When Every Vote Counts: A Look at Proportional VotingProfessor Douglas Amy, Mount Holyoake College
Originally printed in "Blueprint for Social Justice"
Volume XLVI, No. 8, April 1993
Americans remain highly disenchanted with US elections- and for good reasons. We are frequently confronted with poor quality candidates who are constantly constrained by the limited choices offered by a two-party system. Recent polls reveal that a majority of Americans now would like to see other parties emerge to challenge the Democrats and Republicans. In addition, American elections still produce legislatures that fail to reflect the diversity of its citizens. In particular, our legislatures continue to underrepresent various political and racial minorities. African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians still do not occupy their fair share of seats in our legislatures. And despite 1992 being billed as the "Year of the Woman" in elections and in spite of the unprecedented number of women being elected to Congress, that institution continues to be 90% male.
Dissatisfaction with American elections has lead many Americans not to vote at all, or to desperately embrace instant candidates like Ross Perot or quick fix reforms like term limits.
But there is a better alternative- a fundamental structural reform that would make American elections more fair, provide voters with more meaningful choices, and produce legislatures that are more truly representative of the public. That reform is to rep lace our present single-member district plurality elections with a system of proportional representation (PR).
Many Americans view our current plurality system as being the most natural one- we assume most democracies elect members of their legislatures one at a time in districts, with the winner being the candidate with the most votes; a plurality. But in fact this system is considered to be outmoded and unfair by most other western democracies and they have deliberately rejected it in favor of an alternative system- proportional representation elections. Even the emerging democracies in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union that have rushed to embrace American capitalism have refused to seriously consider adopting American-style plurality elections. All have adopted some form of PR.
Among western nations, only the US Great Britain, Canada and New Zealand (first PR elections in 1996) continue to cling to plurality elections. And a serious public discussion about switching to proportional representation is currently taking place in all of these countries- except ours. Indeed, in New Zealand that debate culminated last fall in a national referendum on their election system, in which 85% endorsed a change to proportional representation.
The plurality system has been on the wane worldwide because it is often unfair and undemocratic. Among other things, it routinely denies representation to large portions of the electorate, artificially restricts the party choices offered to voters, and forms a barrier to the election of women and minorities to office.
The source of these fault can be traced to a fundamental flaw in the plurality system- it is designed to ensure representation only for the majority of voters in a district. Only those who vote for the winning candidate get any representation in this system. Everyone else- who may make up 49% of the electorate in a district- are considered losers who do not merit representation. All of those in the minority in a single-member district are thus effectively disenfranchised- their vote is worthless because it cannot serve to elect anyone to represent them.
We are all familiar with this problem. If you are a Democrat in a Republican district, a minor party supporter in any district, an African-American in a white district, or a white in a Hispanic district, then you are shut out by our plurality election system and you have no one to speak for you in the legislature. Under plurality rules you have the right to vote, but not the right to be represented. This electoral injustice is an inevitable part of the plurality system.
In contrast, PR is designed to ensure that all voters are able to elect their own representative, and to guarantee that all city, state, and federal legislatures accurately reflect the variety and strength of all the political perspectives present in the electorate. To achieve these aims, proportional representation systems use multi-member districts. Several candidates are elected in each district- at it is this arrangement that allows nearly all voters to elect someone to represent them and that allow s the seats to be divided up in proportion to the vote each party receives in the district.
For example, in a ten-seat district, a party winning 60% of the votes receives 6 of the 10 district seats, a party winning 20% of the vote wins 2 seats, and so on. Notice that parties need not get a plurality or majority of the votes to win representation. As a result, there are few wasted votes in PR elections, and even those in the minority are able to win their fair share of seats and to have a voice in the government. Although there are many different forms of PR in use worldwide, what they all share e is a commitment to empower all voters to ensure that all have fair representation in government.
In order to appreciate the many political advantages of PR, it is useful to imagine for a moment how American elections would be transformed if we were to adopt this system here in the United States.
First, we would see elections become a much more democratic and representative process. Tens of millions of Americans would no longer be wasting their votes. They would no longer be coming from the polling places with nothing to show for their efforts. Instead, nearly all voters- 80-90%- would have someone to represent them in the legislature, in contrast to the 50-60% that is common now in our plurality system. For the first time, nearly all citizens would have a voice in their government. They would have someone they can talk to in city hall or congress, and someone to promote their interests.
PR would also allow us to break the monopoly of the two major parties and create a true multiparty system in the US. Our current two party system severely restricts the choices of American voters- we can go into any shoe store in the US and have dozens o f styles to choose from, but when we go into the voting booth we have only two parties to choose from. It is ludicrous to believe that two parties can represent the wide variety of political opinions in the US- a fact that more and more of the public are now recognizing. A majority of Americans now say they would like to see other parties emerge to challenge the Democrats and Republicans, but our current plurality system makes it almost impossible for such minor parties to flourish. It requires that a candidate get a majority or plurality of the vote to get elected- and by definition, most minor party candidates cannot attract that many votes. Potential minor party supporters quickly realize that to vote for a minor party candidate who can't win is a waste of their vote, and so they reluctantly switch to a more "realistic" major party candidate. This plurality barrier explains why even though we have had over a thousand minor parties started in the US during the last two hundred years, virtually all have dies out relatively quickly.
Adopting PR would finally allow for free and fair competition among all political parties. Parties could get candidates elected even if they only receive 20-30% of the vote. Suddenly, minor parties would become viable in the US. For the first time- we could have a viable Green Party, or African-American, or Latino Party, or Tax Payers Party. Voters would finally have some real choices at the polls- not merely a choice between the lesser of two evils. Political campaigns would be re-invigorated, with a variety of candidates expressing different ideologies and offering different analyses of our pressing problems. The press would have to pay attention to minor party candidates, because they would now be realistic candidates with a good chance of being elected. And with a multi-party system, our city councils and state and federal legislatures would really reflect the true diversity and range of political views in the US.
Adopting PR in the US would allow racial and ethnic minorities to finally have their fair share of seats in our legislatures. Currently, African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians are severely underrepresented. For example, while African-Americans make up 11% of our population, they occupy less than 4% of elected offices in the US. The Hispanic population makes up almost 9% of the total US population, and yet currently only 4% of the seats in the House and none in the Senate are occupied by Hispanics (19 93).
PR is a simple and elegant way to ensure these minorities their fair share of political power. Whether they form their own parties or run as part of the slates of the established parties, minorities would quickly increase their numbers of legislative seats under PR rules. And it would do so while avoiding all the controversies and difficulties involved in the other current approach to their problem- the creation of single-member districts with a majority of minorities.
Another advantage of PR is that women would have a much better chance of being elected. The underrepresentation of women in our legislatures is another ongoing scandal in our political system. Even with the 1992 gains, women currently make up only about 11% of the US House and 6% of the Senate (1993)- figures that lag behind most PR countries PR countries typically have higher rates of female elected officials- for example, women occupy between 25 and 35 percent of the seats in the national legislature s in Scandinavia. This is primarily because women are nominated in much higher numbers as part of the party slates of candidates used in PR systems. Parties cannot leave women off their slates for fear of being accused of sexism. The adoption of PR in the US would be one of the most effective ways to quickly increase the number of women in elected office.
Proportional Representation would also increase voter participation in the US. Huge numbers of Americans are now so alienated from our elections that they don't bother to participate. Voter turnout continues its 30 year decline in the US- most people no w don't vote most of the time and this can only cast doubt on the democratic legitimacy of our elected governments. While democracies with proportional representation routinely enjoy voter turnout rates of 70, 80, and 90 percent, we are lucky to get 50 percent.
PR would encourage higher turnout for two reasons. First, in multi-party systems, it is easier to find a party and a candidate in which you believe- one that really reflects your particular political views. Second, there are no safe districts in PR, where the domination of the larger party discourages turnout. In our current system, there is no incentive for Democrats to turnout in districts dominated by Republicans. Under plurality rules, it makes no difference whether the Democratic candidates receive 10, 20, or 30 percent of the vote- they still will lose and their supporters will still have little reason to vote.
But under PR rules, all voters can elect someone, even those not in the largest party, and everyone then has a reason for voting. And in this system it does make a difference whether a party gets 2o or 30 percent of the vote; it has a direct impact on the number of seats they win. So in a PR system, there is a much greater incentive for all voters to turnout, and for parties to mobilize voters in every district.
Proportional representation would also eliminate gerrymandering. In single-member district systems, lines are often drawn to create district majorities that favor certain parties or incumbents, a cynical exercise designed to cheat some parties out of their fair share of seats. But PR uses large multi-member districts. It doesn't matter whether a party is a majority or a minority in such districts- all parties receive their fair share of seats. Gerrymandering becomes virtually impossible.
Of course, PR is not without its critics. Certainly the major parties and their entrenched politicians would not like the see PR come to the US. But the objections to PR offered by these critics are generally weak.
For example, some have suggested that multi-party systems and PR ballots would be too complicated and confusing for Americans. But this has not been the case for voters in other democracy where voter participation is usually dramatically higher than in t he US. Others have argued that PR creates unstable and short-lived governments, as in Italy. But such instability is rare; and more importantly, it is a potential problem only in parliamentary systems, not in a presidential system like ours, with its separation of powers. In addition, PR is often accused of making it easier for small extremist parties to elect candidates. But most PR countries set a threshold of votes that parties must cross to get any representation (Germany's is 5%). This keeps out almost all of these marginal extremist parties. Finally, critics suggest that the use of PR in the US would mean that voters would only be able to vote for parties- not individual candidates- and that they would lose their local district representatives. But this is not necessarily true. Several forms of PR, such as the additional member form used in Germany, allow voters to vote for individual candidates and to retain their local representatives.
Given the impressive advantages of PR, it is not surprising that it has become the election system of choice worldwide. It should be pointed out, however, that PR has not been a complete stranger her in the US. Between 1915 and 1964 almost two dozen cities experimented with PR elections. They included Ashtabula, Boulder, Sacramento, West Hartford, Wheeling, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo and New York. Today, Cambridge, Massachusetts still uses the single transferable vote for its city council and school board elections. The adoption of PR in these cities usually came as part of a package of city charter changes pushed by progressive forces as a way of reforming city government.
From all indications, PR worked quite well in these cities. It helped break the back of the corrupt party machines and it opened up the city governments to wider political representation. After the first PR election in Ashtabula, Ohio in 1915, an editorial in a local newspaper noted the new diversity of political viewpoints reflected in the new city council: "The drys and the wets are represented, the Protestants and the Catholics; the business, professional, and laboring men, the Republicans, Democrat s, and Socialists; the English, Swedes, and Italians are represented. IT would be hard to select a more representative council in any other way."
Of course, proportional representation has now largely disappeared from the US, but not because of any flaws in the system. In some cases PR was abandoned when other parts of the progressive reform package- like city manager- were abandoned by these cities. In many other cases, PR was eliminated because the political establishment in those cities resented sharing power. Leaders of the major parties worked relentlessly to get rid of PR- often mounting three or four repeal campaigns before becoming successful. In several cities, they focused on the fact that PR has allowed leftists or racial minorities to be elected to city councils, and they used explicitly racist or red-baited campaigns to help get rid of PR. In Cincinnati, for example, PR allowed for the election of two blacks to the city council in the 1950s. This was seen as so disconcerting to the white majority that a repeal effort was launched that eventually eliminated PR and the black councilors. In short, PR was usually attacked not because it didn't work, but because it did. Because it did work to allow racial and political minorities that were previously shut out of city government to finally receive some real representation- and it was this empowerment that so many established politicians found unpalatable.
There is an obvious lesson to be learned from the history of PR in the US: that despite its clear advantages over our present political system, it will not be an easy task to bring about proportional representation to this country. The political establishment will again oppose this kind of electoral reform. But as with other progressive changes that have taken place in this country, if the public is both sufficiently informed and organized, they can make this reform a reality. Given all its advantages, PR clearly deserves more serious attention from political activists and concerned citizens in this country. It should certainly be on the agenda of those groups working for progressive political change. Switching to proportional representation elections would be an important step in creating a more open, more just and more democratic political system in the United States.