Council Seeks Fair Voting System
On December 15, 1992, the City of Cincinnati and the fifteen African-American plaintiffs in the Clarke v. Cincinnati case agreed that the city council should study various electoral systems with input from academic experts and citizens. The parties also agreed that the council would decide on one system and place it on the ballot May 4, 1993 for voter approval.
On January 9, the council heard testimony from Michael Gant and Thomas Lyons, political scientists from the University of Tennessee in a Saturday morning hearing that was attended by about 100 citizens and televised on cable television. In the three-hour session, Gant and Lyons explained a number of voting systems in detail, and later fielded questions from council members and the public. Both seemed knowledgeable about proportional voting systems. On January 16, Kimball Brace and Lisa Handley of Election Data Services in Washington, D.C. led a second hearing, using the same format.
PR Advocates Include Former Governor
At both hearings, local proponents of the preference voting (PV) method of proportional representation -- still well-organized after two narrow losses in 1988 and 1991 initiatives to implement PV -- distributed leaflets explaining their position. The first leaflet entitled "Did You Know: A Short Primer on Proportional Representation vs. District Elections," touted the benefits of PV in Cincinnati's history and explained proportional representation's popularity around the world.
The second leaflet, which was distributed January 15, was headlined "In Atlanta and Boston, Single-Member Districts Produce Low Voter Turnout and 'Balkanization'." The leaflet cited a July 7, 1991 Boston Globe story that showed how Boston's move to single-member districts had undermined the vitality of local politics. The leaflet also reported Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson's complaint about "balkanization" that resulted from single-member district elections and his efforts to go to at-large elections.
PV supporters' lobbying and leaflets were so effective that the leading local newspaper, the anti-PV Cincinnati Enquirer, attacked PV supporters in a Jan. 12 editorial. It complained, "We don't have an answer yet, and neither do city council members. But if a vote had been taken last Saturday at City Hall to determine a new election system for Cincinnati, proportional representation would have won going away."
On the evening of February 8, about 100 citizens attended the only hearing where citizens were allowed to speak in support of their favorite elections systems. Among those speaking for PV were: Marian Spencer, former vice-mayor and the only African-American woman ever to serve on council; John Gilligan, former Member of Congress and Governor of Ohio; Daphne Sloan, a local economic development leader who had spoken at President Clinton's December, 1992 "Economic Summit" in Little Rock, Arkansas; and Nancy Minson, chair of the Cincinnati Women's Political Caucus. Former mayor Theodore Berry, the city's first African-American mayor, wrote a letter explaining his unwavering support for PV.
Council Unanimous Against Winner-take-all
Newspapers reported that council members had narrowed their electoral choices to four: a combination single-member/at-large system; limited voting; cumulative voting; and preference voting, which had been used in Cincinnati from 1925 until a 1957 repeal.
Following the public hearing, the council deliberated privately, in consultation with the city's lawyers. Newspapers reported that the nine-member council was split three ways: the two Republican council members supported limited voting; four Democratic members supported cumulative voting; and the current Democratic mayor Roxanne Qualls and two members of the Charter party supported preference voting -- the Charter Committee of Greater Cincinnati had been for PV since 1925, when it led the fight for PV and other charter reforms.
On February 16, the council compromised on cumulative voting (CV) by a 7-2 vote, with only the Republicans still supporting limited voting. Three days later, U.S. District Court Judge Herman J. Weber ordered that the plan be placed on the May 4th ballot. At the 90-minute hearing, the plaintiffs' attorneys conceded that they had no legal grounds to challenge the council's choice because the council had complied with the terms of its December agreement with the plaintiffs. From the bench, Judge Weber said that he believed the district plan supported by the plaintiffs would make it more difficult for women to be elected and would block minorities who did not live in segregated communities from having a voice.
Uphill Campaign for Cumulative Voting
Soon after the court approved the plan, the attack on CV began. On February 22, the Cincinnati Enquirer headlined an editorial "Council Has Fielded a System Based on Stuffing the Ballot Box." Two weeks later, it struck again, under the headline, "Cumulative Voting Promises only to 'Plump' the Cost of Elections." On February 24, the Clarke plaintiffs announced that they would campaign against CV. The Cincinnati Post, the city's other daily newspaper and a long-time supporter of PV, waffled on the issue.
After approving the CV plan, several council members promised to raise money for CV and campaign for it, but they never followed through with an organized campaign. Within three weeks of its vote for CV, council members split on an unrelated, but very controversial issue. When six members of council moved quickly (and some thought, illegally) to fire the city manager, many citizens responded angrily to the actions of the "The Six Pack." The move was perceived as a power play.
After the Six Pack's attack (five of the six had backed CV in the council's 7-2 vote of February 16), it became obvious that the council would not unite and campaign for CV. Also, it was clear that the May 4 CV election would be viewed partly as a referendum on the Six Pack attack. Finally, a special primary to fill an empty congressional seat had a very competitive race for the Republican nomination, which was expected to bring out voters opposed to the change.
Late in April, the NAACP endorsed CV, and a small grass-roots organization led by the League of Women Voters chapter attempted to raise money and organize a campaign, but the effort could not overcome the public's anger at council and the other factors. CV was defeated by a 4-1 vote.
Bill Collins is a leader in Cincinnati's electoral reform movement and one of the founding members of The Center for Voting and Democracy.
| "The people of Cincinnati can be
grateful for proportional representation. It enables them to vote with the certain
knowledge that their ballots count, and count for some candidate who needs those
particular votes. It gives us a council fairly divided between parties, and well balanced
as among racial, religious and economic groupings. It is the fairest system of voting yet
devised for the choice of a body of representative public officers. Wise citizens will not
be misled by false charges that PR is unfair or
Cincinnati Enquirer editorial, 1935
"Without the city's realizing what was occurring, over the years protest through political and non-violent channels had become increasingly difficult for Negroes. . . . Although the city's Negro population had been rising swiftly -- in 1967, 135,000 out of the city's 500,000 residents were Negroes -- there was only one Negro on the city council. In the 1950s, with a far smaller Negro population, there had been two. Negroes attributed this to dilution of the Negro vote through abolition of the proportional representation system of electing nine councilmen. When a Negro received the largest total vote of any of the councilmen -- traditionally, the criterion for choosing the mayor -- tradition had been cast aside, and a white man was picked for mayor."
1968 Kerner Commission, Report of the National
Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders,
discussing 1967 riots in Cincinnati
"PR will do the job with unchallengeable efficiency and accuracy."
John Gilligan, former Governor of Ohio and
Member of Congress, Feb. 7, 1993 hearing before
Cincinnati city council on voting system option
"PR could be viewed as a compromise between 9X and single-member district elections. The election would still be conducted at-large, enabling constituencies from the whole city to some together to choose their council members. At the same time, minorities -- whether partisan, racial, ethnic or ideological -- could win their fair share of participation in the policy debate. The majority would rule, but not without input from the diversity of viewpoints and people in the city."
Kathleen Barber, former head of Political Science
Dept., John Carroll Univ., 2/7/93 Cincinnati Enquirer
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