21st Century Representation for Multi-Everything Cities
Urban zones today are multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural, multi-gendered, multi-jazzed and multi-partisan—in short, “multi-everything cities.” The question arises: how should a “multi-everything” municipality elect its mayor, council, school boards and other bodies to ensure that all residents are adequately represented, and that the city does not polarize amid ongoing bitterness and dysfunction?
When a city uses geographic-based representation by districts, only one side can win in each district. Will it be Latinos? Blacks? Asians? Whites? Democrats? Republicans? Independents? The players in this winner-take-all board game instinctively know that nothing magnifies the urban turf wars, whether between different racial groups, downtown vs. neighborhood interests, progressives vs. moderates vs. conservatives, or housing and education advocates, more than this “if you win, I lose” brand of politics.
Redistricting battles in many cities have produced corrosive bitterness as each interest group and community of interest claws for its share of a limited commodity: political representation. The shortcomings of this approach in today’s world are increasingly hard to ignore.
But what if there is a better method in which all sides, all racial groups, all constituencies and groupings of voters, can win their fair share of representation? Wouldn’t that be a preferable way to go? A “multi-everything city” needs to use a better democratic method that is not based on these toxic winner-take-all dynamics. If cities based their elections on the bedrock of what is known as proportional voting, that would greatly reduce these kinds of turf wars in favor of “full representation for all.”
Proportional ranked choice voting (P-RCV) is a nonpartisan, candidate-based electoral method that uses multi-seat “super districts” instead of single-seat districts. For example, of having 15 winner-take-all district seats, a city could use five multi-seat districts with three seats each. Any candidate that receives 25% of the vote in one of those three-seat districts would win a seat. And groupings of like-minded voters would be able to elect winners in proportion to their share of the popular vote.
If a perspective such as Latino or African-American, or liberal, conservative or moderate, wins over a majority of the voters, they will win two of the three seats, instead of 100% of the representation; while another 25% perspective will win the remaining seat. Virtually every resident, wherever they live, would be able to vote for a winning candidate.
That configuration still allows a degree of neighborhood-based representation, but it is combined with broader city-regional representation. It offers the best of both worlds. Each three-seat district would be competitive for several political viewpoints, and coalitions would be able to form fluidly in response to the pressing issues of the day, instead of in backroom deals with racial arm twisting over district lines that don’t change for 10 years.
Proportional ranked choice voting also allows voters to express the complex racial-ethnic and political identities that so many Americans align with today. A Black conservative, a gay Latino, Asian American businesswoman or white nurse, may not fit neatly into the usual categories of race. Ranked ballots allow voters to, in effect, “district themselves” by expressing who they are via their rankings. The ranked ballots liberate voters to pick their favorite candidates, and prevent spoiler candidates and split votes from distorting the election results.
The truth is, everyone deserves representation. But winner-take-all district elections can never deliver that. Clearly, as our multi-everything cities continue to “rainbowize,” proportional voting promises authentic representation to more individuals and constituencies, as well as the best chance for realizing a colorful mosaic that both respects differences and knits them together into a more unified whole.
About 200 jurisdictions across the US have adopted some form of proportional voting, usually to resolve voting rights disputes over minority representation. Recently Portland, OR empowered a multi-racial charter commission, which voted 17-3 to allow voters to decide in November 2022 on a charter amendment to implement proportional ranked choice voting. 58 percent of Portlanders voted in favor of this charter amendment. In favor of a more representative in innovative democracy.
Rather than continuing this bitter clash over “if I win, you lose,” multi-everything cities should embrace the Golden Rule of Representation: “Give unto others the representation you would have them give unto you.”