists to the New York City council was used to mobilize an anti-communist backlash against PR.

What is different about the revival of RCV in the 2000s is that it has not been used in most jurisdictions to create PR in legislative bodies as it was in the Progressive Era. Most jurisdictions adopting RCV in recent years have retained the single-member-district, winner-take-all system for electing legislators.

A new RCV law in New York City reflects the interests of the Democrats who have 48 of the 51 city councilors. The new law taking effect in 2021 uses single-seat RCV for both executive offices and city council, but only in primaries and special elections, not general elections. The law shields Democrats from Green competition in both single-seat executive office elections, where Greens would compete with Democrats without the burden of the spoiler problem, and in city council races where RCV PR would certainly enable Greens to elect city councilors. 

© Collin M. Smith Portrait Photography www.cmsmithportraits.com/blog

The principal organization advocating this conservative form of RCV falsely claims on its website under the tab reading “History of RCV in NYC” that the “First RCV elections!” in New York City are being held in 2021. In fact, New York City (1936-1947) and nearby Yonkers (1940-1948), and Long Beach (1943-1947) held many multi-seat RCV PR elections. For 32 years from 1970 to 2002, Community School Boards in New York City were elected by RCV PR in 32 nine-member districts.

Greens cannot allow RCV PR to be forgotten and suppressed. RCV PR in legislative bodies will create a multi-party democracy where Greens get their fair and proportional share of representation. If Greens settle for RCV in what are still single-member-district, winner-take-all elections for legislative bodies, the two corporate parties will continue to dominate and the Greens will remain marginalized.

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