Fifteen and Six for Providence City Council

By Ari Savitzky director of FairVoteRI and State Rep. David A. Segal
Published October 26th 2007 in The Providence Journal
Providence is not a one-horse town. It is not a one-gender, a one-income level or even a one-party town. Our city is blessed with diversity: people of myriad beliefs and backgrounds call it home. But while Providence has evolved over the last 25 years, its problematic election system has remained untouched by the passage of time: it’s time to upgrade our elections.

Last month, the City Council began discussing expanding its membership to include at-large council members, elected citywide by all voters. Their reasoning for the new blood makes sense: with 15 council members from 15 separate wards, the council does not represent Providence as a whole. The incentives of an all-ward system can favor narrow sets of localized concerns, often leaving city residents who lack sufficient political clout, or city issues that lack sufficient organization, with little voice.

But adding two winner-take-all seats doesn’t go far enough; in fact, it could exacerbate the present imbalance. Because the wards are limited to one representative each, it’s natural for winners to find their resources in the wealthier or more active members of that ward. Entire communities can thus find themselves out of the political loop if they don’t make up a majority of the active electorate in a given council district.

Women are half the population, but hold only two seats, representing a paltry 13 percent of the council’s membership. Providence is “majority minority,” but only about a quarter of council members are people of color. Contrary to popular stereotype, Providence is home to a significant number of independents and Republicans, despite our all-Democratic council. Our elections are a series of geographically segregated zero-sum games, in which only one candidate can ever win. The result: elections which are much harder to win for women and non-Democrats, and which pit multiple minority candidates against each other in some wards while discouraging them from running in others.

Under the current reform proposal, two winner-take-all seats would be added to the 15 ward seats. Winner-take-all means exactly that: candidates with bare majorities (or even less in a crowded field of spoilers) would win both seats, further skewing the council’s membership. Citywide, winner-take-all races would require massive campaign war chests to win, favoring those who have or are able to raise big money and skewing council membership toward those with greater means More than that, two at-large seats are just not enough accommodate the city’s diversity.

We propose a better plan: one that would both bring a citywide perspective to the council and add to the council’s political and racial diversity, and which Councilman Seth Yurdin is in the process of drafting and introducing. Called “Fifteen and Six,” here’s how it works: add six at-large seats to the 15 ward seats and elect them with a voting method that gives as many people as possible an effective vote to win representation.

For these citywide seats, the parties would nominate several candidates, and voters would rank candidates in order of choice. Candidates would win by claiming a sixth of the vote. This choice method of proportional voting is tried and true: nearby Cambridge, Mass., has successfully used it since 1941, and it’s a featured option in the National Civic League’s model city charter.

With choice voting a majority of voters will elect a majority of seats, but all voters are more likely to elect their favorite candidate. Most voters would help elect their first choice, but if not, their vote would count for their second choice candidate until all the seats are filled. Choice voting encourages candidates to emphasize systemic issues that affect the whole city while promoting cross-racial and issue-based coalitions and seeking both first and second choice support. Candidates would be able to win by focusing their resources on portions of the city electorate — trying to build and win constituencies bound together by ideas and qualities, rather than geography — and while spending much less than would be needed to win a citywide winner-take-all race.

The new system would not upset our city’s political alignment, nor should it. Providence voters are heavily Democratic, and it is only sensible that the council should reflect that majority view. With six at-large seats, however, we can ensure that a greater range of opinions and perspectives will be represented: in the aggregate, the at-large members would represent citizens from a variety of economic strata, neighborhoods, ethnic backgrounds and ideological inclinations — in line with the rate at which those characteristics are held by the population. A council with 21 members would bring democracy closer to city residents, and would bring Providence in line with Rhode Island’s other cities — every one of which has more council members per-capita than does Providence under our council’s current configuration.

We applaud the council for moving toward reform. But while the current system keeps too much of Providence silent, merely adding two at-large seats elected by winner-take-all would do little to fix that. Democracy at its heart means that government reflects the will of the people. Our goal must be to best represent the concerns and interests of all of Providence’s voters, and adding citywide seats to our geography-bound wards is a good start. A “Fifteen and Six” system of choice voting is the best way forward.