This week’s issue of CityBeat features an article examining Issue 8, which proposes reviving the electoral system known as proportional representation (PR) for choosing members of Cincinnati City Council.
As is typical with most articles, time and space limitations prevented some material from being included in the print edition. Among such material this time includes City Councilman Jeff Berding, a leading PR opponent, elaborating on his reasons against the proposed switch; and City Councilman Chris Bortz, explaining why he opposes Issue 8 even though his political party — the Charter Committee — supports the change.—-
Berding believes the current system is preferable to PR, which he says would divide the city among ideological groups.
“We believe that the current system requires that candidates to campaign all over the city, to listen to voters and if elected, to work to represent the entire city,” Berding says. “Since you need 35 percent to 40 percent of the vote to win, there is a systemic requirement that we make a concerted effort to balance your personal views and own neighborhood interests with what is best for the entire city and what is needed in other parts of the city. We are encouraged to respond to all constituent requests for service. Under Issue 8, candidates only need 10 percent plus 1 vote, and thus can get elected with a very narrow view and small level of support not found in any (U.S.) democracy but Cambridge, Mass.”
He adds, “This proportional representation system will take Cincinnati back to the days of chaos at City Hall, because by allowing for the election of candidates with a small, but passionate base of support who would reward extreme ideological positions rather than collaboration and compromise. This system encourages council in-fighting and negative campaigns in order to be ranked No. 1 by some voters … the reform we need is to bring more representation to those neighborhoods who feel progress in the city is eluding them, which would be addressed by adding some measure of council districts. Districts recognize that where we live unites us as neighbors. Proportional representation divides us based on our political ideology. We should aspire for systems that are more uniting of the city, and avoid those like PR that divide us instead.”
Meanwhile, Bortz says the intricacies of returning to PR haven’t been sufficiently vetted.
“First and foremost, there has been no process to be inclusive and educate people on this new system,” Bortz says. “Charter amendments should never be taken lightly, nor should ballot initiatives. A change of this kind should be discussed, debated, and deliberated over in a public forum.
“For example, the director of the Board of Elections testified in front of council that it would likely cost millions, may be physically impossible to develop software in a timely manner, and manual counting could potentially be prohibited, per the Secretary of State, due to the Help America Vote Act of 2002,” Bortz adds.
Further, PR might lead to problems with tabulating ballots.
“Under the single transferable vote, there truly is the statistical probability that some votes would not be counted, depending on the order in which they are counted,” he says. “I can’t even begin to imagine a software system that could assign, and reassign, the votes without great risk of susceptibility to programming ‘flaws.’”
In fact, the only Cincinnati City Council member to publicly support switching to PR is Roxanne Qualls, Bortz’s fellow Charterite. But even Qualls’ support has been less than stellar.
Asked about her views on PR, Qualls replied with a one-sentence written statement that read, “I have always supported and campaigned in the past for Proportional Representation, and do not oppose Issue 8.”
PR supporters counter that it isn’t surprising people who benefit from the status quo oppose the change.
“There’s absolutely a level of self-interest involved,” says Amy Ngai, a consultant with the Better Ballot Cincinnati campaign. “It makes a lot of sense for a current, sitting council member not to want to change the system.”
Bills Woods, chair of Common Cause Ohio, says many good government and political reform groups support the change.
“We think it will be a boost to democracy in terms of leading to less expensive elections and it will get people who are more issue-oriented to run,” Woods says.
Responding to concerns that PR could lead to special interest candidates who would balkanize city council, Woods replied, “Running on a single issue usually wouldn’t build enough support to get elected. You usually need to run in cooperation with other candidates.”
Still, Woods acknowledges that converting to PR is the beginning of needed reforms, not the end.
“We don’t think PR is a silver bullet,” he says. “There need to be a variety of reforms to our electoral system.”