Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Amazing and Tragic Story of Sacramento's Use and Loss of Proportional Representation


(An excerpt from pages 204-207 of Proportional Representation by Hoag & Hallett [1926].)

§ 136. Sacramento. The next city to adopt P.R. [Proportional Representation using the Single Transferable Vote] was the capital city of California [Population of 65,908 in 1920]. Formerly Sacramento had had the majority system in a form which gave it every opportunity to produce good results if it was capable of doing so. As only one commissioner was elected each year, the people could focus their attention on his selection; a non-partisan ballot was used; and the wastage of votes was kept down by having the final election between the two highest contestants after an elimination primary. Under this “majority system,” however, a well organized political minority was in complete control. If their special nominee did not survive the primary, they could bargain with the surviving candidates before the final election. They could deliver enough votes to turn the election either way, and seldom if ever did both of the chief contenders withstand the temptation to reach an agreement with them.

Furthermore, the usual defects of the commission plan, which makes each commissioner both a legislator and the administrative head of a department, were much in evidence. In the words of Irvin Engler, then manager of the Sacramento Chamber of Commerce:

Division of authority and responsibility, election of men unqualified by training or experience for executive positions, and extravagances in city affairs could be sensed at first by murmurs of dissatisfaction, then by waves of dissension, and finally by open disgust with shouts for “action” and “something for our money.” In fact the stage was reached where people were saying, “nothing could be worse than what we have,” and the commissioners were dubbed “the floundering five.”

Accordingly, a movement to revise the city's plan of government was started, and a representative slate of independent citizens elected, under the home rule provisions of the California Constitution, as a Board of Freeholders [what a “Charter Commission” or "Charter Review Committee" was called in California at the time] to draft and submit to the voters a new charter. The Board set out to secure for Sacramento the most perfect form of government that could be devised. It decided early on the manager plan. After an explanation by Cameron H. King, Deputy Registrar of Elections in San Francisco, it included P.R. [Proportional Representation] also. The charter finally agreed upon was patterned in most essentials after the “model city charter” of the National Municipal League [now the National Civic League], which is based on the manager plan and proportional representation.

The campaign for the charter was led by Lewis C. Hunter, Chairman of the Board of Freeholders [Charter Commission], and Mr. Engler. Organized labor and two of the city's three papers, the Star and the Union, cooperated. In spite of violent attacks on P.R. by the city's leading newspaper, the Bee, the charter carried on November 30, 1920, by a vote of 7,962 to 1,587.

The Sacramento city election of May 3, 1921, was the largest and most convincing demonstration of P.R. that the United States had had up to that time. After the adoption of the charter, the minority in control of the city government had made a careful study of the new system of voting and tried to discover a way to beat it. But in the election, though the votes of their opponents were scattered over many more candidates that there were seats to be filled, the minority succeeded in electing only two of the nine councilmen. Most of the block of votes with which they had previously held the balance of power was used up in providing the quotas for their two favorite candidates. They had little effect, therefore, on the selection of the other seven.

Those others included the first woman ever elected to a Sacramento council or commission and the first representative of organized labor. Four of them were members of a ticket brought forward by the Board of Freeholders, which had framed the new charter, as candidates who would be sure to give it a fair trial. A large majority of the voters were undoubtedly in general sympathy with the Freeholders and their ticket, but many of them, without danger of playing into the hands of the enemy, exercised the privilege given them by P.R. to make their own selection of candidates. Three of the successful candidates had run independently of both major tickets.

Satisfaction with the result seemed to be nearly universal. Two of the three papers, the Union and the Star, printed large collections of endorsements of the new system by prominent citizens. Even the third, the Sacramento Bee, which had vigorously opposed the adoption of P.R. [after P.R. had been adopted, however, the Bee cooperated wholeheartedly in the campaign to teach the voters to use it intelligently], expressed only satisfaction with the personnel of the new council. The two candidates for whom it had campaigned were the first ones elected.

Major J. W. Wooldridge of the California National Bank commented on the election as follows: “Everybody feels that they are represented, that their voice was heard, and they are satisfied. It was the only election I have ever known of in which this feeling holds.”

The first act of the new council was to choose a city manager unanimously. This put to rest prophecies that a council representative of all elements would be made ineffective by constant disagreement. The man chosen was Clyde L. Seavey of the State Board of Control, a state official with an enviable reputation for integrity and ability.

The new government, which took office in the middle of the calendar and fiscal year 1921, started with 70% of the year's revenue already used by the outgoing commission. It completed the year without a deficit and with increased efficiency in the adminstration of the city's business. The next year it started on a large program of permanent improvements, gave the city the best service it had ever known, raised the wages of firemen and police, and reduced the tax rate.

Manager Seavey, to whom a large part of the credit for these accomplishments is due, testified publicly to the part played by P.R. in securing the cooperation of the people. When he faced the council of Sacramento, he said, he felt that he was talking not merely with a dominant political element, but with the entire city. “The one thing that has impressed itself upon me,” he wrote at another time, “is the apparent elimination of a decided pro- and anti-administration feeling as a result of the [P.R.] election.”

Before the second election under P.R. could be held, the new system had been declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court. [This is not exactly true: the system was actually declared unconstitutional by the third appellate district of California, after which the state Supreme Court declined to review the case. SEE BELOW] The election of 1923, therefore, was carried out by the block vote. Five of the P.R. council were reelected, but labor lost its representative and the council membership was entirely restricted to the nominees on two opposing slates. One of these slates polled 54% of the votes and elected eight of the nine members; the other polled 39% of the votes and elected only one. Only 54.5% of the valid votes were effective in electing members as compared with 86.6% under P.R. two years before.

A movement to get back P.R. by the formidable process of amending the State Constitution was initiated in 1923 by the Board of Freeholders which framed the Sacramento charter. [As of 1926 it had] received the formal endorsement of the Sacramento Council, Chamber of Commerce, and Retail Merchants Association, and of many prominent citizens throughout the state. An amendment to make P.R. optional for cities and counties was introduced at the 1923 session of the legislature by Senator Inman of Sacramento. It passed the Senate 32 to 5, but was lost in the legislative jam at the close of the Assembly. In 1925, a similar amendment, introduced by Assemblyman Rosenshine of San Francisco, passed second reading in the Assembly, but was crowded out at the end of the session.

[NOTE: The portion of the California State Constitution that the decision was based upon has since been repealed. Thus, the appellate court's decision is rendered moot and (at least in theory) there is no longer any question that PR-STV is constitutional in California.]