Wednesday, April 1, 2009

"Fair Vote Lowell" and Diversity

Last night at the UML discussion series hosted/organized by Professor Bill Berkowitz, Victoria Fahlberg of One Lowell spoke about the ways that systemic reform (namely, by switching to a proportional representation system from the current one) would lead to more diversity among our city's elected leaders on the School Board and City Council.

The way the current system works, voters are allocated up to nine votes for the Council and six for the School Board. Every vote used counts as "one" in the column of the candidate selected, so other than withholding other votes (i.e. voting for Rita and then not using the other eight), there's no way for any individual voter to distinguish who he or she would most like to see elected.

A Proportional Representation (PR) system would change that if it allowed voters to "weigh" their options by ranking the candidates 1 through 9 (this is how it works in Cambridge). This would allow smaller interest groups to coalesce behind individual candidates and have a realistic shot at seeing them elected. For instance, if a single most-desirable candidate emerged from, say, the Acre, and could get enough people there to list him as a "1," he might stand a better chance at winning than he would under the current system, where total votes make all the difference.

To help illustrate the point, Dr. Fahlberg used the analogy of six friends ordering a pizza. Among the friends, who each get one vote, assume that three want cheese, two want pepperoni, and one wants onion. Under a first-past-the-post system where total vote number is king, everyone is going to get a cheese pizza. With a PR system, everyone can get "a slice of what they want" -- the pie will come back cut six ways, with three cheese slices, two pepperoni, and an onion.

Looking at examples where PR voting systems are in place, it's a proven axiom of Political Science that smaller interest groups benefit electorally. In fact, in 1991, Poland elected members of the Polish Beer-Lovers' Party to parliament after the party picked up nearly 3% support nationwide (this party no longer exists but you can look that one up if you want to). In the States, of course, any viable third party seeking to actually gain electoral office would need greater support by an order of magnitude, because only the first-past-the-post is elected, and you'd have to knock off both the Dems and Republicans to do it (as much as Kad Barma and I would love to see this, we shouldn't hold our breath).

So the issue isn't whether PR changes the composition of the elected body (it would), but whether the result would be better city government. In fact, that's the million-dollar question that's going to be making its way around the city as One Lowell looks to make a move towards real electoral reform with the "Fair Vote Lowell" movement.

In the meantime, what I was most impressed with by the presentation last night was the emphasis on the many types of 'diversity' in our city, and our society. Coming in, I had no idea what to expect -- I had never met Dr. Fahlberg, and I had only seen her speak once in person (at Boott before the Farmingville movie at last year's LFF) and once on-line with Mr. Campanini. Having survived Ed School at a cost of twelve months' time and more money than I'd care to say, I've seen the way the extreme left can hijack the word 'diversity' to just mean finding ways to vilify white people, so somewhere in the back of my mind there was a little wariness when I walked into Coburn last night.

But that's not what Fair Vote Lowell is about at all.

At least half a dozen times last night, Dr. Fahlberg went out of her way to stress that 'diversity' can mean a lot more than a person's skin color, as can the word 'minority.'

For instance, on an elected board made up entirely of people from the Highlands, Pawtucketville, and Belvidere, someone from another neighborhood would offer 'diversity.' In fact, the lack of geographical diversity among our elected leaders was one of the most-emphasized points last night (though it should also be pointed out that when you say 'The Highlands' you're talking about an enormous swathe of land and people, which is not true in all cases (i.e. Downtown)).

Gender is another type of diversity, which is reflected by the School Board if not the City Council, on which our one woman is by definition a 'minority.' Age, background, interests, native language, and life experience are all also legitimate forms of diversity.

Obviously, ethnicity is an equally legitimate form of diversity, and yes, it does matter, even if we sometimes would like to pretend it doesn't. And it is fair to point out the sheer fact that a city with 40% residents of color and 60% public schoolkids of color has an all-white local elected body. And yes, it can be pointed out without casting blame or aspersions on anyone.

And speaking of not casting blame, it was also pointed out that Fair Vote Lowell is not in any way looking to 'blame' any currently-elected officials, some of whom were not even born yet when PR was shunned during the Red Scare after some real-live Communists were elected to the New York City Council.

Anyway, no matter who you are or where you stand, expect to hear a lot more about this in the coming months -- on the blogs, in the paper, at the neighborhood meetings, and in the cafes.

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