Rich Tradition of Minority Party Representation Continues in Pennsylvania and Connecticut
An interesting thing happened this year on Election Day in towns, cities, and counties across Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Despite the odds being stacked against them, minority parties earned representation thanks to fair representation voting methods. Many of the jurisdictions we highlight that use these sorts of non-winner-take-all voting methods had those systems imposed upon them by judges in Voting Rights Act cases, but just as many — including all these uses in Pennsylvania and Connecticut — introduced these reforms through statute.
Pennsylvania has used fair voting methods for over a century and Connecticut for more than half a century (since before the Voting Rights Act even existed). They ensure that minority parties can earn representation in communities where they would be otherwise shut out of government. Minority party representation in cities and counties across Connecticut and Pennsylvania reflects structural rules that have been in place for decades to ensure more political diversity than we see in most American cities today.
The key has been the use of a modest form of fair representation voting with the unfortunate label of “limited voting.” Contrary to the moniker, limited voting greatly expands the number of voters who can elect a candidate of choice. It does this by making sure that a single cohesive majority does not have the power to elect every single member of a legislative body. If five are to be elected, voters may only be allowed to vote for three. That way, that cohesive majority will be able to elect three, but not all five. Another group — otherwise shut out — will be able to organize to win the other two seats.
Most places in Pennsylvania and Connecticut couple limited voting with “limited nominations,” which means that no political party can nominate enough candidates to win every seat. The two are a natural fit for each other, but limited nominations is distinct from limited voting. The two do not always go together, and limited nominations raises voter choice concerns that limited voting does not.
Limited voting creates an opportunity for fair representation, but only when political parties limit their nominees, when candidates campaign to emphasize the right strategies, and when voters vote strategically. That makes limited voting a weak form of fair representation voting: it does break open winner-take-all, but it does not ensure fair results to nearly the degree as ranked choice voting does. Nevertheless, the fact that these elections took place demonstrates that U.S. elections are not all stuck in the rut of winner-take-all voting rules, and that the U.S. has a rich history of fair representation in at-large elections.
Minority Party Representation in the City of Brotherly Love
Take Philadelphia. On November 3rd, the Republican candidate for mayor won just 13% of the vote to new Democratic mayor Jim Kenny’s 85%. Nine of the 10 ward races for Philadelphia’s city council ended with uncontested wins by Democrats. The lone Republican challenger in the 9th district won just 8%. This is par for the course in strongly Democratic Philadelphia.
What’s interesting is that, even with these massive margins, Republicans will hold two city council seats earned at-large. In Philadelphia’s case this is the result of a city council election system meant to encourage minority party representation. Philadelphia’s council is composed of 17 seats: 10 elected in single-winner districts and seven elected at-large. That at-large district caps party nominations at five candidates apiece, so Democrats, Republicans, and any other parties running can only earn five seats maximum. Voters then get five votes they must vote across five different candidates. The top seven vote-getters overall win election to the Council.
In Philadelphia that means Democrats ran their maximum five candidates and took the top five spots in the at-large election while Republicans brought up the rear, taking the two remaining seats. Democrats got, at minimum, 15% of the totals votes apiece for their five winners, while Republicans earned nearly 4% each. If there were no restrictions on number of candidates and number of votes, Democrats could run seven candidates and likely win all seven seats, shutting dissenting voices out of Philadelphia City Government entirely. However, the limited voting and nomination system in Philadelphia ensures at least some minority party representation on the City Council despite the strong Democratic lean in the city. (Note that a Green Party candidate and a Philadephia Party candidate tried to compete with Republicans for seats; they each had a candidate who won more than 1% of the total vote). This system has supported the minority party in Philadelphia for nearly a century, having been put in place in Philadelphia in 1919.
Pennsylvania County Commissions Gain Minority Party Representation
In Pennsylvania as a whole, County Commissioners are elected in similar voting landscapes. Every county governed by the Pennsylvania General Statutes (that is to say, counties that don’t have their own “Home Rule” Charter that they devise themselves) elects their three-member county commissions through limited voting, whose use in these elections in Pennsylvania dates back to its 1871 Constitution.
Voters get two votes, and must vote them for two candidates. In the more than forty counties using this system in Pennsylvania, this means two candidates from the majority party and one candidate from the minority party get elected. In contrast to Philadelphia, this generally means Republicans hold two to one majorities on many county commissions, with no party taking all three seats in any county. Take, for example, Susquehanna, Lebanon, York, Franklin, and Dauphin (home to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s capital) Counties: all elected commissions composed of two Republicans and one Democrat by sizable margins. Were it not for the limited voting structure in the County Commission elections, Democrats would be wholly shut out of many County Commissions in Pennsylvania.
Unlike Philadelphia’s City Council, County Commission races do not have any limits on party candidates. In theory, then, Republicans could run three candidates and take all three spots, but with limited voting, it would be very difficult for them to do so. The crux of this plan is that Republicans would need to organize their voters perfectly to vote their two votes across three Republican candidates, and Democrats would need to simultaneously fail to support a single candidate.
So far that has not occurred, but this potential for unfair results based on other voters’ strategies emphasizes a limitation to limited voting as a fair representation system. Unlike ranked choice voting, limited voting relies on limited voter choice and strategic voting to achieve fair results.
Connecticut’s History of Robust Minority Party Representation Continues
Connecticut has its own fair representation reforms, which apply much more broadly than those of Pennsylvania and derive from a 1959 minority party representation statute passed in the state. In general Connecticut limits parties to two-thirds of the seats (rounding up) in any partisan, at-large elected body in the state. This includes typical local bodies such as Town Councils, Boards of Education and Boards of Finance, and more esoteric ones like Zoning Boards (but excludes communities using town meetings, as opposed to town or city councils, for example). This system is used all across Connecticut, but a number of towns and cities are particularly indicative of the strengths of limited voting.
Consider, for example, the Bloomfield Town Council. Nine seats are up for grabs each year in Bloomfield, and under Connecticut’s laws each party can only put forth six candidates for those seats. In Bloomfield this means six Democrats win election to the council, and three Republicans earn the final three seats.
As just seen in Pennsylvania elections, the minority party earns more seats than they would if these reforms were not in place. Democrats have a tidy handle on majority votes in Bloomfield: The smallest margin of victory is 1,214 votes. This pattern repeats on town and city councils, Boards of Election and Finance, and Planning and Zoning Committees throughout Connecticut. South Windsor’s three-member Planning and Zoning Committee is composed of two Republicans and one Democrat thanks to limited voting and limited nominations. Bristol’s Town Council breaks down just as Bloomfield’s. Southington’s Board of Finance has four Republicans and two Democrats. And just as in Bloomfield the majority party in each case wins handily, by hundreds or thousands of votes. These limited voting reforms ensure that minority parties are able to express their preferences and not be continually shut out as they are in typical winner-take-all elections.
These caps function much the same in towns without easily divisible boards. Consider Newington: their eight-member Town Council caps membership at five for any given party. In Newington’s case, that means Republicans earn five seats to the Democrats’ three.
Farmington’s Board of Education, a four-member board, gets three Republicans and one Democrat, and Middletown’s Planning & Zoning Commission gets three Democrats and one Republican. So the results seen above continue to hold in even imperfectly divisible boards, making clear the impact these structural reforms have on minority party representation.
These minority party representation structures even lead to instances where a candidate from the majority party wins more votes than the most popular minority candidate but does not win a seat on the board. Middletown’s Board of Education is a good illustration of this possibility.
Despite the least popular Democrat earning 330 more votes than the most popular Republican, the Republican wins a seat on the Board of Education. The Democratic Party is limited to four seats on the board, but chose to run five candidates knowing that only four could win seats on the board. This also happened in at least two other races: Middletown’s Planning and Zoning Commission and Southington’s Planning and Zoning Commission. This has happened in each of the last three local election years in Connecticut: not always in the same towns but accepted nonetheless. Connecticut’s minority party representation system, despite any flaws or quirks mentioned, has created a working system that has become part of the fabric of local Connecticut politics.
Third Party Representation in Hartford
Hartford had an even more diverse election than those described above. As usual, voters elected six Democrats to their nine-member city council, but no Republicans won seats. In their stead the Working Families Party took three seats on the city council. The Working Families Party is a party focused on economic justice issues, with chapters in Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C. They first won representation in Hartford in 2007, taking two seats. Before that the three non-Democratic seats in Hartford were filled by a Republican, and Green, and an Independent.
The WFP first won three seats in 2011, and have held on to all three this year. Their story of increasing representation is a perfect encapsulation of the benefits of limited voting for minority parties: a regional, narrowly-focused third party gained a foothold in Hartford eight years ago and now reliably holds three seats on the Connecticut Capital’s City Council. Even before the rise of the WFP in Hartford those three seats ensured minority party representation in Hartford, and made it possible for smaller voices in the City to be heard. Now the WFP will create dialogue around the issues of economic justice in Hartford thanks to the minority party representation requirements in Connecticut.
A More Representative Government
Limited voting’s long use in Pennsylvania and Connecticut has helped ensure that minority parties across both states are well represented at all levels of local government. Town, City, and County Boards experience richer representation and create greater engagement with the community because these systems are in place. The forms minority party representation can take under limited voting are varied and unique, but their impact remains the same: a more representative government that listens to more constituents and ensures they are heard.