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This is an article from Ohio History, The Scholarly Journal of the Ohio Historical Society, Vol III, Winter-Spring 2002, pp 7-24. Copyright 2002 Ohio Historical Society.

Death Knell for Progressive Leadership in Cleveland: Peter Witt and the Mayoral Election of 1915

By Arthur E. DeMatteo

The article begins:

Between 1890 and the early 1920s a number of progressive mayors assumed office in cities throughout America's Midwest. Hazen S. Pingree and James Couzens of Detroit, Toledo's Samuel M. "Golden Rule" Jones and Brand Whitlock, and Harry T. Hunt of Cincinnati all campaigned for municipal ownership of public utilities, warred against corrupt politics, and created more humane urban environments.1 Perhaps the most successful of these Midwestern reformers were Tom L. Johnson and Newton D. Baker of Cleveland. Under the leadership of Johnson from 1901 through 1909, and Baker from 1912 through 1915, Cleveland expanded city services, established a municipally controlled streetcar system and electric light plant, revamped its tax structure to benefit working people, and won praise as one of the country's best-governed cities.2

When Newton Baker declined to seek reelection to a third term, Democrat Peter Witt emerged as his heir apparent. A civic gadfly, labor activist, and innovative expert on urban mass transit, Witt had served in the administrations of both Johnson and Baker. But in a controversial election, tainted by a new system of balloting and Witt's propensity for ill-advised comments, he fell to his conservative Republican opponent. The 1915 mayoral contest marked a turning point in the city's history; it was a "death knell" for progressive leadership in Cleveland.

The "new system of balloting" was Bucklin Voting, but the "taint" would be similar to the "taint" in Ann Arbor, Michigan, much later, where what we now call IRV allowed a Democrat to win, when the Republican got a majority of first preference votes. There were other problems with this election, though, and, in particular, some really poor political moves and mistakes -- "ill-advised comments" -- by Witt.

Under provisions of the revised city charter of 1913, Cleveland used
the "preferential" system of voting in municipal elections. Progressive era reformers had originally championed the party primary to lessen the influence of corrupt party bosses. These reformers soon concluded, however, that even the new primary system had shortcomings. They argued that voters should have an opportunity to express their support for good candidates from all parties, not just the party with which they had registered. In addition, independent voters unaligned to one of the major parties lost their opportunity to participate in the primary process, further strengthening the influence of the bosses over those voters who participated.

By 1911 the so-called "Bucklin" system of preferential balloting had emerged as a favorite of municipal reformers. The Bucklin format eliminated primaries altogether, and allowed any number of candidates to run on a non-partisan ballot. Voters designated a "first choice" and, if they wished, could select a "second choice" and also give votes of approval to "other choices." Only one candidate could receive a first- or second-choice vote, while there was no limit on the number of candidates receiving "other choice" votes; if a voter wished, he could actually cast a vote for every candidate on the ballot. If no candidate received a majority of first choice votes, second-choice votes were added to the total. The candidate with the highest combined total would then be elected, if this amount was greater than 50 percent of the first-choice votes cast for all candidates. If there was still no majority victor, the "other choices" would be included in the tally, and the candidate with the highest number of overall votes became the victor, whether or not he had won a majority.

Successful trials of preferential balloting in cities such as Pueblo, Colorado, and Spokane, Washington, convinced the framers of Cleveland's new charter to adopt the Bucklin format. The novel voting system had worked satisfactorily in its first trial in Cleveland in 1913, as incumbent mayor Newton D. Baker, failing to win a majority of firstplace votes, or a majority of first- and second-choice votes combined, managed to win a plurality of overall votes to defeat Davis and a third, minor candidate.17 Preferential balloting, however, would prove to be Peter Witt's political undoing.

The New York Times gives different information about the 1913 election, though that report was based on preliminary information, perhaps errors were found later.

The headline is "CLEVELAND MAYOR WINS.; Baker, Democrat, Re-elected, but by a Greatly Decreased Plurality." However, if you read the article itself (the second link above), "plurality" here refers to the vote margin, not to the absence of a majority. The NYT article shows Baker winning a majority, in the second round, the "decreased plurality" refers to the difference in vote margin from his prior election two years earlier. As I've come to consider common, the additional preference votes, in 1913, didn't change the margin between the frontrunners. If we look at this election, from 1911 to 1913, the Republicans narrow the gap from 17,000 in 1911 to 3,000 in 1913. Is it a huge surprise, then, that they won the next election in 1915? Did the Republicans benefit from the additional choice votes more than the Democrats?

Due in large measure to this blue-collar support, oddsmakers placed
Witt as the clear favorite to become Cleveland's next mayor, and Witt confidently boasted that he would garner at least 50,000 first-choice votes and win in a landslide.31 Realizing that Witt was the "man to beat" as election day drew near, the other candidates unleashed a last-minute barrage of attacks.

There is a lesson in this. FairVote and IRV supporters often claim that IRV, with a practically identical ballot and probably very similar voting patterns, will "reduce negative campaigning." I've seen similar claims for Approval Voting. It's, to use a voting systems technical term, "pucky." It apparently has not happened in San Francisco; we see some isolated cases of minor, nearly hopeless candidates cooperating in campaigns, seeking mutual assignment of additional preferences, but with the major candidates, there is no incentive. Their supporters are mostly not going to rank the main competitor, period, though if there are strong party affiliations, they might.

The Candidates:
Witt faced a field of five other candidates, including fellow Democrat and former Johnson assistant Charles P. Salen; Republican Miner G. Norton, the city's former law director; Socialist Charles E. Ruthenberg; and Socialist Labor Party candidate Richard Koeppel.15 But Witt's most formidable opponent was Republican Harry L. Davis. An insurance executive of Welsh descent, Davis had worked his way out of the local steel mills to become a member of Cleveland's Republican Party hierarchy and, from 1910 through 1912, had served as city treasurer. Davis promised to replace the supposed waste and extravagance of Johnson and Baker with an economical "business administration." This was the second mayoral campaign for Davis, having lost to Baker two years earlier.

Davis had narrowed the gap in that election, he was clearly hot on the trail to winning. It would have been tough even without the problems that the article covers.

Witt made a huge blunder in some remarks, and his opponents waited, the article says, until two days before the election to publicize them. The article presents evidence that this had a large impact on the lower preference votes, which turned the tide. Previously, Baker had managed to maintain his lead though the additional ranked votes. Witt didn't. The votes:

On 2 November Witt won a comfortable first-choice plurality of nearly 3000 votes, but came nowhere near capturing the majority required by the preferential system. Neither did the inclusion of the second-choice votes resolve the issue. The situation then required that "other-choice" votes be included, with the victory going to the candidate with the plurality of all votes cast. On this basis Davis won the election by a 2,785-vote margin (see Table 1).

TABLE 1: Cleveland Mayoral Election Results, 2 November 1915

Candidate       First   Second  Other   Total

Davis           36,841  8,535   2,321   47,697
Koeppel    467    411     985    1,863
Norton  14,271  8,544   3,600   26,415
Ruthenberg       6,014  4,697   2,522   13,233
Salen    5,801  7,813   4,484   18,098
Witt            39,835  3,585   1,492   44,912

Source: Election Records, Cuyahoga County Archives, Cleveland, Ohio

total 1st       103,229
winner %         46.2%
2nd place        43.5%
3rd place        25.6%

total 2nd        33,585 (32.5%)
total other     15,404 (14.9%)

(note that "other" allows multiple votes, so the number of voters voting "other" would be less than 14.9%)

Contrary to what FairVote has claimed about Bucklin, very significant numbers of voters did add additional rank votes. In first preference, 12,749 voters voted for other than the top three, so we can conclude, from the second vote total of 33,585, that not even the third place supporters, 14,271, would be enough to explain the large second preference total, even if all of these added second rank choices. At least 6,565 of the voters for the top two must have added additional preference votes, probably substantially more. However, the second preference votes from the minor candidates (not top three) are enough to explain the increased votes for the top two. I would guess that voters for Davis add'l ranking Witt and vice-versa, would have been very rare.

Davis was a Republican, but apparently a moderate one. The article gives details, noting

Campaign politics aside, Davis was basically decent and honest and proved a perennially popular candidate for the Republicans. Reelected as mayor in 1917 and 1919, Davis resigned the post in 1920 to seek Ohio's governorship, which he won easily in the Warren G. Harding-led GOP landslide of that year.

There are more details in the article about the politics of the situation. By the time of the election, "Anti-Witt wagering increased, and by election eve bookmakers had lowered the odds favoring his victory." The article details the first choice and overall votes in the "top ten ethnic wards."

The intricacies of preferential balloting also make it impossible to determine how many supporters of Salen or Norton, for example, might have selected Witt as a second-choice or "other choice," but declined to do so based on the pro-German remarks. But Witt's poor showing in ethnic areas is undeniable, and his campaign speech before the German American Alliance is the only reasonable explanation for this dramatic shift in voting patterns. [from prior elections].

It looks to me like Bucklin Voting worked on that day in Cleveland. The result was fairer than Plurality. IRV, my guess, would have come up with the same result. But we don't know for sure. Norton, the other Democrat, only got 5,801 first preference votes, if vote-splitting were the cause of Davis's victory, then surely the other Republican, with 14,271 votes, would have done more damage to Davis than Norton would have done to Witt, through some Later No Harm fear.

This was a combined primary/main election; the parties didn't have separate primaries. That's known to cause serious vote-splitting problems with plurality in a primary/runoff combination. If there was a problem here, that would be it. Preventing parties from choosing their own, exclusive candidates, in an election prevents them from uniting behind one affects not only the election but the campaigning. I don't know if the pary affiliations were on the ballot: it can make a difference. I'd expect more use of additional preference to support a party in that case, both with Bucklin and with IRV.

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