Developments for Proportional Voting Around the World (Sept. 2005)

Around the world democracies ranging from economic superpowers to those conducting elections for the first time in decades have rejected U.S.-style winner-take-all elections in favor of proportional voting systems. This month, several nations, including Japan, Germany, New Zealand, Afghanistan, and Poland have conducted elections using some form of proportional or semi-proportional voting system. These elections provide clear lessons for the United States in demonstrating how a switch to a proportional voting system might solve some of the common political problems we face, such as under-representation of women, communities of color, and the full range of the political spectrum, as well as limited voter choice and poor voter participation.

British Columbia: Power to the Citizens

When faced with the prospect of having to choose the best electoral system for their province, the citizens of British Columbia, Canada recently rejected winner-take-all elections in favor of the choice voting method of proportional voting. A government sponsored Citizens Assembly was formed and 161 British Columbians were randomly selected from the provincial voters list.  For 10 months the Assembly studied, researched and debated different election systems.  They also held 50 public hearings, and received 1,603 written submissions from the public on their opinions about electoral reform.  At the end of the process the Assembly overwhelmingly endorsed choice voting and put the question before voters, where it won a stunning mandate, but nevertheless came a whisker short of the 60% it needed for passage. With the momentum continuing, however, the British Columbia government has promised to place the question on the ballot again in the November 2008 elections, and Ontario is looking to follow suit and place the recommendations of its own citizens assembly before voters in 2007.

[More on British Columbia’s 2008 Referendum]
[More on the British Columbia Citizens Assembly]

Japan: Comparing Voting Systems

In attempting to compare the pros and cons of various voting systems, different concerns must be balanced, including fair representation of all parties, women, racial and ethnic minorities. It is fairly simple to compare voting systems between countries, but an even better comparison exists where a nation uses both proportional and winner-take-all methods in a single election. Japanese parliamentary elections provide such a situation. Japanese parliamentary elections employ both a winner-take-all aspect and proportional voting aspect to fill the combined 480 seats. 300 of the seats are elected from single-member districts by a simple plurality, as in the United States. An additional 180 seats are elected based on a party list proportional representation system where seats are allocated to parties based roughly on the percentage the party won in the popular vote - but without regard for any distortions that might take place in representation in the district seats. Under Japan’s system, each voter selects their single district representative, but their vote also counts toward the nationwide total or that candidate’s political party. The fact of Japan having such a hybrid system in place allows for a comparison of how single-member districts skew representation when compared to proportional voting systems.

Prime Minister Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) members captured a combined 38.18% of the nationwide vote. This translated into the LDP winning an astounding 219 out of the 300 single member district seats up for grabs. This means that, under the single member district system, the LDP was able to capture 73% of the single member election seats available, despite having only won roughly 38% of the popular vote. In contrast, the LDP was awarded a more balanced number of 77 of the proportionally allocated seats representing roughly 42% of the 180 total proportional representation seats. Hence, it becomes clear that the single member system, when compared to a proportional allocation system, has the potential to greatly skew election outcomes away from fair results. In fact, the over-representation of the LDP through the single member district seats was so severe that even with the inclusion of the proportional seats, the LDP still holds 61% of the total parliamentary seats – almost 23% more seats than their share of the vote would warrant. It is through the winner-take-all single member system that Japan now has a political party with the support of less than half of voters holding more than half of the parliamentary seats.

[See FairVote’s Analysis of Japan’s 2005 Parliamentary Elections]
[Coverage of Japan’s Elections]

Afghanistan: Rejecting Winner-Take-All

Afghanistan’s voters recently took part in historic parliamentary elections, after a decades-long democracy hiatus – and notably rejected winner-take-all systems in favor of a semi-proportional system known as limited voting (aka the single non-transferable vote). Though the results won’t be known for several weeks, almost 5,800 candidates competed for the 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga which is the lower parliamentary house of Afghanistan and for seats on 34 provincial councils. The nation consists of multimember, at-large districts where representative are elected under a one-vote form of limited voting, with the number of seats allocated to a province determined by its population, although each will be guaranteed a minimum of two seats. However many seats there are to be filled, each voter was given only one vote. This ensures that a group making up 51% of the population cannot swamp 100% of the seats, and that minority groups and parties will have a chance to win their fair share of representation.

The Afghan constitution also sets aside a quota of seats in the Wolesi Jirga to be allocated to women, amounting in total to roughly one quarter of the entire assembly. Within each voting district, the highest female vote-getters will be awarded a predetermined number of seats, regardless of their position in the overall vote totals. In principle, the number of female designated seats is equivalent to 2 per province. However, in provinces with only two representatives, only one will be mandated female, the difference being made up in other more populous regions. The Wolesi Jirga has reserved seats for female candidates as well as a quarter of the provincial council seats. Ten seats are reserved for the Kuchi, a nomadic ethnic group in Afghanistan. Because many constituents are illiterate and as many as 80% of Afghan women are illiterate, candidates have a signature number and icon attributed to them. Voters were given two ballots with one vote, one ballot for parliamentary elections, the other for provincial council, and ballots contained the number icon and picture of the candidate.

While this first election posed numerous challenges, including allegations of vote-buying and threats of violence keeping voter turnout around 50%, Afghanistan should be applauded for taking the first step toward a proportional voting democracy. Early plans were for the nation to adopt a more proportional party list voting system. Unfortunately, this was later abandoned, and instead the country adopted limited voting due to its simplicity. As Afghanistan moves forward in its democratic evolution, we hope that they will later revisit their electoral design and move towards a more proportional system.

[Information about Afghanistan’s Elections]
[Coverage of Afghanistan’s Elections]

Germany and New Zealand: Voters Vote Their Consciences in Close Elections

Another economic powerhouse, Germany, recently held parliamentary elections for the lower house of parliament called the Bundestag. Germany uses the Additional Member/Mixed Member form of proportional voting. Voters are each allocated two votes, one for their district representative (as in the U.S. House elections) and one for their party of choice. The result of the party vote gives extra seats proportional to the percentage of the popular vote. However a party must win 5% of the popular vote in order to win any kind of representation. As of 2002 there were 603 seats available. The two major competing parties are Prime Minister Gerhard Schroeder’s Socialist Democratic Union and the challengers, Angel Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. Early polls showed that this would be a very tight race, indeed the final results indicate that the two major parties came in with 34% and 35% respectively, indicating neither had a bare majority. The result has been that either party would need to reach out to smaller parties to form a ruling government, or alternatively would have to form a large cooperative bipartisan government. Notably, smaller parties in Germany receive a fairer share of representation than under winner-take-all systems, with the Greens, the Left Party, and the Free Democrats consequently each receiving between 8% and 9% of the total vote. This may help explain why voter turnout was much higher than in the United States, at approximately 78%. This dynamic prompted one commentator to note: “I see it as an example of the superiority of a multi-party system that gives voters serious chances to register their choices in politics….  Instead of voting for Merkel because she was not Schroeder, or voting for Schroeder because he was not Merkel, the electorate, an important section of which wants neither of them, had choices – unlike their counterparts in the U.S.”

[Read coverage of German elections]

A similar result occurred in New Zealand’s recent parliamentary elections, where the ruling Labor Party and the opposition National Party ran evenly, obtaining 50 and 49 seats respectively, out of a total 122. Six smaller parties earned a combined 23 seats, ensuring the major parties need to reach out to them in order to obtain a genuine legislative majority.

[Read coverage of New Zealand’s elections]
[Article: New Zealanders Choose PR]
[Article: Why New Zealanders Chose MMP]

Poland: Center-Right Parties Displace Leftwing Government

Demonstrating that proportional voting systems don't just benefit left-leaning political parties, Poland's recent parliamentary elections saw a center-right government displacing the incumbent leftist coalition. The Polish Assembly consists of 460 members elected proportionally in multimember districts, with a threshold of five percent of votes needed to earn seats. The Polish Senate consists of 100 members elected by the simple plurality method of winner-take-all.

The nation's two largest conservative parties captured a shared majority, with the Law and Justice Party earning nearly 27% of the vote and the free-market, flat-tax Civic Platform party earning nearly 24% of the vote. With this 51% share of the total vote, the conservative coalition is projected to win 293 of the 460 Assembly seats for a 64% legislative majority. In the Senate, the coalition is expected to 76% of the 100 seat. Notably, the winner-take-all election method used for the Polish Senate resulted in a larger distortion of the elections results than for the Assembly, pointing to one of the consistent problems with using such methods. Nevertheless, these election results demonstrate how conservatives can gain through proportional voting systems, but more importantly how qualitative changes can also occur. In particular, the proportional voting system allows the conservative parties to each run candidates without fear of splitting their base of conservative voters. In doing so, each of the parties was able to maintain key policy goals and their distinct character, without having to homogenize under a larger and broader single conservative party, as occurs in the United States.

[Read Coverage of Polish Elections]

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