Democratizing the Legislature Proportional Representation

By Forrest Hill
Published May 24th 2006 in California Chronicle

In a democracy, those elected to government should ideally embody the views of a representative cross-section of society. The role of government should be premised on the concept that when elected officials make decisions on pertinent issues - those decisions reflect the will of the people. This can only occur if elected officials stay true to the values they supported during their campaigns and voters have a wide range of candidates to choose from.

In the United States, our Winner-Take-All (WTA) election system ensures that democratic representation is little more than a myth. By design, WTA voting systems produce two dominant political parties that oscillate in and out of power, with the party losing the election forming a "government-in-waiting".

It also rewards mudslinging and partisan obstructionism (i.e. gridlock), because the best way for one party to win the election is to drive up the "negatives" on the other party.

Our election system has also exacerbated a number of problems associated with two-party control including corporate financed campaigns, gerrymandered party districts, low voter turnout, and under representation of women and minorities in office.

It is important to realize, however, that these problems are symptoms of a dysfunctional system and not the cause of the limited choices we are confronted with every time we enter the voting booth.

The superiority of Proportional Representation

For Legislative bodies, like the U.S. Congress, State Senate, and the Assembly, Proportional Representation (PR) is clearly superior to our single-district winner-take all voting system. Under a PR voting system, if a party gets 10% of the vote for a legislative body, they would get 10% of the seats. This is the preferred method of democratic representation used by the majority of countries throughout the world. Currently, 107 nations use some form of proportional representation voting to elect their government officials.

The success of PR voting systems in democratic counties over the past century clearly shows this voting method is superior to plurality and winner-take-all systems. In general PR systems elicit higher voter turnouts (about 10 percent greater), result in greater representation by minorities and women, and are usually more effective at creating governments that are efficient and likely to follow through on campaign promises.

This is no accident. By guaranteeing that the number of seats a party is accorded reflects its popular support, PR provides incentives for politicians to cooperate with other parties in order to govern. Part of that cooperation involves providing undistorted information on the issues, in order to build coalitions for enacting new policies. This is quite different from WTA systems where incentives to remain in power lead to obfuscation and negative campaigning.

Today only three of the 41 countries with a high Freedom House human rights rating and a population over 2 million people -- the United States, Jamaica, and Canada do not use some form of PR to elect an important representative body of government. Even Brittan uses PR to elect its representatives to the European parliament, and is currently reviewing whether to implement a similar system for its own parliamentary elections. Scotland and Wales, however, already have a jump on the Brits as they started using PR in 1999.

With Canada headed towards implementing a system of PR for regional and national elections, the U.S. will soon be the only developed nation in the world committed to denying full representation to its citizens.

Making PR a reality

By changing to a proportional representative system of voting, government accountability would be greatly enhanced, as would the opportunity for greater representation of all U.S. citizens.

With voter turnout continuing to fall and the two major parties morphing more and more into a single entity, now is the time for disenfranchised citizens from all across the political spectrum to unite.

Our government will not act to change our electoral system until there is enough outcry from the citizenry they are suppose to represent. In New Zealand, election reform was fueled by a decade of popular dissent that culminated in a national referendum in 1993. Fifty-four per cent of the voting public supported a switch from a winner-take-all system to PR. It is unlikely that the New Zealand government would have acquiesced without this kind of pressure and we can expect the same here.

A similar revolution is underway in Canada where the government recently authorized the Law Commission of Canada (LCC) to study the problem of voter apathy and complaints from the public over the lack of political representation. The LCC, which advises Parliament on issues of law and governance, concluded that Canada should adopt a PR electoral system. Since that time a referendum on PR in British Columbia received 57% of the vote and a similar referendum is schedule for the Ontario elections in 2006.

The recent events in New Zealand and Canada should give us hope that American citizens can democratize our government. Recognizing there is a command psychology that motivates many of us to take political action, we must begin to unite forces (regardless of our political beliefs) to bring about change in our electoral system. By working together to educate the public about IRV and PR and pressuring the government to democratize our voting system, we may yet create a democratic society.

Until we change our voting system, we are condemned to a system that forces the majority of citizens to vote against their conscience and choose between the lesser of two evils. Now is the time for us to unite under one banner to create a voting system that ensures rule by the majority and representation for all.

Dr. Forrest Hill is a candidate for California Secretary of State in the June 6th election. He is a research scientist, financial advisor, electoral reform activist and environmentalist. He has been a technical advisor for several government agencies including the California Department of Fish and Game and the Sonoma County Water Agency, and currently specializes in Socially Responsible Investing using investments for economic, social, and environmental transformation.

While working as a research scientist at UC Davis, Forrest worked with the Davis Human Rights Commission to pass a resolution opposing the USA PATRIOT Act and authored a resolution opposing the war in Iraq that was adopted by the Davis City Council in 2003. He also founded the UC Davis Green Party, one of the largest campus Green Party chapters in the country.

Dr. Hill has been an active proponent for proportional voting systems and free elections. He has published several articles on voting and democracy, and has spoken widely on the issue of proportional representation. His background in economics and ecosystem analysis - coupled with his independence from the Democratic and Republican Party - give him the necessary skills to ensure that our voting systems are fair, that all votes are counted, and that democratic representation is extended to every citizen.