Daniel O. Prosterman

Defining Democracy

Electoral Reform and the Struggle for Power in New York City

University Press 2013

New Books in American StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books Network December 20, 2014 Peter-Christian Aigner

Daniel Prosterman‘s new book Defining Democracy:Electoral Reform and the Struggle for Power in New York City (Oxford University Press, 2013) investigates a neglected topic...

Daniel Prosterman‘s new book Defining Democracy:Electoral Reform and the Struggle for Power in New York City (Oxford University Press, 2013) investigates a neglected topic in U.S. history: the occasional efforts by reformers over the years to bring proportional representation to America. No democracy in the world today is less representative by the standard of “one person, one vote.” (In 2000, three states with more than a quarter of the population, had just six Senators, for example. The seventeen least populous states, with seven percent of the population, had thirty-four.) This is actually an improvement over the past, when various mal-apportionment schemes essentially disenfranchised huge numbers of voters in virtually every state. Prosterman’s book does not look at the national scene, but takes us instead through New York City’s brief experiment with a quirky form “STV” (single transferable vote), the standard in most democracies. Like so many imported European reforms in the early 1900’s, the American version had a fraught experience. But as Prosterman painstakingly details it also invigorated the electoral system in New York, opening the field to an unusually diverse set of candidates for the time: women, blacks, even Communists. To the horror of even formerly sympathetic reformers, like Al Smith. In the end, an equally strange pack of bedfellows conspired to destroy the practice, which locals had voted for overwhelmingly. Yet, for all its flaws and historical particularities, the experiment stands as a useful reminder that democracy is now just about who votes, but how that vote is counted.

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