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The Repeal of P.R. in New York City—Ten Years in Retrospect*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 September 2013

Belle Zeller
Brooklyn College
Hugh A. Bone
University of Washington


In November, 1936, the voters of New York City approved the use of proportional representation for the election of members of the city council by a vote of 923,186 to 555,217, after its opponents had failed by court action to prevent the question from being submitted. By a combination of Democratic delegates from New York City and machine Republicans from upstate, the constitutional convention of 1938 provided the people of the entire state an opportunity to reject decisively an amendment that would have prohibited the use of P.R. in any election in the state. Still another unsuccessful attempt to abolish the system was made in 1940—this time through initiative petition under provision of the New York City charter. With the entry of the United States into the war, no further serious effort at repeal was made until 1947, although dissatisfaction with the results of the councilmanic elections continued to be heard even above the din of war.

How did the forces line up in the intense battle over P.R. in the campaign of 1947? The political parties, of course, had a direct stake in the results of the campaign. On the one side were the Democratic and Republican county organizations urging repeal of P.R., while the American Labor party, the Liberal party, the Communist party, and the Fusion forces worked for retention of the system.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 1948 

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The authors are indebted to Dr. George H. Hallett, Jr., for access to the files of the Citizens Union on proportional representation and for his valuable criticism and suggestions. The conclusions reached are entirely those of the authors.


1 Mooney v. Cohen (272 N. Y. 33, Remittitur Amended, 272 N. Y. 597, 1936). Genuine public interest in proportional representation came with the legislative investigation of the Walker administration by Judge Samuel Seabury in 1931 and 1932. In 1934, the state legislature authorized the appointment of a charter commission, and in 1936 the resulting body recommended that the question of proportional representation be submitted to the voters of New York City. See McCaffrey, George H., “Proportional Representation in New York City,” in this Review, Vol. 33 (Oct., 1939), pp. 841852.Google Scholar

2 The vote in the state was 1,554,404 to 627,123; in New York City, the amendment was rejected by 775,038 to 355,031.

3 In 1940, the proposition was defeated in the city by a vote of 782,768 to 565,879.

4 Companion bills to abolish P.R. were introduced in the state legislature in 1944 by Democratic Senator Dunnigan (S. Int. 149) and Democratic Assemblyman Rudd (A. Int. 216). Neither bill passed.

5 Cf. New York Post, Oct. 13, 1947. Sampson personally participated actively in the campaign. He appeared dramatically in Vito Marcantonio's district, and spoke against P. R. from a sound-truck on the “lucky corner” where Mayor LaGuardia closed his political campaigns. Cf. New York Times, Nov. 1, 1947.

6 New York Journal American, Oct. 10, 1947.

7 New York Times, Oct. 7 and 18, 1947. The Governor maintained silence on this “local matter” except to announce during the last week of the campaign that he would vote “yes” on all questions before the voters that year.

8 New York Herald Tribune, Oct. 28, 1947. It should be said, however, that in 1946, without P.R., there were a number of four-cornered races, especially for the state senate and assembly, from Bronx county, in which each of the four candidates received a substantial number of votes. See especially the returns from the 24th, 26th, and 28th senatorial districts and from the 2nd, 3rd and 8th assembly districts, in which candidates with less than half the votes secured all the representation at the expense of a divided majority. There would have been an even larger number of such races throughout the city but for the endorsement of some Democratic and Republican candidates by the Liberal party or the American Labor party.

9 PM [New York], Nov. 2, 1947, and New York Herald Tribune, Nov. 2, 1947.

10 New York Times, Oct. 9, 1947.

11 New York Times, Oct. 31, 1947.

12 Of Mr. O'Dwyer's colleagues on the Board of Estimate, Comptroller Lazarus Joseph remained silent throughout the campaign, while Vincent R. Impellitteri, president of the city council, and Hugo E. Rogers, president of the Borough of Manhattan, spoke out for repeal during the last week of the campaign. Messrs. Joseph, Impellitteri, and Rogers had been endorsed for election in 1945 by both the Democratic and American Labor parties.

13 According to the sworn statement of its assistant treasurer, filed with the secretary of state on Nov. 24, 1947, the Citizens Committee to Repeal P. R. was financed wholly by the five Democratic county committees in New York City.

14 See debate on this point between the Citizens Union and the Brooklyn Eagle in Brooklyn Eagle, July 27 and Aug. 10, 1947.Google Scholar

15 In particular, mention should be made of the reply by the New York Herald Tribune on Oct. 28, 1947, and by Seabury, Samuel in the New York Times, Nov. 1, 1947.Google Scholar

16 New York Times, Oct. 27, 1947.

17 Among other important New York City newspapers which changed their editorial position on the question between 1936 and 1947 were the Daily News, which supported P. R. in 1936; the Post, which urged repeal in 1945; and the World Telegram, a Scripps-Howard paper which supported P. R. for New York before 1947. The Scripps-Howard paper in Cincinnati, the Post, continues to support P. R. for that city. Special mention should be made of the Herald Tribune's consistent and vigorous support of P. R. on an intelligently high plane throughout the ten-year experiment, culminating in 1947 in large coverage of news, special features, editorials, and letters to the editor. “The Clubhouse Vote Sees Victory,” by Murray Snyder, in the Herald Tribune (Oct. 21, 1947), and Landman's, Amos article with illustrations entitled “New Yorkers Face Vote on P. R.,” in P. M. (June 19, 1947)Google Scholar should be noted as first-rate.

18 Cf. Citizens Committee for the Repeal of P. R., P. R. Exposed (1947), p. 6.Google Scholar The election of Communists to local offices in several Midwestern states between 1931 and 1934 can be cited. During the campaign, Herbert Pell, former congressman and minister to Portugal and Hungary, advanced the argument in his plea for continuance of P. R. that the fact that Communists under P. R. can elect some of their own candidates should keep them from boring within the major parties, as did Wayne Wheeler, leader of the Anti-Saloon League, with such great success. Cf. “P. R. and the Communists” (mimeo, 1947).

19 See Mr. Curran's statement above, p. 1128. The advocates of repeal leaned heavily upon the writings and support of ProfessorHermens, Ferdinand A., long a critic of P. R. See his Democracy or Anarchy; A Study of Proportional Representation (Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame, 1941)Google Scholar, and Democracy and Proportional Representation (Public Policy Pamphlet, No. 31, University of Chicago Press, 1940).

20 The debate on P. R. in foreign countries continued into 1948, when Richard S. Childs, chairman of the Citizens Union, pointed out that in the Italian parliamentary elections of April 19, 1948, a single party, the Christian Democrats, secured a majority of seats under P. R. Professor Hermens, in reply, noted that the Christian Democrats received 53 per cent of the seats with 48 per cent of the vote, and that Italian voters, because of fear of Communism, have given Italy only a temporary truce. New York Times, May 3 and 12, 1948.

21 Letter of the chairman of the Young Democrats of New York in New York Times, Aug. 25, 1947.

22 Oct. 27, 1947.

23 The New York Times and other proponents of repeal used a statement made by Mayor LaGuardia in 1938 that if there had been no P. R. in 1937 he could have won an overwhelming majority in the council. See strong endorsement of P. R. by LaGuardia in 1940 in the National Municipal Review, Vol. 29 (Apr., 1940), pp. 274–5.

24 New York Times, Oct. 22, 1947. For other recent letters of Professor Hermens on P. R., see the Times, Feb. 1, 1946, July 21, 1947, and May 12, 1948.

25 See the Association's Report Concerning Election of the New York City Council by Proportional Representation (mimeo., 1947), pp. 18–19. Attention should be called to the nineteen-page mimeographed Examination and Refutation of this report by the Citizens Committee to Repeal P.R.

26 The American Veterans Committee opposed the bonus and the repeal of P. R. The Jewish War Veterans favored the bonus, but took no position on P. R.

27 Oct. 21, 1947. The vote in favor of the bonus was 1,209,689; opposed, 388,748. The vote to repeal P. R. was 935,222; to retain it, 586,170.

28 Amsterdam News, Nov. 1, 1947. Adam C. Powell and Benjamin J. Davis, Jr., are Negroes.

29 Daily Worker, Oct. 27, 1947. In only two of the 16 assembly districts in Manhattan (New York county) did the vote to continue P. R. exceed the repeal vote; and one was Harlem's 11th Assembly District. The New York Joint Executive Council of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People threw its support behind the campaign to retain P. R. as the “best method through which minority groups can be assured of satisfactory leadership and representation in the city council.” New York Times, Oct. 19, 1947.

30 New York Herald Tribune, Oct. 20, 1947. Rev. Robert W. Searle, executive secretary of the Human Relations Commission of the Protestant Council of New York, announced that the commission was in favor of P. R.

31 New York Times, Oct. 23, 1947. The above statement was not entirely true; the system was used in electing members of the upper house of the Danish parliament.

32 New York Times, Oct. 23, 1947.

33 New York Catholic News, Nov. 1, 1947.

34 New York Times, Oct. 30, 1947.

35 Citizens Committee to Repeal P. R., P. R. Exposed, pp. 78.Google Scholar

36 New York State Constitutional Convention Committee, Problems Relating to Legislative Organization and Powers (Albany, 1938), Vol. 7, p. 271.Google Scholar Moscow, Warren, Politics in the Empire State (New York, 1948), pp. 4849.Google Scholar

37 Saltzman, Doris, Racial and Religious Voting Under Proportional Representation as Practiced in New York City; A Case Study (Hunter College, typewritten), pp. 6566.Google Scholar This study covers the first four P. R. elections.

38 There is one councilman from the fifth borough, Richmond, who is elected by a method that amounts to majority preferential voting.

39 National Municipal Review, Vol. 30 (Dec., 1941), p. 736.

40 P. M., June 19, 1947. The same issue contains several valuable diagrams illustrative of party, racial, and religious transfers. Approximately 85 per cent of Mrs. Casey's votes were transferred to fellow-Democrats.

41 Op. cit., pp. 33 and 39.

42 Letter from the chairman of the New York State Young Democrats to the New York Times, Aug. 25, 1947.

43 Only 2,000 signatures are required for nomination.

44 New York State Constitutional Convention Committee, Vol. 7, p. 272.

45 Op. cit., p. 9.

46 National Municipal Review, Vol. 27 (Jan., 1938), p. 54; Vol. 30 (Dec., 1941), p. 734; Vol. 35 (Jan., 1946), p. 47.

47 For example, “P.R.—Is it Good Or Bad?,” between O. Reichler, editor of the Yonkers Herald Statesman, and F. A. Hermens over CBS on Oct. 23, 1947. Yonkers, an important industrial city adjoining New York, used P.R. for council elections after 1939; but at the election of November 2, 1948, the voters repealed the city charter's provision on the subject.

48 New York Sun, Oct. 22, 1947.

49 New York Times, Oct. 24, 1947. In addition to references already cited, the following should be noted: Hallett, George H. Jr., Real Majority Rule (1936)Google Scholar, published by the Citizens Union; A Primer on Proportional Representation and Charter Revision (1936), Women's City Club of New York; Proportional Representation (1937), Municipal Civil Service Commission; Proportional Representation for New York City (1937), Merchants' Association of New York; Cohen, Louis, P.R. Unmasked (1940)Google Scholar; Hallett, George H. Jr., Proportional Representation (1940)Google Scholar, published by the National Municipal League; and Proportional Representation (1947), Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York.

50 New York Times, Oct. 27, 1947. For the conduct of the first election, the city spent $701,623. This huge sum was due, undoubtedly, to unfamiliarity of the election authorities with the new system and the dilatory tactics employed by temporary workers who were paid by the day. In subsequent elections, the cost to the city was about $250,000 each, making a total of $1,663,292 for the five elections, over and above the regular expenses of elections.

51 John J. Lamula, campaign manager of the Keep P. R. Committee, charged that 76 per cent of the repeal petitions were circulated by Democratic party workers. New York Times, Sept. 29, 1947. See Herald Tribune, Oct. 21, 1947, and P.M., Oct. 2, 1947, for evidence showing similarity in handwriting of whole batches of signatures.

52 Vol. 33 (Oct., 1939), p. 852.

53 In all five elections, only one candidate, James A. Burke, Democrat of Queens, received the full quota of 75,000 first choice votes (in 1939).

54 In 1946, only three years after the last reapportionment in New York State, the largest senatorial district (4th Queens) had twice as many voters as the smallest (9th Kings) except for the special case of Richmond. Prior to 1943, the last reapportionment had occurred in 1917.

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