Jack Santucci: "A yes vote in Portland would be a ‘game on’ moment for the proportional representation movement."
Rose City Reform catches up with an expert on America's history of proportional representation.
On November 8, Portland could become the first major U.S. city to adopt proportional representation – during modern times.
Proportional representation has been tried before in America.
If Portland gives it a thumbs up on Election Day, it could mean a comeback for the system, says Drexel University Professor Jack Santucci.
Would Portland’s proposed city council system be more of a Cleveland model, a Cincinnati model or a New York City model?
Those are examples of American cities that once used proportional representation.
The concept of proportional representation (PR) is that seats in government should proportionately reflect parties’ or candidates’ captured share of all votes. While PR is the system of choice in most other democratic nations, the United States has never fully embraced it.
But during the first half of the 20th Century, twenty-four American cities chose PR for their city councils. All of them used a multi-winner form of ranked choice voting called single transferable vote.
That’s the voting method now being proposed in Portland, Oregon.
Rose City proposal brings flashbacks from Big Apple of the 1940s.
On November 8, Portlanders will vote on a ballot measure that would create four city council districts with three representatives each, elected by single transferable vote.
An executive mayor, elected citywide by ranked ballot, would handle city affairs with the help of a professional city administrator.
Of course, Portland’s model isn’t the exact mirror image of any of its predecessors. It most closely resembles the system used in New York City between 1937 and 1947, which also had multi-seat districts and separation of executive and legislative powers.
So says Jack Santucci, Assistant Teaching Professor of Politics at Drexel University. His recent book “More Parties or No Parties: The Politics of Electoral Reform in America” is a deep-dive into the history of proportional representation in the United States.
Rose City Reform had a chance to catch up with the professor to ask what history might teach Portland about the adoption of single transferable vote.
What prompted the adoption of single transferable vote during the first half of the 20th Century?
This was a time in American history where the party system had unraveled and we had factional politics.
One side of the progressive faction of American politics wanted proportional representation and a multi-party system, and the other side wanted broadly nonpartisan elections. Single transferable vote (STV) became the way to square those goals, because STV doesn’t require candidates to be grouped into parties.
By the time STV was being widely promoted in the United States, the message became less about proportional representation and more about getting the corruption – and the parties – out of politics.
There’s also historical material that points to diversity concerns being an issue. Cities had become diverse places and people wanted that diversity to be represented. There was a sense that the city was an ecosystem that could be rationally planned, and all relevant people should be at the table.
Why did STV eventually get repealed almost everywhere?
For these systems to work, something has to organize both voters and politicians.
For a while, in the United States, that was the issue of good government. But we get to a point in each city where the good government alliance falls apart and new issues disrupt the system.
In the places where STV hasn’t been repealed, like Ireland, it sits atop a multi-party system. The parties organize the coalitions and get the message out to voters about how to rank ballots.
Another argument is that STV did what it was supposed to do, which is to represent diversity, and once it finally starts to deliver on that promise, electing Black Americans and Communists in some cities, they are used as 'boogeymen' in repeal efforts.
Is STV is having a comeback? If so, why?
I think so. It's certainly being advocated more than it was a year ago.
Proportional representation is what the American election reform movement has always wanted. This is one way to win it: Go to cities where there are diversity concerns, cities that need some sort of restructuring, and promote STV.
In the 1920s, diversity concerns were in tense alliance with pro-business, good government interests. To win proportional representation in 1925, you’d promote STV because it was compatible with nonpartisan elections, and sync up with those who wanted small councils that make government run more like a business.
The diversity concerns in Portland strike me as different, but it will be interesting to see how a nationwide group of reformers that fundamentally want proportional representation finds opportunities for itself to win PR systems in cities.
What will it mean for the movement if Portland adopts proportional representation?
It will be a big ‘game on’ moment for the PR movement in the United States, in the same way that Maine was a big ‘game on’ moment for the ranked choice voting movement. Proof that it can be won on a large scale.
What should Portland expect to see in the first ten years after adopting STV?
Probably tons of candidates in the first election.
And then some decline in subsequent elections as people realize that even though this is proportional representation, not everyone gets a seat.
The districts proposed really aren't that big, so the Communist Party isn’t going to win seats in Portland under this proposal. It’s just not that permissive.
You might see more importance placed on ward level organization, either within the Democratic party or some other party-like structure that emerges to screen candidates and coordinate between interest groups and those who end up elected.
The Manhattan Institute recently published an article speculating that alliances may emerge between moderate, fiscally conservative Democrats and Republicans in Portland.
I’m not going to tell you that’s going to happen, but it’s possible.
What advice would you give Portlanders if they adopt STV?
Politics rewards organization. What seems to have wrecked STV systems the last time is disorganization.
One theory about urban politics in the United States is that it's never possible to go really far left on policy. You may be seeing that in Portland with the Democratic Party splitting on issues like law and order.
There's also an argument right now in political science that the way out of the polarization we’ve been talking about for twenty years now is factional politics.
Cities could become ground zero for that.
Thanks for reading Rose City Reform! Subscribe for free to support my work.