Few Americans would challenge the fact that we face a disturbing decay in civic and political involvement. Political reform has become a priority of many public interest organizations which recognize the significance of reform to the achievement of their policy goals. These reformers argue correctly that we face a fundamental crisis of representative democracy: the majority of adults do not participate regularly in electoral politics and have extremely limited choice when they do participate.
A movement to reform American systems of voting has grown dramatically in recent years. Many Americans still are learning the basic language of voting system reform, but the greater the understanding of the range of possible voting systems and their likely impact, the more that adoption of proportional voting systems is winning support as a sensible complement to other important reforms.
Full Representation Voting Systems
Proportional representation (PR) describes a range of voting systems used in most democracies. The principle of PR is that parties or individuals should win seats in legislative assemblies in proportion to their share of the popular vote. The more voters who have the opportunity to elect candidates of choice, the more "proportional" the results will be. PR contrasts with U.S.-style "winner-take-all" plurality elections in which only a plurality of voters in a subjectively defined area wins representation.
One way to measure representativeness is to determine the percentage of eligible voters who help elect candidates of choice. In the 1994 elections to the House of Representatives, barely 22% of eligible voters helped elect candidates. In contrast, over 75% of Germany's eligible voters in their 1994 national elections with a PR system helped elect candidates. At the same time, these German voters had a far wider range of choice than the (at best) two choices provided to American voters for House elections.
Such statistics demonstrate why PR has a more direct impact on political power than other political reforms: winning seats means winning a direct share of power. PR makes power more accessible by increasing the number of effective votes and the diversity of winners. In plurality voting, most elected officials -- including all members of the House -- come from "single-member districts," where winning requires gaining the most votes in that district. Up to 50% of votes in a race often are "wasted" on losers despite voters often having only two choices; in a three-person race, a majority can waste their votes, as is regularly true in winner-take-all elections in Canada, India and Great Britain.
Spreading political power, providing voters with more choices and allowing more segments of society to earn a place at the table of policy-making are all important steps to providing greater long-term stability for our democracy. When only one in five eligible voters is electing someone to the House of Representatives and when most of those fortunate voters live in congressional districts with essentially uncompetitive contests, the "political center" is not grounded in the reality of what the majority of voters truly want. When government is not representative, its actions are more likely to ignore large segments of society and citizens are more likely to reject the legitimacy of its proposed policies.
A Credible and Meaningful Reform
Theoretical arguments for PR voting systems often are quickly accepted by American reformers, but historically many have questioned the viability of a movement to adopt PR. Some have mistaken PR to be a monolith that could be measured by how it operated in one other nation (an Israel or Italy, for example) rather than simply being a principle that describes a range of systems that are working extremely well in many democracies. Others mistakenly believe that PR's implementation would require constitutional change or demand overly dramatic changes in our political culture.
The fact is that there are forms of PR that make sense for every kind of legislative election. Candidate-based systems like preference voting could be used to elect local governments, state legislatures and congressional delegations within states, while party-based systems for state and congressional elections could maintain some single-member districts, as with Germany's "mixed" PR system.
A movement for PR in fact already had relative success in the United States earlier this century. Citizen initiatives led to the adoption of preference voting for city council elections in two dozen cities, including New York, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Worcester and Sacramento. Preference voting invariably was successful in achieving its reformers' primary goal: undercutting the power of one-party political machines. Unfortunately, this success led to these machines' unrelenting hostility. Although only two of the first 26 attempts to repeal preference voting in cities around the nation were successful, the formerly dominant political forces eventually outlasted reformers and -- with the help of racist and anti-leftist appeals -- repealed preference voting in all cities except Cambridge (MA).
Implementing PR systems at all levels of government would increase vitality in our democracy, ensure fairer representation of our society's diversity in elected bodies and assist local, state and national governments in their efforts toward solving the complex and contentious issues facing our nation. PR systems are not a panacea, but they could provide dramatic improvements in how Americans interact with their government.
The Center: Catalyst and Clearinghouse
The Center for Voting and Democracy researches and disseminates information on electoral systems that promote voter participation and fair representation -- primarily PR systems in which most voters elect candidates of their choice. Its mission is founded on a belief that, once introduced as a possible reform, PR holds up well to scrutiny in a wide range of circumstances. Just as PR empowers voters by giving them more information and more choices, information about PR provides an important opportunity to understand our democracy and possible ways to reform it.
The Center acts as a national clearinghouse on voting system reform and a catalyst for consideration of voting system changes. Founded in 1992 and funded primarily by individuals and small private grants, the Center has pursued educational projects that in general have sought to distribute information about voting systems to people able to use this information in decisions about whether to support or adopt PR systems.
Here is a partial rundown of our activities. Representatives of the Center recently have:
- addressed the Voting Section of the U. S. Department of Justice, the annual meetings of the National Association of Counties and the National Conference of State Legislatures and several student groups and groups of foreign visitors through the United States Information Agency;
- been panelists at annual conferences of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and Natl. Rainbow Coalition;
- testified in special sessions before charter commissions in Nassau County (NY), Miami Beach (FL) and Detroit (MI) and advised other cities;
- worked closely with government officials and community leaders seeking to reform New York's Community School Board elections;
- toured New Zealand at the invitation of electoral reformers during a successful 1993 referendum campaign in that country to adopt a PR system.
We also are frequent source for print, radio and television journalists and have been guests on numerous radio and television programs. In addition, I have been asked to edit a quarterly column on PR for the National Civic Review and to serve on the National Civic League's Advisory Committee for its Voting Rights Act in Local Governance.
Keys to Success: A Dedicated Board and Membership
While I am responsible for daily operations in our Washington, D.C. office, the Center is governed by a broadly representative Board of Directors that includes: New Yorker magazine executive editor Hendrik Hertzberg; Center for New Democracy executive director Donna Edwards; Joyce Foundation vice-president Lawrence Hansen; civil rights attorney Edward Still; Ballot Access chair of the Libertarian Party William Redpath; grassroots activists Carolyn Campbell, George Friday, Theresa Reed and George Pillsbury; National Civic Review editor David Lampe; former Cincinnati vice-mayor Marian Spencer; Cambridge (MA) civic leader David Leslie; political consultant Cynthia Terrell; and Matthew Cossolotto and Wilma Rule, authors of books on comparative politics.
Board members and other volunteers play an essential role in our work. Among many examples:
- Board member Edward Still prepared a friend-of-the-court brief in support of cumulative voting in a prominent voting rights case;
- Board Secretary Howard Fain organized a PR forum in Worcester (MA) that led to favorable press coverage and serious community interest;
- Board member Marian Spencer organized our 1994 Champion of Democracy ceremony that drew over half the Cincinnati city council and hundreds of others to honor 1994 winner Theodore Berry and 1993 winner Lani Guinier;
- Board chair Matthew Cossolotto wrote commentaries for the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor and several other national publications;
- Board vice-chair Cynthia Terrell organized a research analysis of the 1994 congressional elections that led to our well-received Dubious Democracy report (which is summarized in chapter 3);
- West Coast coordinator Steven Hill helped start Seattle's current campaign for preference voting and was the central reason that the Elections Task Force of San Francisco recommended putting PR systems before votes in a referendum;
- California activist Jim Lindsay wrote a ballot-counting computer program for preference voting that was used in a well-received study for Cambridge (MA) on computerizing its ballot count;
- North Carolina member Lee Mortimer drafted a proportional plan for his state's congressional elections that received in-depth attention in the New York Times and on National Public Radio;
- Advisory Board Research Chair Douglas Amy wrote requested articles on PR for four publications, including the journal of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council.
Beyond the Record: The Center's Catalyst Role
Beyond its concrete record, the Center can claim more intangible successes in raising the issue of PR in a variety of contexts. Simply put, three years ago PR was rarely discussed in national circles. Due to a lack of information -- and indeed, disinformation about how PR systems work in the many other democracies using them -- most public interest leaders and elected officials dismissed without debate the possibility of voting system reform in the United States. Today:
- Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) is introducing legislation to allow states to adopt forms of PR for Congressional elections.
- State legislatures in North Carolina, California and Washington have held hearings on PR, in each case hearing from members of the Center.
- An elections task force in San Francisco recommended that city voters choose among four voting systems, including three forms of PR, in a citywide referendum that may take place in 1996.
- Other charter commissions -- again, all of which have sought and received information from the Center -- in Oakland (CA), Detroit (MI), Santa Fe (NM), Cincinnati(OH), Missoula (MT) and Miami Beach (FL) are seriously considering PR.
- Initiative campaigns to adopt PR are underway in Eugene (OR) and Seattle (WA).
- Influential leaders and commentators like Ralph Nader, Jesse Jackson, Kevin Phillips, Michael Lind and Eleanor Smeal -- all of whom receive information from the Center -- are promoting PR.
- Several organizations such as the Center for Policy Alternatives and Americans for Democratic Action have advocated consideration of PR after meeting with Center representatives.
- Columnists for papers like the Washington Post, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Chicago Tribune and New York Times have touted PR and the Center.
Goals for 1995-1996
The Center is committed to ensuring that PR systems are viable options for cities and states that must draw new district lines after the U.S. census in 2000. Toward achieving this decade-long goal, the Center already is working on the following projects:
- Increasing production and dissemination of multi-media educational materials, including a series of factsheets, the Center's already-developed slide show on PR and an information video.
- Forming coalitions of individuals and organizations to seek local, state and national commissions to examine voting systems and other electoral reforms.
- Studying PR in communities that have adopted it to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act and disseminate study results to other communities.
- Researching past national, state and local elections and developing alternative electoral plans that could be used for future elections.
- Providing technical assistance in implementation of PR for both private organizations (such as university campuses) and governmental bodies.
- Opening a comprehensive and up-to-date resource library on the history of voting systems in the United States and around the world.
- Improving communication between experts in comparative voting systems and organizations providing overseas assistance in elections.
- Increasing the profile of our annual Champion of Democracy awards.
- Developing curriculum for teaching about voting systems at K-12 and university levels with the assistance of the many educators who have joined the Center.
- Hiring regional coordinators on the West Coast, New England, Southeast and other regions to work closely with grassroots reformers in states.
- Training reformers to give presentations on voting systems to schools and community groups.
- Holding a national conference on November 11-12 in Boston (MA).
The Center's successes have come with relatively small expenses. Through the work of volunteers, the partial donation of time by its director and careful use of resources, the Center has had an impact far beyond what might be indicated by its budget. Yet additional support is critical to move the debate about PR to the next level where actual adoption and implementation is possible.
To finance this growth, the Center has approached a number of foundations -- one of which, the HKH Foundation, recently gave the Center its first general operating expenses grant -- and expects to receive more support soon. Meanwhile, it remains grateful to its dedicated members who provide the foundation for its work.
Voting and Democracy Report: 1995
I believe that Voting and Democracy Report: 1995 will be helpful to a wide range of readers. Organized into several broad subject categories, its 78 articles include up-to-date reports on recent elections and electoral changes and arguments for political reform, with a particular emphasis on PR.
Chapter One makes the case for PR in the United States. Former Member of Congress John Anderson, who chairs our Advisory Board, leads off with an article about how PR would open up American politics. Other contributions include arguments for PR from the political left and political right.
Our 1995 report has four "Spotlights" that focus on particular subjects after Chapters One, Four, Five and Six. In this year's spotlight are: examples of testimony for PR; preference voting in Cambridge (MA); our slide show on preference voting; and the historic 1994 elections in South Africa.
Chapter Two looks back at the history of the movement for PR in the United States. Included are the writings of Charles Buckalew, who was a strong voice for PR in the United States Senate in the 1860s, excerpts from Kathleen Barber's important new book Proportional Representation and Election Reform in Ohio and a history of the single-member district law for Congressional elections.
Chapter Three examines the 1994 elections in the United States and their depressingly low voter turnout and general lack of competition. Chapter Four reviews the use and consideration of PR for local election. It includes several articles on cumulative voting, ranging from Robert Brischetto's review of how cumulative voting worked in 16 recent Texas elections to Richard Timpone's intriguing study of the impact of different voting systems. The chapter ends with my critique of cumulative voting as a general reform option and reports on upcoming city campaigns for preference voting.
Chapter Five analyzes why PR systems have drawn so much attention in voting rights cases, with several important articles. They include our amicus brief in a cumulative voting case by Edward Still and Pamela Karlan, Steven Mulroy's review of U.S. Justice Department policy on PR and Samuel Issacharoff's provocative analysis of how recent Supreme Court rulings may have destabilized single-member district elections in the United States.
Chapter Six provides a comprehensive analysis of the full range of political reform movements in the United States, with insightful articles on presidential election reform, "motor voter" implementation, new voting technologies, campaign finance reform, term limitations, partisan gerrymandering, ballot access, fusion, "none of the above" voting, the Senate filibuster, congressional reform, the "information superhighway" and representation of women.
Chapter Seven focuses on elections and electoral reform around the world. Authors analyze recent elections in El Salvador, Mexico, Brazil, Italy, Sweden, Germany, Hungary, Poland and Europe (for the European parliament). Other articles address the impact and prospective impact of reforms in New Zealand, Japan, Israel and Italy. Also included are updates on reform movements in two other winner-take-all democracies, Canada and the United Kingdom, and analysis of different method for increasing representation of women and minorities. The chapter ends with a survey of election methods around the world and acknowledgement of the passing of author and leading British reformer Enid Lakeman and several American reformers.
After this introduction, you will find short arguments made for PR from our members. They reflect both the diverse reasons why many people like PR and the perceptiveness of our members.
Is Voting and Democracy Report: 1995 complete? Of course not, with such a large subject. Nevertheless, I am proud to accept ultimate responsibility for the report's contents, yet quick to acknowledge the invaluable contributions of my wife and colleague Cynthia Terrell, our dedicated student coordinator Karen Taggart and reviewers Thomas Lundberg and David and Catherine Richie. Finally, this report would not be possible without the many authors who donated their time and energy. I thank them for their skill, knowledge and patience.
Rob Richie has directed The Center for Voting and Democracy since its formation in 1992.