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Cumulative voting captures imagination of electoral reformers.

This issue of the NATIONAL CIVIC REVIEW revives the "Proportional Representation" column that appeared in our pages for much of this century. Regular coverage of proportional and related electoral systems was terminated in the early 1960s, when Cambridge, Massachusetts was the only city in the United State still using a form of proportional representation (PR) to elect its council.

The current renewed interest in PR may be impugned in part to the need to comply with the 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act. In many communities, however, activists have turned to PR out of disillusionment with single-member districts, the conventional "solution" to minority vote dilution.

At the leading edge of this movement, several cities already have adopted some form of PR, or are considering it, and a nonprofit, educational organization called Citizens for Proportional Representation (CPR) has been formed to promote alternatives to the "winner-takes-all" plurality systems now employed in most American cities. CPR is the only organization actively and exclusively working to educate Americans on proportional and "semi-proportional" voting systems.

The earlier Proportional Representation the column emphasized the "preferential voting" system that Cambridge continues to use and which once was used in such cities as New York, Cincinnati and Cleveland. This new department expands its reach to include such semi-proportional systems as cumulative voting. Cumulative voting recently was selected by the Cincinnati City Council as its preferred alternative among several to be submitted to voters this May. That system is explained in a box appearing elsewhere in this section.

Proportional Representation in the News

* Cincinnati to vote on cumulative PR system. The Cincinnati City Council in December chose to postpone a Voting Rights Act lawsuit filed against the city's use of an at-large plurality system by agreeing to hold a series of public hearings on voting systems and placing their preferred system on the May 4 ballot. In February, the council selected a cumulative voting (CV) plan to fill the council's nine seats. Judge Herman Weber, the U.S. District Court Judge presiding over the Voting Rights Act suit, approved CV for the ballot and commented that the single-member district plan submitted by the plaintiffs would make it more difficult for women to be elected and negate the electoral power of minorities who do not live in segregated neighborhoods.

In 1988 and 1991, ballot initiatives to restore the preferential voting (PV) form of PR for city council elections were defeated by narrow margins. In the recent council review process, among those who testified on behalf of PV were former Ohio Governor John Gilligan. The Charter Committee of Greater Cincinnati suports PR; for more information, contact the Committee at 707 Race Street, 8th Floor, Cincinnati, OH 45202; (513) 241-0303.

* Washington state legislature to consider PR. Two bills relating to PR have been introduced in Washington's legislature thus fare this year (HB 1593 and SB 5804). The first would give cities the option to adopt PR -- state law currrently requires city council members to be nominated from districts and elected at large. The second bill would change the allocation of Washington's electoral college votes from winner-takes-all (meaning all electoral votes go to the presidential candidate who finishes first) to proportional allocation based on statewide vote totals (meaning electoral votes would be distributed in proportion to the various candidates' support, as in the Democratic presidential primaries and caucuses). The Washington chapter of Citizens for Proportional Representation is monitoring theses bills. For more information, contact Washington CPR at P.O. Box 20534, Seattle, WA 98102; (206) 322-6933.

* PR plan proposed in Worcester, Mass. A diverse coalition in Worcester has agreed to support a package of charter reforms including the restoration of PV for councilmanic elections and the introduction of majority preferential voting to select the mayor. Worcester Magazine recently editorialized, "If the expression of diversity is truly a goal in our electoral process -- and we feel it should be -- then we urge voters to consider what truly seems like a better way of doing things. ...Ask questions and find out how proportional representation really works. This may be an issue whose time has come again." For more information on the progress of PV in Worcester, contact: Howie Fain, 10 Hobson Avenue, Worcester, MA 01603; (508) 754-9860.

Elsewhere in Massachusetts, Cambridge citizens in November will use PV to elect their city council and school board for the 27th time since 1941.

* Commissioners in Davidson County, N.C. want CV. Davidson County, N.C. was slated to adopt a single-member district system to elect its county commission until residents last September raised the possibility of CV. The CV plan now apparently has the support of a majority of county commissioners and the local NAACP president, but may require state enabling legislation prior to adoption. For more information, contact: Barney Hill, 218 Forest Drive, Thomasville, NC 27360; (919) 476-6849.

Elsewhere in North Carolina, PV is being discussed seriously for use in school board and county commission elections in Durham and Orange Counties.

* PR around the world. Nearly every election taking place around the world this year will employ some form of PR, most commonly the party method in which voters select a party slate of candidates. New Zealand voters this fall will have the opportunity in a national referendum to reject their 140-year -old, U.S.-style plurality system in favor of the German form of PR in which half the representatives are elected from districts and half from party lists. In a preliminary referendum last September, an overwhelming 87 percent of voters favored replacing the current system with PR. In South Africa, all major factions have agreed to support a PR system for the country's first open elections next year.

For more information on these and other developments in the use and spread of PR, contact: Citizens for Proportional Representation (CPR), 6905 Fifth Street, N.W., Suite 200, Washington, DC 20012; (202) 882-7378.

ROB RICHIE is National Director of Citizens for Proportional Representation and co-editor of the Proportional Representation department of the NATIONAL CIVIC REVIEW.


Proportional representation (PR) systems are designed to elect candidates to a representative assembly so that it mirrors as accurately as possible the preferences of the voters (i.e., ten percent of voters should be able to elect one of ten city council members, 40 percent should be able to elect four, etc.). PR is grounded in the principle that the right decision belongs to the majority, but the right of representation belongs to all. This principle is realized in direct relation to the percentage of voters who help elect a representative while exercising equal voting power.

Nearly every democracy in the world uses some form of PR. Most of these systems are "party list" systems designed for partisan elections. The cumulative voting system is an example of a proportional system that can be used in nonpartisan elections. Cumulative voting is currently used in Peoria, Ill., Alamogordo, N.M., Chilton County, Ala., and Sesseton, S.D. The other leading alternative is preferential voting, which for decades was the formal preference of the National Civic League's Model City Charter, and currently is used for national elections in Ireland, senate elections in Australia and city council elections in Cambridge, Mass.

Cumulative voting (CV) and preferential voting (PV) both lower the "threshold of exclusion" -- the minimum percentage of the voting population necessary to guarantee access to one seat -- to approximately 1/(x + 1), where x equals the number of seats to be filled. Thus, if five seats are to be filled in an at-large race, a candidate in either CV or PV will win a seat with the strong support of approximately 16.7 percent (one-sixth) of the voting electorate. This number of voters, incidentally, is close to the number that would have to support a candidate running for a district seat in a typical plurality race: PR in a sense creates districts, but lets voters define those districts on the terms most relevant to them (e.g., political or social ideology, ethnic or racial affiliation, etc.).

By allowing voters to allocate all their votes to one candidate or split their votes among fewer candidates than the number of seats to be filled, CV dramatically lowers the threshold of support necessary to win a seat. PV accomplishes this lower threshold by giving as many voters as possible an effective vote (i.e., a vote that helps elect someone). Under PV, voters rank individual candidates in order of preference (i.e., 1,2,3, etc.), and their ballots go to the highest-ranked choice who needs their vote to win.

The most important difference between PV and CV is that PV is immune to the problem of voters "splitting their vote." With PV it never hurts a group of like-minded voters to have additional candidates representing their views run for office, since they can vote for those candidates as well as their principal choices. With CV, as with winner-takes-all systems, like-minded voters can lose representation simply by splitting their votes among different candidates. PV is the only voting system both to ensure majority rule and provide fair representation.
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Title Annotation:includes related article; revival of the proportional representation system
Author:Richie, Rob
Publication:National Civic Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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