Fair Voting in the United States

Fair voting refers to the use of American, candidate-based forms of proportional representation used in multi-seat districts or at-large elections. These systems have a long history of use in a variety of elections throughout the United States at the state, county, and city level. Illinois elected its House of Representatives by fair voting for over one hundred years. Some two-dozen cities have used ranked choice voting to elect their city councils at-large, including New York City, Cincinnati, and Cleveland, and it is still used today in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Many more cities use a semi-proportional method like cumulative voting or limited voting. See below for more information on each of these.

Fair Voting and the Voting Rights Act

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, as amended in 1982, prohibits the use of election systems which dilute the effectiveness of racial minority votes. Winner-take-all election schemes, whether at-large or by district may dilute the votes of minorities, including racial minorities, and so the use of fair voting has been used to resolve many cases brought under the voting rights act against small jurisdictions. Here are some resources regarding the intersection of fair voting and the voting rights of racial minorities:

Fair Voting in Illinois: 1870-1980

Following the civil war, Illinois suffered from severe partisan polarization between the Republican-controlled northern half of the state (including Chicago) and the Democrat-controlled south. Like the partisan polarization today, this trend resulted in most legislative districts in Illinois being strongly Democratic or strongly Republican, utterly excluding moderates and members of the minority party from every district's representation.

To resolve the problem, Illinois adopted fair voting in 1870. Instead of single-seat districts elected on a winner-take-all basis, Illinois elected its house of representatives three-seat districts elected by a semi-proportional fair voting method (cumulative voting). In 2001, a commission chaired by former Republican governor Jim Edgar and former Democratic congressman and federal judge Abner Mikva concluded that the system offered greater choice for voters, provided candidates easier access to the electoral system, provided better mixed representation by party, provided individual legislators greater independence from party leaders, generated richer deliberations and statewide consensus, and provided the opportunity for adapting into a truly proportional system. 

Illinois repealed the system through a poorly publicized amendment on the ballot known as the 'Cutback Amendment' because it reduced the size of the Illinois house. Since then, there have been a number of calls for a return to fair voting in Illinois, including a bill introduced by Barack Obama when he was a state senator in 2001. It worked for Illinois for over one hundred years. It would work for Illinois - and the rest of the country - today.


Ranked Choice Voting in City Councils

The first U.S. city to adopt at-large ranked choice voting for its city council was Ashtabula, Ohio in 1915. During the first half of the 20th century, ranked choice voting spread rapidly as part of the progressive movement. At its peak, some two-dozen cities adopted it, including Cincinatti, Cleveland, Boulder, Sacramento, and even New York City. New York City continued to use ranked choice voting for its school board until 2002 when those school boards were abolished.

As the progressive era transitioned into a period characterized by racial tensions and fear of communism, at-large ranked choice voting became a victim of its own success. In Cincinnati, ranked choice voting enabled the election of two African American city council members into the 1950's. In 1951, African American attorney Theodore M. Berry won with the highest percent of the vote, which ordinarily would result in him becoming mayor. Instead, the city council chose one of the white councilmen to become mayor. Finally, Cincinnati repealed ranked choice voting in 1957 in the fifth Republican-led repeal attempt. Following civil unrest stemming from racial tensions in the 1960's, the Kerner Commission cited the repeal of ranked choice voting and its effect on African American representation as one cause of the city's violence.

Similarly, in New York City, ranked choice voting cut off the stranglehold previously held by the Democratic Party in the city. In the last election before adoption of choice voting, Democrats won 99.5% of the seats on the Board of Alderman with only 66.5% of the vote. Under ranked choice voting in 1941, Democrats won 65.5% of the seats with 64% of the vote, a much fairer result. However, ranked choice voting enabled representation of minor parties, including members of the Communist Party. During the Cold War, the Democratic Party took advantage of fears of communism to make a successful push for repeal of ranked choice voting. That repeal successfully prevented the election of communists to the city council, along with members of all other minor parties, but it also brought back an era of unrepresentative elections to New York City.