NYT endorses a larger House, with STV

Something I never thought I would see: The editorial board of one of the most important newspapers in the United States has published two separate editorials, one endorsing an increase in the size of the House of Representatives (suggesting 593 seats) and another endorsing the single transferable vote (STV) form of proportional representation for the House.

It is very exciting that the New York Times has printed these editorials promoting significant institutional reforms that would vastly improve the representativeness of the US House of Representatives.

The first is an idea originally proposed around 50 years ago by my graduate mentor and frequent coauthor, Rein Taagepera, based on his scientific research that resulted in the cube root law of assembly size. The NYT applies this rather oddly to both chambers, then subtracts 100 from the cube root result. But this is not something I will quibble with. Even an increase to 550 or 500 would be well worth doing, while going to almost 700 is likely too much, the cube root notwithstanding.

The second idea goes back to the 19th century (see Thomas Hare and Henry R. Droop) but is as fresh and valid an idea today as it was then. The NYT refers to it as “ranked choice voting in multimember districts” and I have no problem whatsoever with that branding. In fact, I think it is smart.

Both ideas could be adopted separately, but reinforce each other if done jointly.

They are not radical reforms, and they are not partisan reforms (even though we all know that one party will resist them tooth and nail and the other isn’t exactly going to jump on them any time soon). They are sensible reforms that would bring US democracy into the 21st century, or at least into the 20th.

And, yes, we need to reform the Senate and presidential elections, too. But those are other conversations…

PR-USA: We still need it

Thanks to a shout-out at Twitter by Michael Latner, I went back and re-read a few very old posts (from 2005 and 2006) that I did in the category, PR-USA.

Although all were written with respect to politics of the moment, here on Election Day, 2018, the urgency of significant electoral reform remains. For instance, take the Fivethirtyeight.com forecast for the House. Using their “classic” forecast, we see that “Democrats are favored to win a majority of seats if they win the popular vote by at least 5.6 points”.

That’s right. Democrats could win the popular vote by more than FIVE percentage points and we could still have a Republican House seat majority. That would be a scandal of representation. No electoral system should be considered justified on democratic (or republican–note small initial letters) grounds if it is within the realm of realistic probability that a reversal of the voting plurality could occur even with a five-point edge for one party. (Their forecast gives Republicans about a 14% of retaining their seat majority; if they do so, it will almost certainly be without a plurality of the vote.)

It hardly matters whether the root of such an outcome would be gerrymandering (partisan-biased district-boundary drawing) or simply the geographic distribution of votes (i.e. Democrats running up huge margins in their safest seats while Republicans eke out many more close wins). Both causes are inherent to use of the single-seat plurality (or sometimes majority) electoral system.

Of course, it is easier, in principle, to fix the gerrymandering cause. And there are several such measures, along with other electoral-reform measures, on ballots around the country today. As I said in a post in 2005 opposing (with some reluctance) a measure in my state that was billed as terminating gerrymandering, these do not solve the fundamental problem, even though they would help.

In addition to almost totally ensuring that the party with the most votes also has the most seats, proportional representation would limit polarization, open up alternative dimensions of issue competition, and institutionalize a voice for the sort of anti-establishment sentiment that now only bursts forward in spasms of “radical middle” or “populist” voting.

Henry Droop made many of these points a century ago. I made variants of them a dozen or so years ago. And they remain relevant today. Literally today.

Early STV voting equipment

Voting technology is one obstacle to wider use of ranked-choice voting. Although groups like OpaVote have had open-source fixes for years, US jurisdictions tend to rely on commercial vendors. A decade ago, many of them resisited developing the technology. Now, of course, voters can “complete the arrow,” as is done in San Francisco, or bubble in a candidate-by-ranking matrix, as was done in Maine last week.

The challenges get thornier with STV elections. Due to the “multi-winner” nature of a race, there sometimes are very many candidates. That can result in confused voters and burdensome vote counts. Only in 1991 did Cambridge (MA) solve these problems by computerizing its electoral system. That could have happened as early as 1936, when many cities still were holding STV elections.

As it turns out, IBM had found a way to mechanize the voting process. George Hallett of the erstwhile Proportional Representation League writes:

Among the most persuasive arguments against P. R., in spite of their essential triviality, have been the objections that it required several days to get the result in a large election and that it required paper ballots and hand counting, both of which in plurality elections without the safeguards of a central count have acquired an evil reputation. In connection with the possible early use of P. R. in New York City, where these objectives would be stronger than ever psychologically, an effective answer to them has now been devised.

 

IBM’s system used standard, punch-card readers to count STV ballots at a rate of 400 per minute. According to Hallett, “the final result of a P. R. election in New York City can easily be determined by some time in the morning of the day after election.”

Voters would use a series of dials to rank candidates, one through 20. Then, as some will recall, the machine would record a voter’s votes when they pulled the lever to open the curtain. Opening the curtain punched the holes into the punch-card ballot.

Here is the quotation in its context (albeit a bit blurry):

Other features of the system were:

  • Precinct-based error correction. A voter could not give the same ranking to more than one candidate. Nor could a voter skip a ranking.
  • Freedom of choice. A voter could rank as few candidates as they wanted. They also could rank as many as they wanted. Although the machine was built for 20 rankings, there appears to have been accommodation for write-in and additional candidates. Finally, a voter could go back and change their mind about a ranking.
  • Early “cyber-security.” Now we worry about nefarious actors loading malware onto touchscreens. Back in the 1930s, however, the worry was that poll workers might stuff a ballot box or throw out ballots they did not like. IBM’s solution was simple. Poll workers would not have access to individual ballots. Once a voter voted, the ballot fell into a sealed container, only to be opened in the central-count location.

Why the machine did not catch on remains a mystery. IBM appears to have been pitching it to New York City in advance of the November referendum, which put STV into place from 1937 to 1947. Those passing by 41 Park Row could see a demonstration model at the Citizens Union office.

It is a shame that New York (and other cities) did not go with the system. According to Mott (1926), the average invalid-ballot rate in 19 elections to that point was 9.1 percent. My data reveal invalid rates of up to 18 percent (Manhattan and Brooklyn, 1941). Part of this was abstention altogether. Another part was the lack of interest in discerning voter intent, handling skipped rankings with compassion, and so forth. IBM’s machine, however, would have addressed some of those issues, all while educating voters at the same time that they voted.

How liberals ended PR in the US

Proportional representation is a mostly left-wing cause in the US. Some see it as a path to majority-Democrat Congressional delegations. Others see it as a way out of the Democratic Party, period. Much liberal-wing anger centers on the party’s ties to Wall Street. If we had PR, the story goes, the liberal wing would seat its own party. If not, it might at least scare the Clinton wing into responsiveness. And the affinity between PR and left politics might draw on a myth, neatly summarized below:

Proportional representation systems were tried earlier in the past century and then discarded precisely because they favored minority representation (racial and left wing/socialist) too much.

I’ve found evidence that the most liberal Democrats were actually PR’s worst enemies. Yes, racially and economically liberal. I’m talking about the AFL and/or CIO and Young Democrats. At roughly the same time they were pulling the Democratic Party leftward, they were working to repeal PR in at least three of the cities that had it.

Let’s begin with New York City and Cincinnati, since the PR eulogy rests heavily on these cases.

In New York, all signs suggest repeal was about kicking the left off City Council. The CIO did take PR’s side there in 1947, but the Young Democrats opposed it.

What about Cincinnati? It’s said that repeal in 1957 was a reaction to desegregation, simultaneous events in Little Rock, and the success of a local black politician under PR. Another common argument cites Democrats’ bolt from a three-decade coalition deal. Everything we know about American politics implies these ought to have been (racially) conservative Democrats. And we’d expect the CIO and Young Democrats to have opposed them. Not so, and not so.

I argue here that the CIO-affiliated Steel Workers were critical to repealing PR in 1957. Stranger still, their leader was city council’s main advocate for desegregation and collective bargaining. He and the successful black politician were on the same side of every major policy initiative except one: a flat municipal income tax. What about the YDs? Although their role in 1957 remains unclear, they caused the 1954 attempt to repeal PR. Both efforts involved deals with a disciplined, conservative Republican Party.

We find the same basic pattern in Worcester, Massachusetts. Consider this slice of history, from December 1959:

Worcester AFL-CIO supports repeal of PR.I find archival evidence that the Worcester YDs began mobilizing against PR in 1955. This involved rapprochement with the former Democratic “machine.” YDs also tried to get control of the CEA nominating process. Finally, they tried to get the CEA to pull PR from its platform. CEA was the coalition of Republicans and independent Democrats that benefitted from PR in Worcester.

Make of this role what you will. It looks short-sighted in retrospect. It’s clearly ironic, given what we know. The very people you’d expect to clamor for PR today — starry-eyed activists and militant labor organizers — are largely why the working PR examples are gone.

The obvious question concerns motive. Maybe they saw Democrats on the demographic upswing and, in that, a chance to flush Republicans from city government for good. That only explains Cincinnati, however, if the Republicans were ignoring trends that the YDs and/or unions were not. Anticommunism is another big possibility. The problem is that Communists (or anything plausibly resembling them) only gained from PR in New York City and its suburbs. Clearly there’s work to do. Please share any insights.

Yglesias on STV

US political blogger Matthew Yglesias has suggested single transferable vote as ” one solution to polarization” in the US Congress.

I would note that his specific suggestion that New York City could form a single 13-seat district might not be the best way to sell STV. But perhaps one should not quibble with such details, important though they are, at this point.

I did not look at many of the comments (55 at last check), but I did notice that the first comment advocates expanding the size of the House (as an alternative, but why pick just one of these?), and another makes the all-too-common mistake of conflating the increased district magnitude of PR with “at large” plurality (with reference to such a provision in the Puerto Rican legislature).

And at least one of the comments mentions the looming referendum on STV in British Columbia.