Christopher Smitherman and Marian Spencer United on Yes on Issue 8

By Marian Spencer and Christopher Smitherman
Published October 21st 2008 in Cincinnati Herald
On Election Day, we hope you will join us in voting for Issue 8, to restore Proportional Representation (PR) for Cincinnati City Council elections. When the City Council was elected by proportional representation, African Americans won seats for the first time, and the Council reflected African American voting strength far more fairly than today. In fact, in two PR elections as many African Americans won seats as now serve on our City Council -- even though the African American share of Cincinnati's population in those PR elections was barely a third of what it is today. And it was proportional representation that was essential to Barack Obama's victory in the presidential nomination contest this year.

Fair representation of our community is only one of several good reasons to bring back PR. Issue 8 will make our politics more positive and our politicians more responsive to us. Every vote will be counted, and every voter's power will be maximized.

Proportional representation will allow real change in our city as well. By reducing the number of votes for what it takes a candidate with strong community support to win, Issue 8 makes it much easier for new candidates to win without having high name recognition gained from incumbency or big money politics. Issue 8 also will make it much easier to cast a smart ballot -- you'll never vote against your interests, as can too easily happen in our current 9x system.

Unfortunately, Councilman Jeff Berding, Issue 8's leading opponent, has been repeatedly giving inaccurate information about how PR works even though we used it so well for 30 years. First, what you do as a voter is simple. You indicate who your first choice is. You then indicate your second choice, your third choice and so on. You can rank as many candidates as you want up to nine because ranking a lower choice never counts against your favorite choice -- unlike in the current system. Studies of cities with ranked choice voting systems show that voters like being able to rank their candidates and find it easy to do.

Getting fair results is simple too. Suppose five candidates are running with strong support in the African American community. If more than half of voters citywide rank those five candidates in any order before they rank any other candidate, those five candidates are guaranteed to win. If more than 40% of voters rank those same five candidates before any other candidate, four of them will win. If more than 30% of voters rank those same five candidates before anyone else, three of them will win -- guaranteed.

It's that simple. That's why Issue 8 is called proportional representation. Like-minded voters elect candidates in proportion to their support in the community.

Proportional representation played a big role in this year's presidential primaries. Indeed without the use of PR, Sen. Barack Obama would not have become the first African American to win a major party nomination.

Take the Iowa caucuses, which vaulted Sen. Obama to the front of the pack. Those caucuses are a great example of how Issue 8 will work next year. Sen. Obama and other candidates earned convention delegates at each Iowa caucus in proportion to their share of support among caucus voters. After gathering in person, backers went to a different part of the room designated for each candidate running at the time. Every vote was then counted.

Under winner-take-all rules, like Cincinnati's current 9x city council system and like what the Republicans used in most of their primaries, the candidate with the most votes would win every delegate. But in Iowa's Democratic caucuses, a candidate would win delegates if they won a certain percentage of support -- in most caucuses that share was 15%. Several candidates were often below that level of support, however, so supporters of those candidates had to decide where to move to help their next choice win delegates. Most chose to move to their second choice. In the end, almost every Iowa Democrat helped a candidate win delegates.

In Iowa, Sen. Obama was a popular second choice of supporters of other candidates, which helped him gain a bigger victory than expected. As the Democrats went onto more primaries, they continued to elect convention delegates according to the principle of proportional representation rather than 9x-type winner-take-all rules. When Sen. Hillary Clinton finished first in big states like Ohio, California, Pennsylvania and New York, she won more delegates than Sen. Obama -- but only her fair share.

If the Democratic candidates' state-by-state vote totals had been the same and if 9x-type, winner-take-all rules had been used statewide, as was the case in most Republican primaries, Sen. Clinton would have won the nomination easily because of her narrow wins in big sates. But that would have been an unfair result because Sen. Obama won more votes around the country. Proportional representation made all those votes count.

Returning to Cincinnati, voters of course won't have to participate in a caucus. They can just head to the voting booth and rank candidates in order of choice. Just like in the Iowa caucuses, if a voter's first choice doesn't get the number of votes needed to win a seat, his or her vote is then counted for their second choice.

We wanted to address two specific points where Councilman Berding has been misleading the public.

First, Councilman Berding has falsely said we cannot count the ballots next year after passing Issue 8. In fact, many cities around the country have passed ranked choice voting systems in recent years -- including big cities like Oakland, Minneapolis and San Francisco -- and have shown how Cincinnati can get the count done.

Consider Cary, North Carolina, a city of 115,000 people outside Raleigh. Four months after approving a change to a ranked choice voting system, all first choices were counted at the polls with the voting equipment the County already had. Ballots were then collected centrally and counted by hand. Issue 8 will give the city an additional option of using inexpensive optical scan equipment to count ballots centrally -- just as the City of Takoma Park, Maryland did after adopting a ranked choice voting system.

Second, Congressman Berding has falsely said that the order of how ballots are counted can be manipulated in a way that might change the results. Recall that we already made it clear how if more than 50% of Cincinnati voters ranked five or more candidates in any order ahead of other candidates, those five candidates are sure to win. The way that can happen is that PR ensures we don't 'waste' votes either on people certain to lose or people who have more votes than needed to win.

When a candidate loses in a PR election, supporters of that candidate have all their votes move to their next choice among candidates still in the running for the remaining seats -- just like in the Iowa caucuses. That's simple and avoids those votes being 'wasted' on a sure loser.

When a candidate wins with PR and has more votes than needed, we also want to make sure those votes aren't wasted. Here's how you do it, just as it was done when PR was used in our city in the past and as it's done today in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1) Every ballot is first counted for the candidate listed first on that ballot. Ballots are tallied in order of neighborhood. 2) A candidate's first choices are numbered in the order that the candidate receives them. 3) If that candidate wins and receives more votes than necessary to win, those extra votes are distributed to the second choice on each ballot. Ballots moving to second choices are distributed evenly, reflecting where that candidate earned support. If a very popular candidate won twice as many votes as necessary, every other ballot cast for that candidate in every neighborhood would be counted for each voter's next choice. There's no way to 'manipulate' this process.

The Democratic Party has chosen to use a form of PR in their primary election because they want the delegates to be a fair reflection of Democratic voters. The bottom line for Cincinnati is that Issue 8 will give all of us fair representation and a chance for fresh voices to improve our city with their ideas. That's why such leaders as Representative Tyrone Yates, former mayor Bobbie Sterne and former governor John Gilligan have joined groups like Common Cause, the Cincinnati NAACP, Charter Committee and Ohio Citizen Action in supporting Issue 8. We need change in Washington. D.C., to be sure, but change begins at home. Please join us in voting "yes" on Issue 8 on November 4th.

(Christopher Smitherman is President of the Cincinnati NAACP. Marian Spencer is a former President of the Cincinnati NAACP and former Vice-Mayor of Cincinnati.)