Friday, May 15, 2009

Crackdown Ended New York City's Multi-Party System

New York City used proportional representation (PR) to elect its city council between 1936-1947. A number of other cities also used PR then as well. The type of PR system used was the single transferable vote (STV) with multi-member districts, which is different than the more commonly used party-list method. Voters would rank candidates in multi-member districts and after a process of elimination (based upon the voters' rankings) the top candidates in each district would then win seats.

Before PR, NYC's local government was essentially a one-party system, with the Democratic Party having a monopoly on political power. The introduction of this system created an opportunity for progressive forces independent of the Democratic Party's machine to elect candidates. Even the weak NYC Republican Party was able to win a more proportionate share of seats compared to the old system.

In the 1941 election Peter Cacchione became the first Communist Party member elected to the council. In the 1943 election he was reelected and another Party member, Ben Davis (an African-American representing Harlem), was elected as well. Davis explained his electoral work by saying, "I was also running on the Communist ticket. It was my duty and responsibility, as well as my privilege, to explain to the voters why I was running on that ticket, what the Communist Party stood for and why I was a member. If I couldn't trust the people, why should they trust me? I did not believe in hiding 'the light of Marxism-Leninism' under a bushel. It was necessary to point out that though I had backers of other parties in my corner, I nevertheless was a Communist whose program went much farther than the present election campaign; that I believe in socialism and would ever strive for its triumph at home." In the 1945 election, both Davis and Cacchione were reelected. The American Labor and Liberal parties also elected some of their members to the council as well.

When Peter Cacchione died in 1947, the bourgeois council refused to seat his Communist replacement, Si Gerson. Gerson would go on to become an important activist for the rights of smaller parties by serving as the chairperson of the Coalition for Free and Open Elections. The bourgeois council, showing its disdain for the voters' choice, expelled Ben Davis in 1949. Davis was also imprisoned for being a Communist during the 1950s period of fascist repression.

Fearful of opposition parties' victories at the polls, the US bourgeoisie, with their Democratic and Republican party-machines, were not about to allow electoral opposition to their monopoly on political power to exist, even at the local level. In 1947 they launched a campaign to abolish NYC's PR system. Despite PR's use by numerous other bourgeois republics, US bourgeois propaganda hysterically denounced it. The leader of the Tammany Hall political-machine, Frank J. Sampson, even called it a "Stalin Frankenstein." Multi-party election systems were condemned, while limiting the election process to only two parties (the Democrats and Republicans) was said to be the only way that “democracy” could exist.

Besides the leadership of both the bourgeois Democratic and Republican party-machines, the anti-PR forces also had the support of big bourgeois newspapers, like the New York Times. Naturally, their campaign also had more money as well, with $33,000 compared to only $4,013 for the pro-PR forces. These massive advantages would prove to be decisive.

However, opposition to their anti-democratic crusade did exist and not just from the Communist Party. The American Labor Party and Liberal Party, which also benefited from the system, were pro-PR as well. Minorities of the Democratic and Republican party-machine members were also pro-PR. Some, like Mayor William O’Dwyer, refused to take a position, despite intense pressure from his party to do so.

The final result was 923,186 anti-PR votes to 555,217 pro-PR votes (62.4 to 38.6%). Clearly, the anti-PR campaign’s strong support from the bourgeois Democratic/Republican party-machines, the big bourgeois newspapers, and lopsided advantages in funding bought their victory at the polls. The loss of PR ended NYC's multi-party system and restored single-party dominance. The US bourgeoisie's attempts at smashing small opposition parties at home, particularly the Communist Party USA, should always be pointed out when US imperialist propagandists try to lecture other countries on "democratic reforms" and "democracy."


Bone, Hugh A. and Belle Zeller. “The Repeal of P.R. in New York City--Ten Years in Retrospect.” American Political Science Review. Vol. 42, No. 6 (Dec., 1948), pp. 1127-1148.

Davis, Ben. Communist Councilman from Harlem: Autobiographical Notes Written in a Federal Penitentiary. New York: International Publishers. 1991.

Fishman, Joelle. “Si Gerson, 95, Journalist and Electoral Expert.” People's Weekly World, January 29, 2005.

Foster, William Z. History of the Communist Party of the United States. New York: International Publishers. 1952.

No comments: