Analysis: Why would Republicans want to ban an election system that could help them?
It's rather curious that Theresa Gavarone, a Republican state senator from Bowling Green, wants to ban the practice of ranked choice voting in Ohio.
It is a method of voting that is spreading around the country these days and could clearly help the GOP establish a foothold in Ohio's biggest cities, where city councils are dominated by Democrats.
Cincinnati had ranked choice voting for city council for 30 years. We called it "proportional representation" — or PR — and it worked pretty well until 1957 when GOP hysteria over the prospect of a Black man becoming mayor spelled doom for PR.
Gavarone's legislation, Senate Bill 137, would not only ban the use of ranked choice voting, it would go even further — it would cut off state Local Government Fund money from any city or county that adopts that method of election.
That would be a pretty steep price to pay for local governments. A blow to the breadbasket.
"Ranked choice voting flies in the face of what the founders of the country and those in Ohio had in mind when they established the one vote, one voice model centuries ago," Gavarone said in a statement.
"Ranked choice voting causes uncertainty by delaying election results, decreases voter turnout, creates confusion because of complex election procedures, and silences the voices of voters," Gavarone said.
That has some advocates of ranked choice voting scratching their heads.
"I'm absolutely baffled as to why she is doing this," said former Republican legislator Gene Krebs, a longtime advocate of ranked choice voting.
"This bill flies in the face of the conservative ethos," said Krebs, who represented Preble County and part of Butler County in the Ohio House from 1993 through 2000.
"Why would she introduce something that could clearly help Republicans?" he said. "I just don't get it."
How ranked choice voting works
So, what is ranked choice voting? Here are the basics:
Voters rank multiple candidates on the ballot in order of preference. If no candidate gets a majority of first choice votes, the candidate with the fewest first choice votes drops off the ballot and the eliminated candidate's first place votes are allocated to each voter's second choice.
It goes on like this until a candidate gets a majority of first place votes.
Yes, it is more complicated than a straight up plurality election.
No, it is not rocket science.
In Cincinnati, election officials were doing these calculations with pencil and paper from 1925 through 1957. Without so much as a hand calculator.
There is a no municipality or county in Ohio currently using ranked choice voting.
But, in addition to Cincinnati, Toledo and Cleveland have used that form of voting in the past. Hamilton, too — it became the first city in Ohio to adopt ranked choice voting in 1915.
In Cincinnati, the PR system did what it was intended to do — give more voice to marginalized people in the city.
Until a shameful, racist, sub rosa campaign led by Republicans took it away.
For the first 30 years of the existence of the council-manager form of government in Cincinnati, council was elected by PR, in which voters ranked their choices in order of preference. A threshold of first place votes was set; and votes were distributed until nine candidates reached the threshold.
It was complex and a bit cumbersome, but it worked. And it did something that seemed impossible at the time — it allowed Black candidates to gather enough votes to win council seats, starting with Frank A.B. Hall in 1931.
By 1955, Theodore M. Berry, a Black man and Charterite, was the leading figure in the Civil Rights Movement in Cincinnati. He was also vice mayor of the city.
That meant Berry was in line to become Cincinnati's mayor during a time when council itself chose the mayor.
The idea of a Black mayor was more than most of the city's white establishment could take. So, the Republican Party led the charge to repeal PR, with the subtle message to white voters that "bloc voting" was a bad thing.
The result was the repeal of PR in 1957, to be replaced with the current "9X" system, where voters choose up to nine candidates in a field race, with no order of preference. White precincts voted 2-1 to do away with PR; Black precincts voted 4-1 to keep it.
The demographics of Cincinnati have changed so much over the years that if that vote was taken today, PR would be alive and well in the Queen City.
After PR was repealed, it was another three election cycles before another Black candidate — Berry, again — was elected to council.
After a stint working for President Lyndon Johnson's administration in the War on Poverty in the 1960s, Berry was re-elected to council in 1971 and became the city's first Black mayor in 1972. He argued vociferously for a return to PR until his death in 2000.
So, too, did Marian Spencer, the first Black woman elected to Cincinnati City Council. She was a strong voice for a return to PR until her death in 2019 at the age of 99.
PR gave a voice to Black Cincinnatians in City Hall in the last century.
Today, Krebs argues that ranked choice voting could do the same for Republicans in Cincinnati and every other big city in Ohio — even though they make up a small minority of the electorate in Ohio's urban areas.
"That's why I don't see Republican legislators from urban areas supporting Senator Gavarone on this bill," Krebs said.
Look at Cincinnati.
It currently has a nine-member City Council made up of eight Democrats and one Republican, Liz Keating.
If PR were still in place, there is a very good chance that an additional Republican — maybe two — could end up meeting the threshold of first place votes in order to win council seats.
Gavarone's bill, if it becomes law, would eliminate that as a possibility.
But, as of today, her bill has no co-sponsors in the Ohio Senate. It is probably a long shot for passage — even in a Senate where Republicans hold 26 of the 33 seats.
Krebs, meanwhile, is working with like-minded Ohioans on a plan to put ranked choice voting on the ballot in Ohio so the people could decide.
"There are several methods of ranked choice voting out there; we're trying to decide which one would suit Ohio the best," Krebs said. "There are a variety of flavors, just like ice cream.
"And, just like ice cream, there is really no bad flavor. Except maybe black licorice. We'll find the flavor Ohio likes the most."