Why STV was repealed

“Dance with the one that brung ya”

Grassroots wins for ranked-choice voting will be met with Beltway hot takes. One recent piece attempts to say why early use did not persist into the present. It makes some errors, which were knowable. The first conflates proportional voting with the system in the news today. The second uses PR’s history to explain the abandonment of single-winner reforms.

We do not yet know why reformed single-winner systems ended up repealed. Also, the account of proportional-voting repeal invokes some old wisdom: cities couldn’t handle all that diversity. That is not quite right. What killed proportional voting was a series of failures to honor coalition commitments, some in places with very little diversity.

According to the Pew Charitable Trusts:

Most cities that use ranked-choice voting have adopted the system only in the last two decades. But a century ago, the system was more common, said David Kimball, associate professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Only Cambridge, Massachusetts, which adopted the system in the 1940s, has kept it. Other cities ditched the standard after major political parties and organized factions didn’t like how it gave other parties, and in some cases racial minorities, a chance at winning local races, Kimball said. The system may be making a comeback.

Let me preface with deep respect for Prof. Kimball, one of a small (but growing) group doing empirical work on preferential voting in this country. He seems to have shared insights that were left on the cutting-room floor. Note the reference to “organized factions.” I suspect some qualifiers were lost in the effort to write for DC Metro riders.

Error No. 1: Conflating that which won in Maine with its proportional variant

The system sweeping America is for single-winner elections. It manufactures electoral majorities in fragmented candidate fields.

Pew is correct that this system saw widespread use in states and cities about 100 years ago. Every jurisdiction repealed it. We still do not know why. Nor do we yet have an authoritative list of those jurisdictions. (This is an opportunity for some enterprising graduate student.)

What is used in Cambridge, however, is proportional representation via the single transferable vote, or STV for short. Its use peaked between 1930 and 1950. The movement for STV was somewhat tangential to the earlier movement for single-winner reform. Unlike single-winner ranked voting, which manufactures an electoral majority, STV lets non-majority groups win seats of their own. That brings us to the account of its repeal.

Error No. 2: Restating conventional wisdom on STV repeal

For about three decades, the standard line has been that STV was repealed — note the need for passive voice — because Communists and Blacks started winning seats. A slightly older line is that parties kept attacking STV with ballot initiatives, and, somehow, at some point, that strategy was successful.

What makes a repeal referendum win? Why is there a referendum in the first place? Why did STV persist long after the elections of Communists (only in New York City, by the way) and Blacks? Why was STV repealed in cities where neither of those groups was politically significant?

Conventional wisdom cannot answer any of these questions. Conventional wisdom cannot tell us, for example, why the New York City GOP waited until October 1947 to join Tammany Hall in rolling back proportional voting — five years after the first Communist showed up, five years after the first Black politician showed up, and three years after the first Black Communist showed up. Nor can conventional wisdom tell us why Cincinnati went 32 years with STV elections, many of which resulted in Black descriptive representation.

A better answer: disunity in elite coalitions

What can answer the unanswered, however, is a close look at the coalitions internal to these legislatures. That is why I gathered 52 city-years of roll-call data from Cincinnati and New York — our sources of conventional wisdom — plus Worcester, Massachusetts, where “movement politics” never were at issue.

I find that three factors can account for STV repeal: an organized faction’s relative placement in ideological space, its level of cohesion, and its relative size. Let’s take each in turn.

When you use a tool like NOMINATE, some legislators end up in the “middle.” The journalistic read is that these are “moderates.” In a strategic environment, however, people end up in the middle by playing sides against each other. They sometimes vote against the coalition with which they normally vote. (Think of Susan Collins today or the erstwhile Southern Democrats.)

On its own, ideal-point estimation doesn’t tell us what legislative grouping is in the middle. It tells us what person or people might be in the middle, i.e., pivotal to voting outcomes. To move up to the faction level, we have to measure that faction’s unity. If a faction’s members are in the middle, and if the faction tends to vote as a block, we say that faction is in the middle with some probability.

Size matters too. The Southern Democrats could play Republicans and Northern Democrats off of each other through about 1952, after which Northern Democrats became a majority of the House Democratic caucus. (It is not an accident that, after the election of 1954, we start seeing congressional action on Civil Rights.)

Take all this to the STV cities. A legislative grouping can play both sides as long as it is large enough to survive a return to plurality voting. But when little groups engage in these shenanigans, bigger groups will cut a deal to dump proportional voting.

Let’s put proper nouns on the semi-formal logic.

In Cincinnati, by the mid-1950s, progressive Republicans had become the junior partner in a formal coalition with the Democratic Party. One of them decided to roll the Democrats on labor legislation. The Steelworkers mobilize, helping repeal STV in 1957.

In New York City, the American Labor Party had been in coalition with the GOP. That ended in 1945, when the ALP began backing Democrats for citywide office. The Republican-ALP coalition no longer controlled the mayoralty, nor the Board of Estimate, both of which held vetoes in that separation-of-powers system. So, in October 1947, the GOP looks back at two years of legislative business. It sees that its own party has evaporated in city council. It also sees the ALP reduced to a rump of its former self. STV is repealed in November 1947. (You can view the council-coalition alignments here. Ben J. Davis, much maligned for his race and choice of party, was a loyal opposition member.)

The Worcester story is similar. Here, progressive Democrats had been in coalition with the local GOP. The election of 1949 makes them the junior partner. Elections in 1951, 1953, and 1955 have the groups at parity. Progressive Democrats become the senior partner in 1957 — but they are also pivotal in the session that ensues. After 1959, however, they are not, and STV is repealed in November 1960.

Yes, Worcester’s progressive Democrats helped repeal a reform that, 13 years earlier, they had helped to pass. Ditto for the NYC Republicans and Cincinnati Democrats.

The point for reformers (and those who fund them) is that coalitions take management. If you are in a multi-factional legislature, do not punch above your weight. Take the advice of Ronald Reagan: “dance with the one that brung ya.”

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