Oakland will use such a system. Davis, Calif., has opted for 'proportional representation.' Backers believe the systems make races more competitive.
By Nancy Vogel
Times Staff Writer
December 25, 2006
SACRAMENTO — Americans have been picking politicians the same way for so long — winner take all — that it might seem there is no other way to do it.
But the cities of Davis, Calif.; Oakland and Minneapolis, as well as Pierce County, Wash.; have passed ballot measures that will lead to "instant runoff" or "proportional representation" voting in city and county elections. There was no organized opposition to the measures.
Their success has energized election reform advocates, who say the United States should join most other democracies and pick politicians in a way that doesn't shut out the 49% of voters who may have favored someone other than the majority winner.
Proportional voting involves races in which several people are elected to a board, council or legislature from a single geographic area or district. It does not apply to races for a single office, such as mayor or district attorney.
In a city council race in which, for example, 10 people are vying for five at-large seats, voters would rank the candidates in their order of preference. When a candidate is the top choice of enough voters to clinch election, any excess votes for that candidate are redistributed to those voters' second choice. The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and those ballots are reassigned to the voters' next-in-line choice. The process continues until five winners emerge.
Proponents say proportional voting could be used to elect state legislators if the current 80 Assembly districts were collapsed into 16 larger districts, with five lawmakers elected in each.
Supporters say the system has the potential to help elect independent, third-party and more moderate Republican and Democratic candidates — something Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and many political reformers say California needs in its polarized Legislature.
Schwarzenegger vowed this month to take away lawmakers' power to draw their own districts and give it to an independent commission so that legislative races become more competitive.
Advocates say proportional voting is a better answer to California's predictable elections because Democrats and Republicans tend to separate themselves geographically.
"You try to make every seat competitive, and you can have wild distortions of representation," said Richard DeLeon, a San Francisco State political science professor.
"We think a good proportional voting system can accomplish all the goals [of redistricting reform] and remove all the contradictions…. It allows voters to be controlling their representation rather than some sort of elite commission."
Critics say proportional voting is too complicated and not the American way.
For decades, Cambridge, Mass., has been the only American city to use the system. But in November, voters in Davis and Minneapolis approved proportional voting in city elections.
The California Republican Party hasn't taken an official stance on different voting methods, said spokesman Patrick Dorinson.
Bob Mulholland, political director for the California Democratic Party, said cities and counties ought to be free to choose whatever voting system they like.
But he called the notion of using proportional representation for legislative or congressional seats "cockamamie" and "contradictory to a democratic system."
"The Democratic Party wants to help the middle class and working poor, and the way we do it is by being in office," Mulholland said, "and that damned idea would only hurt that, because people with little following would start being elected."
Mulholland also said the system would confuse voters, in the ballot box and afterward.
"I just like a clear choice," he said. "You go into the booth in November, Democrat and Republican, and whoever is the winner is the real winner."
The nation's small band of proportional voting devotees, however, sees momentum building.
"I think it'll come back," said Abner Mikva, a former congressman, federal judge and counsel to President Clinton who was elected to five terms in the Illinois Legislature under a version of proportional voting that residents scrapped in 1980. "The defects were very modest compared to the advantages it offered." Some say the system encourages cooperation.
A heavily Democratic city such as Los Angeles, for example, would still elect mostly Democrats to the state Legislature under proportional voting, but one or more Republicans also could be elected. Similarly, a Democrat or two would represent the minority Democrats in Republican strongholds.
"It produces more of a mix of Democrats and Republicans that represent more of what we call purple California than red and blue California," said Steven Hill, political reform director for the nonprofit, nonpartisan New America Foundation.
"If you have Democrats from Republican strongholds, Democratic leaders can't make decisions that will ignore those regions. The parties won't drift so much to the extremes just playing to their party."
In a November poll of 600 California voters, the foundation found that 52% said instant runoff voting sounded like a good idea. Half of those surveyed favored proportional voting. Nearly 70% said they feel like they often must vote for "the lesser of two evils."
Almost every democracy outside of Britain, Canada and the United States uses some version of proportional voting, including Australia, Germany, Japan, New Zealand and South Africa. The new voting systems in Afghanistan and Iraq are proportional too.
In the United States, two dozen cities used the system in the early 1900s. All but Cambridge had abandoned it by the 1960s, and Illinois voters stopped using it to elect state lawmakers after a 1980 initiative to cut the size of the Legislature also switched election methods to winner take all.
According to a history written by Douglas Amy, a Mount Holyoke College politics professor, some cities jettisoned proportional voting along with other corruption-busting Progressive Era reforms such as replacing mayors.
New York City, where a Communist was elected to the City Council in the 1940s, abandoned the method during the Cold War era after Democrats decried it as a "political importation from the Kremlin."
Cincinnati rejected the system in 1957 after a campaign in which opponents asked whether the city wanted a "Negro Mayor." Proportional voting had allowed African Americans to win seats on the City Council for the first time in the city's history.
Amy attributes renewed interest in new ways to vote to the 2000 presidential election, in which Green Party candidate Ralph Nader was blamed for drawing enough votes from Democrat Al Gore to allow Republican George W. Bush to win.
In Oakland and Pierce County, Wash.; voters approved an instant runoff system, which doesn't offer minority representation but saves the cost of runoff and primary elections.
San Francisco used such a method for the first time in November 2004. Exit polls by San Francisco State's Public Research Institute found high levels of understanding and satisfaction, but a software glitch delayed election results by several days.
Under that system, a candidate wins if he or she gets a clear majority of votes outright — just like the current system. But when no candidate has more than 50%, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and the voters whose first choice was the last-place finisher have their votes redistributed to whomever they marked as a second choice. The process is repeated until a winner emerges.
Minneapolis voted to use instant runoff balloting for City Council and mayor starting in 2009 and proportional voting for park and library boards.
Davis voters endorsed proportional voting for its five-member City Council. But before Davis voters can make the switch to proportional representation, the City Council will have to either approve a city charter or get state legislative approval.
Yolo County Registrar Freddie Oakley, who runs Davis' elections, said the county's voting equipment is ready either way.
"It's basic math, not advanced math," she said. "However the people want to vote, that's how I'll count their vote."