During the 1947 municipal election, 42-year-old Theodore M. Berry began his public role as a key supporter of proportional representation (PR) in Cincinnati. That year, the Hamilton County Republican organization gathered enough signatures to place a measure on the ballot to repeal the preference voting system that had been used to elect the city council for the previous 20 years.
Berry ran for council as an independent. The only other black candidate, incumbent Republican Jesse Locker, took a neutral position on the repeal. In failed attempts by the Republican machine to repeal preference in 1937 and 1939, the black community in fact had voted strongly for repeal.
Once Berry entered the debate, black opposition to preference voting began to change. In his campaign, Berry explained that while blacks had been able to win representation on the Cincinnati council as far back as 1931 under preference voting, no blacks had ever been elected to Detroit's city council -- a city with a much larger black population, but with a winner-take-all, at-large election system.
Berry wrote that preference voting gave the black community the balance of power in city hall. "The politicians know this and want to destroy [our] bargaining power and control the Negro vote. We have only received recognition when it was forced from the political bosses. . . Without PR our jobs, businesses, unions, homes and community welfare would be controlled by political bosses. . . I [will] seek to prove that a minority group representative can be an instrument for the welfare of the community rather than a tool for partisan interests."
Although Berry narrowly lost his bid for council, preference voting was retained, Councilman Locker was re-elected and preference voting received half of the black community vote. In 1949, Locker was re-elected, and Berry won a seat on council as an endorsed candidate of the Charter Committee of Greater Cincinnati. The black community -- then just 15.5% of Cincinnati's population -- held 22% of council seats under preference voting.
Berry served on council until 1957, when Republicans and some Democrats joined to repeal preference voting. They warned voters that Berry would become mayor under preference voting.
In 1993 court testimony, Berry described the 1957 attack on preference voting. He testified, "I am persuaded in my own mind that the primary motivation to each effort to repeal PR, beginning in 1936, was motivated by the desire and intention to dilute the impact of a mobilized and organized black vote." After preference voting was repealed in 1957, no blacks were elected to council until 1963. Berry moved to Washington, D.C. from 1965 to 1970 to take a position in the administration of President Lyndon Johnson. Later, after returning to Cincinnati, he served as mayor from 1972 until 1975.
In 1986, Berry helped revive preference voting in Cincinnati. That year he was invited by the Hamilton County Rainbow Coalition to debate the merits of preference voting and district elections.
After the debate the Coalition decided to lead an initiative campaign to return preference voting to Cincinnati. That effort brought preference voting to the ballot in November 1988 -- the first Cincinnati preference voting referendum since 1957. The issue was approved in more than half of the city's wards, but a higher turnout in anti-preference voting wards defeated the measure citywide. Preference voting supporters brought the issue to the ballot again in 1991 and again won about two-thirds of the vote in the black community and 45% of the vote citywide.
In 1992, Berry gave the keynote speech at the founding national conference of the Center for Voting and Democracy (then Citizens for Proportional Representation). In 1993, he jumped back into the fray again, when he and other minority preference voting supporters petitioned a U.S. District Court to intervene in a voting rights case against Cincinnati's at-large council voting system, which was upheld before the intervention was considered.
In March 1995, Berry once again testified on behalf of preference voting before a Cincinnati charter commission with John Gilligan, who had served Cincinnati in Congress, as governor and as a council member with Berry in the 1950s. Together Berry and Gilligan made an impressive argument for preference voting's fundamental fairness.
Bill Collins is a founding member of the Center for Voting and Democracy and Cincinnati resident.
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