A 19th Century Champion of Democracy

An Early Critique of Winner-Take-All

Senator Charles Buckalew

The most influential early advocate of proportional representation in the United States was Charles Buckalew, a U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania from 1865-1871. Sen. Buckalew's proposals for PR gained significant support in Congress, and he played a central role in the adoption of cumulative voting in several places including Illinois for state legislative elections in 1870.

Sen. Buckalew's writings and speeches were collected in an 1872 book called Proportional Representation. The following summary of proportional representation's advantages -- with many of his points still ringing very true today -- is from Sen. Buckalew's introduction to this book.

[Proportional representation's] advantages over the majority vote may be roughly stated as follows:

  1. It reduces greatly the number of candidates at popular elections, because under it parties will usually nominate only the number they are entitled to have and power to elect. Surplus candidates will not commonly be run, and but few persons will be beaten in struggles for place.
  2. It secures nearly complete representation of the whole body of voters in plural elections, by permitting each considerable interest of political society to take to itself its just share of representation by its own votes.
  3. It reduces enormously the expense of election contests -- not the legal charges borne by the public, but voluntary outlays by parties and candidates. These will no longer be required to subsidize the floating vote -- the balance-of-power vote --- the mercenary or impressionable vote -- of a district or constituency, as the indispensable condition of success. Whether applied to legal elections or to primary ones; to elections to office or to nominations for office, in this regard its effect will be the same -- to produce, comparatively, cheap elections.
  4. It is a powerful check upon all forms of corruption and undue influence at elections, because it takes away the motive, or most of the motive, to corrupt or pervert them in rendering all ordinary effort to that end unavailing and useless.
  5. It produces satisfaction to voters in gratifying their desire for representation, and thus increases their attachment to the government under which they live.
  6. It permits the representation of a greater variety of opinions and interests in legislative bodies, without impairing the right and power of the majority to rule.
  7. It will often continue fit and able men much longer in public service than is now possible, because they will not hold their places subject so much to fluctuation of power between parties as to changed preferences in their own party.
  8. It will greatly reduce party violence, and give a kindlier tone to social relations among the people, without producing stagnation or indifference to public affairs. In this, as in other cases, justice means peace, but it does not mean stagnation; for it is beyond question that reformed voting "wakes to newness of life," to activity and interest in public affairs, large numbers of persons who, under majority-voting, are inert because disgusted or discouraged by their exclusion from representation. Upon this point Mr. Buxton spoke wisely and soundly in Parliament in the Reform debates of 1867.
  9. It discourages election cheats, whether in the giving, receiving, counting, or returning of votes, because by it the effect of cheating is greatly reduced. And, for a like reason, it also discourages the trading of votes, or bartering of the electoral privilege.
  10. It is adapted to the bolting of nominations by an aggrieved interest, for such interest, if of respectable size, can represent, by its own votes, without disturbing or changing the whole result of an election.
  11. It renders elections more independent of each other. No one will much influence another. Each one will be determined upon its own merits, or upon the issues directly involved in it, and not with reference to its effect upon other elections.
  12. Lastly, it is a certain remedy for the evil of gerrymandering in the formation of Congressional districts, and may be made to remedy, partially or completely, the same evil, in apportionments for members of State Legislatures.

Rightly understood, the free vote [cumulative voting] is not a plan of minority representation. It is, on the contrary, a plan for the representation of successive majorities in plural elections, by which will be realized, more fully than ever before, our fundamental principle of government by the people.

Rightly understood, the free vote is not a plan of minority representation. It is, on the contrary, a plan for the representation of successive majorities in plural elections, by which will be realized, more fully than ever before, our fundamental principle of government by the people.

The following is from an 1867 speech Sen. Buckalew gave in Philadelphia in which he describes his early efforts to institute single-member districts to provide fairer representation before cumulative voting had been invented. Fairer representation was the general reason states adopted single-member districts for congressional and state elections after most started with winner-take-all, at-large voting systems.

Our experience in this State and in other States is not in favor of carrying the idea of single districts very far. I drew the amendment to the Constitution of our State by which your city is broken into [single member] districts. [Applause] What was the idea of that amendment? It was that one political interest should not absorb the whole sixteen or eighteen representatives you send to the Legislature; that a little shifting majority one way or the other should not cast that large number of votes on one side or the other at Harrisburg.

The idea was to break up the political community, and allow the different political interests which compose it, by choosing in single districts, to be represented in the Legislature of the State. Unfortunately, when that arrangement was made for your city (and for Pittsburgh also, to which it will soon apply), this just, equal, almost perfect system of voting [cumulative voting], which I have spoken of tonight, was unknown; it had not then been announced abroad or considered here, and we did what best we could.

Now, however, if a change were to be made, I suppose the same current of opinion and of sentiment would have course in this State which has prevailed in New York, where the system of single districts throughout the State for the election of members of the Assembly or lower legislative branch of that State has lost credit. The idea is very generally abandoned by thinking and reflecting men in that State. It is a failure; it has not produced the results which it was supposed would flow from it.

Cumulative voting, however, comes in, and it is a principle which is capable of extended application to popular elections, where more than a single officer is to be chosen. It can be applied to the election of Senators and Representatives in the Legislature from your city and from each of the counties of the State, or from districts into which the State might be divided, and you may thus get in the government of your State that fair and equal representation which you ought to claim and which is your due as citizens of a free State.

Sen. Buckalew chaired a Select Committee on Representative Reform that issued a report on a range of topics and included recommendations for proportional allocation of electoral college votes and for cumulative voting for congressional elections. The following passage explains problems with both the "general ticket" (winner-take-all, at-large voting) and single-member districts compared to cumulative voting.

Representatives being assigned to a State under the constitutional rule of distribution, each elector in the State shall possess as many votes as there are representatives to be chosen. He shall possess his due and equal share of electoral power as a member of the political body or State. Thus far we deal with familiar ideas which have heretofore obtained.

It is next proposed that the elector shall exercise his right of suffrage according to this own judgment and discretion, and without compulsion of law. He shall bestow or distribute his votes upon or among candidates with entire freedom, and shall be relieved from that legal constraint to which he has been heretofore subjected. He may select his candidate or candidates anywhere within the limits of his State from among all its qualified citizens, and he may exert his political power upon the general representation of his State instead of the representation of a particular district within it.

Here is unquestionably a large and valuable extension of privilege to the citizen, a withdrawal from him of inconvenient and odious restraint, and a more complete application of that principle of self-government upon which our political institutions are founded. And what is material for consideration is, that while all the advantage of a plan of election by general ticket are secured, all its inconveniences and evils are avoided.

Single districts will almost always be unfairly made. They will be formed in the interest of party and to secure an unjust measure of power to their authors, and it may be expected that each successive district apportionment will be more unjust than its predecessor.

Former Plans: Their Imperfections

Formerly, when election of representatives in Congress were had by general ticket, a great inconvenience resulted which became at last offensive and intolerable. For a political majority in a State, organized as a party, and casting its votes under a majority or plurality rule, secured in ordinary cases the entire representation from the State and the minority were wholly excluded from representation.

To avoid this inconvenience and evil which had become general throughout the country, Congress interposed, and by statute required the States to select their representatives by single districts, that is to divide their territory into districts, each of which should elect one member. This contrivance, dictated by Congressional power, ameliorated our electoral system, mitigated the evil of which general complaint had been made, and was an unquestionable advance in the art of government amongst us.

But retaining the majority or plurality rule for elections and restricting the power and free action of the elector, it was imperfect in its design and has been unsatisfactory in practice. It has not secured fair representation of political interests, and it has continued in existence in a somewhat mitigated form the evils of the plan of election by general ticket which is superseded.

Still, one body of organized electors in a district vote down another; electoral corruption is not effectually checked, and the general result is unfair representation of political interests in the popular house of Congress. Besides, the single district plan has called into existence inconveniences peculiar to itself and which did not attach to the former plan.

It excludes from Congress men of ability and merit whose election was possible before, and thus exerts a baneful influence upon the constitution of the House. Two causes operate to this end. In the first place no man who adheres to a minority party in any particular district can be returned, and next, great rapidity of change is produced by fluctuation of party power in the districts.

Again, the single district system gives rise to gerrymandering in the States in the formation of districts. Single districts will almost always be unfairly made. They will be formed in the interest of party and to secure an unjust measure of power to their authors, and it may be expected that each successive district apportionment will be more unjust than its predecessor. Parties will retaliate upon each other whenever possible. The disenfranchisement suffered through one decade by a political party may be repeated upon it in the next with increased severity, but if it shall happen to have power in the legislature when the new apportionment for the State is to be made, it will signal vengeance for its wrongs and in its turn indulge in the luxury of persecution.

The Select Committee on Representative Reform also includes an important analysis of one cause of the Civil War: winner-take-all voting that polarized the north and south. The Report also contains a prophetic analysis of southerners' reaction to black suffrage.

The free vote will be a guarantee of peace to our country, because it will exclude many causes of discord and complaint, and will always secure to the friends of peace and union a just measure of political power. The absence of this vote in the States of the south when rebellion was plotted, and when open steps were taken to break the Union, was unfortunate, for it would have held the Union men for those States together and have given them voice in the electoral colleges and in Congress.

But they were fearfully overborne by the plurality rule of elections and were swept forward by the course of events into impotency or open hostility to our cause. By that rule they were largely deprived of representation in Congress. By that rule they were shut out of the electoral colleges. Dispersed, unorganized, unrepresented, without due voice and power, they could interpose no effectual resistance to secession and to civil war. Their leaders were struck down at unjust elections and could not speak for them or act for them in their own States or at the capital of the nation.

By facts well known to us we are assured that the leaders of revolt, with much difficulty, carried their States with them. Even in Georgia, the empire State of the south, the scale was almost balanced for a time between patriotism and dishonor; and in most of those States it required all the machinery and influence of a vicious electoral system to organize the war against us and hold those communities compactly as our foes.

One race cannot vote down and disfranchise the other; each can obtain its due share of power without injustice to the other

Improving Race Relations

In those same States the free vote will now allay antagonism of race, and will substitute therefore the rivalry of parties formed with reference to the policy of the general government. The tendency of party is to form upon national issues, and not upon State ones, and this tendency will operate more strongly if causes of offense between races shall be removed or lessened.

And what can accomplish this more perfectly than the free vote? For under it one race cannot vote down and disfranchise the other; each can obtain its due share of power without injustice to the other, and there will be no strong and constant motive (as now) to struggle for the mastery. This fact (the importance of which cannot be overestimated) will allay animosity and prevent conflict. And because the free vote will have this certain effect it will nationalize parties in the south and will be to the whole country an invaluable guarantee of order and peace. In extending suffrage largely, in extending it to include many hundreds of thousands of votes of another race than our own, it will become us to look to our electoral machinery and to amend it in those parts which have been found defective, or which do not seem well adapted to the new strain to be put upon it.

Unquestionably there is a large mass of honest opinion in the country opposed to colored suffrage, and many of those who support it in Congress and out of Congress put their support of it upon the ground of necessity -- upon the ground that in order to secure the fruits of emancipation it is necessary that the emancipated be armed with the power of self defense.

A majority of this committee hold that the objections to it are to a great extent misconceived, and that the fears felt and expressed by many as to its results will not be realized. But all must agree that this great experiment of extended suffrage, being once determined upon, should have a fair trial; that all the conditions proper to its success should, as far as possible, be established by the government.

And those who sincerely believe that the experiment will have bad results must approve a plan of voting which will certainly mitigate its possible evils. But the salutary effects of the free vote as a guarantee of peace, though well illustrated by the southern States, will not be confined to them. Everywhere it will decrease the violence of party contests and create more amicable relations than now exist among our people.

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