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.

John Anderson and Fairvote

I received this appeal from John Anderson today. I make such a contribution every year, and I hope some of my pro-reform American readers will consider doing the same:

December 18, 2007

My fellow friends and supporters of FairVote,

I write from my law school office in Florida, having just put the final touches on another semester of teaching constitutional law. Perhaps it is my regular opportunity to engage so intensely with our nation’s future leaders that stirs in me an ongoing passion to have our nation move to democracy’s cutting edge. Certainly it serves to reinforce one of my deepest commitments: the remarkable work of FairVote as it advances “the way democracy will be.”

I know many of you already appreciate FairVote’s work. Each year our supporters grow in their number and giving, with their recognition of our unique position: we are the one national organization winning a full range of structural reforms necessary to free the voter from the chains of America’s 18th century electoral laws. We turn every gift into innovative thinking, strategic advocacy and one more step toward a democracy that can meet today’s challenges.

Allow me to be as bold as FairVote’s mission: please consider a donation to FairVote this year, as we move to the next level of reform impact. I firmly believe that our time is not coming. It is here. And we need your help.

It’s hard to convey all the successes of our dedicated staff. Rob Richie’s report is a good start. Perusing fairvote.org is even better. But I wish you could have joined me for our Claim Democracy conference and intensive training session with advocates of instant runoff voting and proportional voting from across the nation. Our board meetings sparkle with ideas. You would feel the energy – and see how much change flows from our work.

I wanted to give special thanks to those of you who filled the hall for our 15th Anniversary dinner. The staff surprised me with a tribute, and being there with family and so many FairVote allies made for a moving evening. Fellow board members Krist Novoselic, Eddie Hailes and Rick Hertzberg spoke powerfully about FairVote’s remarkable progress and exciting future. Change is coming, and it is a joy to have an opportunity to be part of it.

My profound thanks and best wishes to you and your family at this special time of year.

Yours sincerely,

John B. Anderson
Chair, FairVote Board of Directors

John Anderson was the first presidential candidate whose campaign I ever worked for, and also the first I voted for. In fact, I was the Garden Grove Area Petition Coordinator, helping him get on the ballot in California in 1980. I wish I had a photo of the old red Cougar I was driving back then and dubbed The Andersonmobile for the multiple (and also red) Anderson stickers affixed to it. I even briefly participated in a movement to draft him as the Reform Party nominee in 2000, but it was clear that Anderson was not interested and the Reform Party wasn’t worthy of either word in its name. ((Let me make clear that the faction–groupuscule would be more like it–that I was loosely involved with had no connection to the eventual Reform nominee, Pat Buchanan. Many of its members were, in addition to Anderson, also interested in drafting John McCain, but most eventually turned to Ralph Nader.))

I had the pleasure of meeting him for coffee about six years ago (when he was in San Diego with the World Federalist Movement). That makes him one of three presidential candidates I ever have had the opportunity to meet personally (the others being Ralph Nader and Bill Richardson). Anderson’s commitment to reform impressed me in 1980–when I supported him as much for his energy-saving gas-tax increase as for anything else. He still impresses me today, especially for his role with Fairvote.

Popularity of Congress and the need for a new party?

Following up on a couple of interesting posts at the ever-interesting PoliBlog…

Steven refers to a piece by Mark Tapscott, who suggests that it is time for a new party, on account of what is being reported as the “10-year low popularity of the US Congress,”* just months after Democrats took control of the institution.

There is thus a growing perception of Washington as a Tweedle-dee/Tweedle-dum kind of place in which the two political parties are merely two sides of the same coin.

This is the single most significant fact about the political landscape – a growing public disgust with both major political parties.

As Steven notes, the single-seat districts (SSDs) under first-past-the-post (FPTP) by which the US congress is elected makes the emergence of new parties difficult. He mentions both the interparty dimension (the high barrier to entry for a new party created by the need to win a substantial share of the vote in order to gain any significant representation) and the intraparty dimension (the ability of individual legislators to cater to their districts with pork and services distinct from the national party identity).

Really, two-partism is over-determined in the US. It’s not just FPTP. After all, most FPTP systems, such as the UK and Canada, have far more important parties other than the top two. It’s also presidentialism, yet most presidential systems, too, have more than two major parties. Also the use of primary elections and the electoral college–both of which are unique to the USA and either raise the barriers to new parties (the interparty dimension) or increase the opportunities for local tailoring of legislative campaigns (the intraparty dimension).

My response to such arguments about the unlikelihood of new parties absent institutional reform is always as follows:

I can’t name one case in which major change away from single-seat districts to a more representative and democratic electoral system ever occurred without the rise of new parties first.

So, my advice to people who feel it is time for a new party is simple: Find one and participate in and vote for it.

Since 1990, third-party voting in congress is at the highest it’s been in the post-WWII era (see graphs). Make it higher.

On the Tweedle-dee/-dum question, Steven notes that it sounds a bit old-fashioned nowadays:

Ironically, one could argue that with the re-alignment of Southern conservatives in the 1990s from the Democratic to the Republican Party that the two parties are more distinct now than they were ten to twenty years ago.

That certainly is fundamentally right. The centers of gravity of the two parties are further apart than ever, due to greater internal discipline and homogeneity In turn that’s a result of increasing geographic segregation of the parties’ electorates and the impact that has in a single-seat district system. But I doubt the full range of represented views is any greater than in the past. In fact, we would not expect it to be if the major change in the party system is simply the movement of one block of interests (“southern conservatives”) from one party to the other.

Even more to the point, I suspect that that actual range of views represented in the US Congress it is actually narrower–largely as a result of the ever-increasing need for corporate money–once you discount the few who speak up for relatively radical viewpoints from the safety of their own uncompetitive districts (Tancredo, Kucinich, etc.).

On the general subject of congressional approval (the subject of the other PoliBlog post I alluded to), it seems to me that these numbers need to be situated in the context of a major change that has taken place in the last decade (-plus).

Before Newt Gingrich became the closest thing the USA has ever seen (by far!) to a “co-habiting” prime minister, the Speakership and the Congress-as-an-institution that the Speaker heads never had a position within our political system of significant national and partisan profile.

I continue to ask myself: how long can we sustain this new combination of increasingly partisan, nationalized congressional elections with a constitutional structure designed for non-responsiveness to the democratic (small-d) will and more suited for nonpartisan, localized congressional elections?

And, yes, to articulate demands that are currently either not represented at the national level or are bargained away at the elite level, generating frustration and low public approval of our democratic institutions, we do indeed need new parties. And institutional reform. But we’ll need new parties to arise in the current system before we get democratic institutional reform.

* No discussion of this story would be complete without a link to Charles Franklin’s analysis of the trend.