Honoring Ted Berry, Civil Rights Leader and RCV Advocate

As Black History Month draws to a close, we would like to honor the memory and legacy of Ted Berry.

Theodore “Ted” Berry of Cincinnati, Ohio lived a fascinating life dedicated to civil rights, racial equality, and public service. He served as a high official in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, and then in 1972 he went on to become the first African-American mayor of Cincinnati. Ted Berry’s amazing story is chronicled in his New York Times obituary. (It is a must-read!) Ted Berry was also a longtime advocate of Ranked Choice Voting, addressing FairVote’s founding conference in 1992 as the opening speaker, while he was in his eighties.

Why was this civil rights fighter who contributed so much to the movement that transformed our political and social fabric, still, in his twilight years, committed to this specific reform, Ranked Choice Voting?

Passages from two groundbreaking FairVote articles help explain: “With strong black support, Frank A.B. Hall became the first African American elected to the nine-member Cincinnati city council in an at-large election held with RCV in 1931, even though the black population was barely ten percent. ln 1949, Ted Berry, who would later become Cincinnati’s first black mayor, was also elected to the city council. With Berry positioned to become the first African American mayor of a major city, white voters in 1957 repealed RCV. At least one African American had served on the council nearly continuously until repeal. 
The city then went six years [three city council elections] before an African American was again elected to the city council.” Read more from: The Impact of the Fair Representation Act: African American Voting Rights and Representation in the Deep South

“In Cincinnati, where a repeal attempt led by the Republican organization had been rebuffed in 1947, opponents in both major parties brought forward another attempt in 1954, losing narrowly. Three years later, Cincinnati, which for three decades had provided the most successful case history for [RCV] in the United States, finally succumbed to attacks on it.”

“The Cincinnati Republican organization in 1957 focused its efforts not on the issue of Communism, which had failed previously, but on the more general charge that [RCV] fostered 'bloc voting'. By this they meant voting on racial, ethnic, or religious lines. 'Whether by design or by chance this campaign exploited current social tensions in a manner disastrous to [RCV],' Forest Frank reported, including 'widespread word-of-mouth rumor-mongering to the effect that 'if [RCV] is retained, a Negro will be the next mayor.'' In white precincts, [RCV] lost by a 2 to 1 margin; voters in blackprecincts supported its retention by 4 to 1.” Read more from: Communism, Race, and the Defeat of Proportional Representation in Cold War America.

Was Cincinnati a special case? No — these same successes of representation that Ted Berry both witnessed and participated in, followed by repeal on the basis of appeals to racial prejudices, ethnic tensions, and cold war, red scare fear-mongering, occurred in numerous cities across the United States. These included the Massachusetts cities of Lowell, Worcester, Medford, Revere, and Quincy, as well as in Boulder, Colorado, New York City, and others.

Only Cambridge, Massachusetts withstood the tide of repeal, and has remained a shining example of the benefits that RCV can offer. The city began using RCV to elect its nine-member city council in 1941, when its black population was less than 5%. But by 1963 that constituency had grown large enough to elect Thomas Coates, its first black councilor in decades. There was no need to wait for new population figures from the 1970 census or struggle to create a district that would connect Cambridge’s scattered black communities, instead his support could coalesce organically with the representation provided by RCV. Since that time, except for a short hiatus in the mid-1970s, African Americans have always been present on both the city council and the seven-member school committee, currently holding two seats on each. Read more about RCV and Proportional Representation.

If Ted Berry were still with us today, he would be proud of the rebirth of Ranked Choice Voting that he helped ignite, and the gains that have come with it. Since 2000, adoption of Ranked Choice Voting ushered in the election of the first Asian-American female mayor in Oakland, the first Asian-American mayor in San Francisco, the second female mayor in Minneapolis, the first African-American mayor of St. Paul, and in the most recent Minneapolis election, the first trans woman and one of the first trans men, both African-American, to be elected to a city council anywhere in the US. As the results come in on this new wave of elections, data is demonstrating that Ranked Choice Voting is a powerful component of civil rights reforms.

Voter Choice Massachusetts is honored and humbled to follow in Ted Berry’s footsteps and to carry on, in our own small way, his inspiring legacy. Our volunteers are working hard every day to advance Ranked Choice Voting and other inclusionary voting rights reforms like Automatic Voter Registration. We work hard so that one day we can truly say that our government is of, by, and for the people. All people.

Further reading: Ted Berry’s amazing story is told here in his New York Times obituary.

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  • Elizabeth Popolo
    published this page in News & Events 2018-03-12 17:15:10 -0400