What's Best for the City

Debating the cost and benefits of proposed PR election system

It’s a sad fact that in the last election for Cincinnati City Council, in 2007, six of the nine people elected to office won their seats with the support of less than 45 percent of voters.

Even worse, just 28 percent of eligible city voters participated in the council elections last year. That means 72 percent of all voters — more than twothirds of the electorate — simply chose not to participate and stayed home.

The result of those depressing statistics meant all nine incumbents were returned to Cincinnati City Council, when even political party leaders figured two or three might face defeat. That was because a few council members at the time faced various troubles, ranging from a police investigation of an alleged assault involving a councilwoman to an organized mass mailing campaign that tried to single out a controversial councilman for defeat.

Such scenarios are common in Cincinnati politics.

In fact, it’s rare that an incumbent doesn’t win reelection. More typically, the only turnover that occurs on city council happens when a member facing term limits leaves his or her seat early and appoints a replacement to give that person the benefit of incumbency in the next election.

Four current council members were first appointed to office in agreements between departing members and party leaders: Democrats Laketa Cole and John Cranley, Republican Chris Monzel and Charterite Roxanne Qualls. Once safely in office, all won election in their own right.

Cincinnati currently elects its city council members in an at-large, winner-take-all field race, known as “9X.” Voters are allowed to select up to nine people from a field of candidates that usually includes about 20 to 25 people. The top nine finishers are elected.

Some community groups, however, say the current system distorts the will of voters and shuts out fresh voices that don’t have high name recognition, big campaign money or party connections.

As a result, the groups are pushing to revive proportional representation (PR), an electoral system used by Cincinnati from 1925 to 1957. Under PR, voters rank their nine votes for city council candidates from one through nine, indicating their level of preference.

If a voter’s first choice candidate gets more votes than he or she needs to win, the surplus is proportionately distributed to second choice candidates.

In other words, if Candidate A gets 1,000 extra votes — and of those who chose him first, half picked Candidate B for second and half picked Candidate Q — that means Candidate A’s second choice ballots are split 50/50 between Candidate B and Candidate Q, each receiving 500.

“It’s really about having nine rankings instead of nine X’s on Election Day,” says Amy Ngai, a consultant with the Better Ballot Cincinnati campaign. “We rank things every day in our life. That’s really the only change for voters. For candidates, it’s a lot different, and that’s why the Republican and Democratic parties are against it.”

A “yes” vote on Issue 8 on Election Day supports a return to PR; a “no” vote keeps the election system as is.

Ngai and other PR supporters say city council candidates would no longer be able to rely solely on name recognition and high-priced TV commercials to get elected. Rather, they’d have to visit residents and community groups more often and speak about specific issues to garner the level of support needed to win.

PR currently is used in Cambridge, Mass., and is included as one of the preferred electoral systems in the model city charter recommended by the National League of Cities.

Also, PR is the dominant electoral system in Europe, used in Germany and most eastern European nations as well as in European Union parliamentary elections. Other nations that use some form of PR include Australia, Ireland, Israel and Scotland.

PR supporters include the Charter Committee, Cincinnati NAACP, Common Cause of Ohio, the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes, The Cincinnati Business Courier, The Cincinnati Herald, City Councilwoman Roxanne Qualls, Ohio Rep. Tyrone Yates, ex-Ohio Gov. John Gilligan and former vice mayors Marian Spencer, Bobbie Sterne and Jim Tarbell. CityBeat's endorsement in favor of Issue 8 is here.

Opponents include the local Democratic and Republican parties, most city council members, Mayor Mark Mallory, the Chamber of Commerce and The Cincinnati Enquirer.

Heading the push to defeat PR is City Councilman Jeff Berding, who placed eighth in last year’s elections. A controversial official, Berding is a Bengals executive who receives much of his campaign contributions from the corporate community and has faced endorsement battles within the local Democratic Party during his last two campaigns but always prevailed in the end.

Berding believes PR would lead to single-issue candidates elected to represent special interests. He prefers placing a charter amendment before voters in 2009 that, if approved, would change the system so that five council members would be elected by neighborhood districts and four council members would be elected citywide. The change would also give expanded executive-level powers to the mayor, who would serve as the city’s CEO, and sharply reduce the role of the appointed city manager.

Such a change would provide better accountability of elected officials than PR, he adds.

“This change would give the mayor authority over city administration, ensuring that day-to-day operations are accountable to voters through the mayor,” Berding says. “It gives the mayor the same powers that mayors all over the United States have. The change ensures that city department heads can be hired by the mayor, ensuring that they share the mayor’s vision and priorities for the city and have the right experience, along with a shared urgency for results.”

Berding acknowledges that some of Cincinnati’s neighborhoods feel neglected under the current system.

“The fact is that a majority of our 52 city neighborhoods have never had a council member elected from there,” he says. “The strong feeling among many residents from those neighborhoods is that they do not receive sufficient attention and lack the ability in the 9X system to hold council members accountable. All council members make their genuine best efforts, but we have a large city and small council staffs and it is difficult to balance overall city policies with more specific neighborhood issues.”

Earlier this month, the Ohio Elections Commission rejected a complaint filed by Berding against the Better Ballot campaign. Berding had alleged PR supporters were making false statements in their campaign literature and on their Web site. The Elections Commission upheld the campaign’s claims that “every vote counts” under PR and likening the PR system to the one used by the national Democratic Party to select a presidential candidate.

Still, opponents counter that PR is confusing and would cost between $1.5 million and $3 million to implement.

Supporters counter that the estimate is inflated but that, regardless, PR would be a good investment to elect a city council that more represents Cincinnati as a whole and to reduce the cost of campaigns in the process.

In 2007, council winners needed more than 23,000 votes across the city, but under PR a candidate could have won with the first choice support of about 6,100 people, supporters say. Of the current city council, eight were either appointed or spent more than $100,000 to win. With PR, candidates can win through a grassroots campaign.

“People don’t rank a first choice candidate based on television ads,” says PR supporter Anthony Lorenzo. “Instead, candidates will need to earn people’s high rankings based on earning their trust that they will do what’s best for their city.”

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