Full Representation: Proportional Systems Promote Inclusion, Deliberation and Better Policy
Spring 1998
The National Civic Review

President Bill Clinton began his second term in 1997 with an optimistic inaugural address in which he urged Americans to "keep our old democracy forever young." Among our nation's foremost challenges, he warned, will be "the divide of race," but that: "Our rich texture of racial, religion and political diversity will be a godsend in the 21st century. Great rewards will come to those who can live together, learn together, work together, forge new ties that bind together." Few Americans would dispute this vision, but it is not merely individual attitudes that govern the tolerance of diversity in our communities. Institutions and their rules play a major role in relations among people, and one of the most significant rules in a community is the one determining how citizens can win and sustain legislative representation and a fair share of power in a competitive electoral environment. Just as consumer choice and buying power are the foundation of a free market economy, citizen choices and voting power are at the foundation of a responsive and inclusive democracy. The rules governing citizens' choices and voting power have a great impact on who runs, who votes and who wins. Unfortunately, most American cities use antiquated "winner-take-all" rules that too often divide us and undercut accountability. Despite the president's charge to keep our democracy young, we all too easily accept these electoral rules simply because we inherited them. Indeed, President Clinton himself in 1993 cut short a healthy national debate about our general use of winner-take-all elections when he withdrew his nomination of University of Pennsylvania law professor Lani Guinier to head the civil rights division of the Justice Department. To increase turnout and diversify representation Guinier had proposed consideration of proportional and semi-proportional representation voting systems and even more challenging ideas about ensuring minority influence in legislative bodies. Even though most mature democracies use proportional systems and even though the Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and Bush had upheld their adoption in many communities, she was demonized as a "quota queen" and never given a chance to explain her writings in a congressional hearing. Recent city elections show that Guinier's concerns about representation and participation are valid. Turnout continued its plunge in elections around the country this year. In New York City's Democratic primary -- a primary that decided mayoral nominees and the de facto winners for most city council seats -- turnout among registered Democrats was only 18%. Detroit's mayoral primary turnout was 17%; in Charlotte, it was 6.4%. General election turnout was under 40% in Miami and New York City and under 30% in Boston. Incumbents generally won in walkover elections, with one party holding near-monopoly control in many city councils. Our city halls are more racially diverse than they were a generation ago -- in part because of demographic changes, in part because of implementation of the Voting Rights Act and in part because of decreasing racism. Now the Supreme Court has put severe limitations on traditional methods of increasing representation of black, Latino, Asian and Native American voters through redistricting wards to have majorities of targeted minority voters. Many cities may have less diverse representatives after the next redistricting in 2001. Regardless, they could face expensive legal battles from plaintiffs on both sides of the controversy. But even in ward elections drawn to encourage representation of racial minorities, winner-take-all rules put geographic straitjackets on diversity and restrict accountability by limiting competition. In contrast, non-winner-take-all voting systems -- historically called "proportional representation," but perhaps better understood as "full representation" -- promote a more modern, cosmopolitan vision of a city. Representatives are more likely to emerge from communities of interest than personal ambition. At the same time, the major political forces are more likely to support candidates that represent these different communities such that a political force's slate of candidates fully represents the "big tent" of voters from whom it seeks support. As a result, city councils are more likely to represent a "gorgeous mosaic" of overlapping interests and groups. Cities become all the stronger and more stable by giving diverse communities real incentives to participate and realistic access to the making of public policy. Electing the candidate who wins the most votes in a given area reflects a crude understanding of elections. True, winner-take-all elections were how the early democracies held elections, but their serious limitations have led most democracies to reject them. There is a range of proportional voting systems -- some candidate-based and some party-based, some with a mix of wards, some in relatively small multi-seat districts and some citywide ---- but nearly every political jurisdiction in the United States rather blindly follows traditional winner-take-all models. As we head toward the 21st century, it is high time that we re-examine our 18th-century electoral rules.

What is Proportional Representation?

Proportional representation (PR) is a principle of representative democracy, not a particular voting mechanism. Most mature democracies use forms of PR, although they vary widely in the threshold of votes necessary to win representation and the relative role of political parties: important differences that mean PR cannot be judged by its performance in any one nation or city. Of the 36 nations with at least two million people and a top rating from the human rights organization Freedom House, 30 use PR systems for their central national legislature; only the United States, Canada and Jamaica exclusively use winner-take-all elections for all national elections. PR can have a positive impact on campaign conduct, the fairness of representation, voter turnout, the role of money in politics and governance. The principle of proportional representation is that groups of like-minded voters (partisan or non-partisan) should win seats in legislative assemblies in proportion to their share of the popular vote. With PR the majority wins its right to decide, but a minority wins its fair share at the table of representation. Thus, in a city council election for nine seats, a political force with at least ten percent of voters throughout the city should earn one seat. A force with 51% support should earn five seats, and so on. Another way to understand PR is that most voters will elect a candidate of their choice: the more voters who have the opportunity to elect candidates of choice, the "fuller" the results will be. In contrast, U.S.-style winner-take-all elections allow a majority (or even a simple plurality) of voters in a given geographically-defined district -- a district usually created to achieve certain political results -- to win all the representation for that area. In an at-large, winner-take-all election, one group of voters can elect nearly all the winners. Adoption of single-member ward elections may break up a citywide majority, but it simply transfers distorted representation down to a neighborhood level. When one winner "takes all" in a ward election, 51% of voters (and less when there are more than two strong candidates) win the right to speak for the other 49%. Proportional representation systems can be party-based, as in much of Europe and in South Africa in its 1994 elections. They also can be completely non-partisan, as in city council elections in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Peoria, Illinois. Historically, the National Civic League has most strongly supported "the single transferable vote" -- a system also known as "preference voting" and "choice voting" because voters rank candidates in order of preference. Choice voting was included in the League's model city charter for much of this century, and at one time was used for city council elections in New York, Cincinnati and Cleveland. Other non-winner-take-all systems currently used in the United States are cumulative voting and limited voting (see sidebar).

General Benefits of Proportional Representation

Comparative political scientists have attributed a number of benefits to use of proportional representation (PR). Among them are:

Voter participation: Voter turnout is generally 10% to 15% higher in nations that have PR than in similar nations using plurality elections. This difference is logical. In the United States, a majority of legislative elections are not competitive. The average margin of victory in U.S. House elections is consistently over 30%. Usually, the lower the level of election, the lower the level of competition and participation. One-third of state legislative elections consistently do not draw even two major party candidate. Most cities have little real competition in council races; in 1997, only one of New York City's 51 city council seats was closer than a 10% victory margin, and all 45 Democratic winners received "landslide" percentages of over 60%. The sad reality is that voters in non-competitive wards -- whether in the majority or in the minority -- might better use their time and resources to send a check to candidates they like in more competitive races rather than vote in their own. In PR systems, winning fair representation is dependent on voter turnout. When nearly every vote will help a party win more seats -- regardless of a party's level of support in a particular area -- voters have more incentive to participate, and parties have every incentive to mobilize their supporters. Perhaps just as importantly, parties and other electoral organizations have every incentive to keep their supporters informed in order to hold onto their support; studies show that informed citizens are more likely to vote.

Fair minority representation: When winning seats does not require a majority of the vote, minorities of all kinds by definition have a better opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. Indeed, the history of proportional representation around the world and when used in the United States is an excellent one for representation of minorities. And fair minority representation means better majority representation because together different minorities can constitute a majority. In addition to winning a fair share of seats, minorities also have greater opportunities to negotiate for influence, since they have more options for whom to vote. When South Africa held elections using PR in 1994, the two leading parties ran multi-racial slates with messages of inclusion. When New Zealand had its first PR election in 1996, the first Asian citizen was elected, and Pacific Islanders and indigenous Maori tripled their representation. In addition, a Maori-backed party formed a coalition government with the governing party -- a party that in recent years had had few Maori representatives, in a way analogous to the Republican Party's relationship with blacks in the United States. PR has the twin benefits of encouraging minority communities to mobilize and giving them access to power. From 1925 to 1955, Cincinnati used the choice voting form of PR to elect a nine-seat city council. In 1929, when blacks were barely 10% of the population, a black independent candidate ran a strong campaign. In the next election, he was added to the Republican party's slate and was elected. In 1947, when blacks were 15% of the population, a former president of the Cincinnati NAACP ran in large part to defend the choice voting system that was under attack from Republicans seeking to restore their old domination of the council. In a recognition that any substantial group of voters could not be ignored, the other major slate (the Charter-Democrats) added him to their slate in 1949. He was elected, resulting in black representatives holding two of nine seats for the next four years. For the remaining choice voting elections, both parties competed for the black vote.

More women in office: The percentage of women elected to office in the United States -- only 11% of the U.S. Congress -- is scandalously low, particularly in light of the relative strength of the American women's movement compared to other nations and particularly when studies show that women legislators do often provide substantively different representation. Although the connection is less conclusive for local elections, studies show that women in state legislative elections win seats in significantly higher percentages in multi-seat districts than in one-seat districts -- double in some states with a mix of systems. The major reasons for this difference are that women are more likely to run and voters are more likely to seek gender balance when there is more than one seat to fill. PR systems give women additional leverage to force the major parties to support more women candidates because women have an opportunity to vote for smaller, more women-friendly parties. A threat to do so by women supporters of the major parties in Sweden in 1994 led to an increase of women in the legislature to 41%. New Zealand and Germany are among a growing number of democracies that use systems with a mix of district and PR seats. Instructively, women are three times more likely to win seats elected by PR than elected in one-seat districts. In 1996 in New Zealand, women won 45% of PR seats and 15% of districts seats; in 1994 in Germany, women won 39% of PR seats and only 13% of district seats.

Elimination of gerrymandering: Drawing district lines to influence who wins has taken place virtually     from the first redistricting -- the term "gerrymander" refers to a Massachusetts district plan drawn in 1815. But gerrymandering has become far more potent in an era of powerful computers, more detailed census information and better techniques for measuring voter preferences. As one example, Democrats in control of the redistricting process in Texas in 1991 placed the eight Republican incumbents in districts that were among the most conservative in the nation. These incumbents were easily re-elected in 1992, but Democrats won 21 of the remaining 22 seats with only 50% of the statewide vote. Only one race was won by less than 10%, and the three open seats went to state legislators serving on redistricting committees. Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, the primary architect of the plan, admitted in 1997 that the redistricting process "is not one of kindness. It is not one of sharing. It is a power grab." Although political intentions can be removed from the redistricting process, as in Iowa's process, political results are unavoidable -- some districts inevitably will be non-competitive. Gerrymandering of any sort is much more difficult with PR systems. The fewer the percentage of votes that can be "wasted" on losing candidates -- 49% in a winner-take-all race, but less than 20% in a five-seat PR election -- the more likely the voters will be the ones who choose their representatives rather than legislators choosing their constituents through gerrymandering.

Governance from the center with representation of the wings: The core principle of PR is that a majority should decide a policy issue after a debate of the whole. Like a town meeting, debate should include as many voices as possible without disrupting efficiency. Unlike many town meetings -- where policies are often debated and decided in one night -- this debate takes place in the context of a deliberative, legislative process in which issues are fully discussed and opportunities to negotiate are plentiful. One clear difference between PR and most winner-take-all elections is that in PR election, both major parties -- and perhaps smaller parties -- likely will win representation from the same geographic area. When the major parties co-exist in a given constituency, all constituents have access to representatives with both the governing party and with the main opposition party. No geographic area -- or type of area, as is now true of American urban areas that have few Republican representatives -- is likely to be isolated politically. The Chicago Tribune in 1995 editorialized for the return of the non-winner-take-all system of cumulative voting in three-seat districts for state legislative elections (see sidebar). Tribune editors wrote:

"[Cumulative voting] guaranteed the relative strengths of the two parties would be reflected in the legislature, but every region of the state would also have substantial representation in each party's caucus.... The intermeshing of political and regional interests has all but disappeared in the 15 years since cumulative voting was abolished.... [M]any partisans and political independents have looked back wistfully at the era of cumulative voting. They acknowledge that it produced some of the best and brightest in Illinois politics."

The Tribune's remarks point to two other important facts. First, even a limited modification of winner-take-all voting -- Illinois' three-seat districts still left a high threshold of 25% necessary to win seats -- is likely to have important benefits. Second, "third" parties and independent political forces often play a constructive role in governance and campaigns. A two-party system can be very polarizing, with each side playing "zero sum" confrontational tactics founded on the fact that loss of support for one party has nowhere to go but to the other. Having more choices across the spectrum can break down that polarization, and allow a governance that more consistently reflects majority interests. A particularly revealing April 1994 essay in World Politics describes the "Proportionate Influence Vision" of democracy, in which "elections are designed to produce legislatures that reflect the preferences of all citizens." The article contrasts this vision with the "Majority Control Vision" -- one in which "democratic elections are designed to create strong, single-party majority governments that are essentially unconstrained by other parties in the policy-making process." In their statistical comparison of 12 democracies in Europe regarding how citizen preferences are translated into public policy, they concluded that "The governments in the Proportionate Influence systems are on average significantly closer to their median voter than are governments in the Majority Control and Mixed systems....If voters are presented with a wide range of choices and electoral outcomes are proportional, governments tend to be closer to the median." In short, governance is more likely to take place at the center, but fair representation of the wings provides an ongoing mechanism to shift this center and transform governance. Opposition voices will be heard, and their ideas are far more likely to be debated. If their ideas draw growing attention, the major parties will adjust accordingly in order to hold onto their supporters.

Expanding discourse: Winner-take-all elections -- especially in the present era of attack ads and focus groups -- can make it extremely difficult to have reasoned political debate on certain contentious issues. These issues can take on great symbolic weight for swing voters, who ironically gain the most electoral influence in our system by being among the relatively few who are detached from regular support of either party. At this point in our political history, for example, it is unlikely that a non-incumbent could run a credible campaign for president or most statewide offices with a position against the death penalty -- certainly a reasonable position, even if arguable -- which has come to represent being "tough" on crime. It is difficult for candidates to take nuanced positions on a range of issues, from drug policy to abortion rights to welfare reform. This freezing of debate makes it all the harder to change policy in the future. When legislative candidates can be assured of winning despite garnering less than 50% of the vote, it is far easier to have a full and serious dialogue on such issues in campaigns and in legislatures -- and thus in the public realm as a whole, since the major media often works within the confines of the "legitimate" positions of currently elected officials. The value of calmer, more reasoned voices perhaps can be symbolized by the movie "Twelve Angry Men," in which Henry Fonda's quiet skepticism ultimately results in reversal of the verdict of the eleven other jurors. This opening of discourse is important not only at a national and state level, within given legislative districts. One of the reasons that many districts stay "safe" for one party is that political debate within these districts can be stifled. No one takes campaigns in the district seriously, and the second-place party often writes off the district and puts few resources there. Franked mail from the legislator offers only one viewpoint. Opposition views are simply not heard or largely ignored.

How American Electoral Rules Developed

The American founders were at the forefront of intellectual and scientific thought in the 18th century. The Constitution was carefully crafted, based on a mix of reasoned debate, empirical study and states' competing interests. Yet the Constitution is silent on methods of election for the U.S. Congress. Proportional representation was not discussed for the very simple reason that no mechanism had been developed to allow voters in the minority to elect candidates. The principle was touted -- indeed, John Adams wrote that "[American legislatures] should be an exact portrait, in miniature, of the people at large, as it should think, feel, reason, and act like them." But the only voting systems available were both winner-take-all: elections in multi-seat districts -- usually at-large -- and ones in single-member districts. Most states used statewide elections to elect their U.S. House delegations during the 1790s. Gradually, more and more states moved to district elections. One reason was to guarantee local representation, but for many the move was driven by an interest in better representing diversity. Statewide elections tended to allow one political party's candidates to win all the seats, diluting the votes of those in the minority. Many of these elections were quite close, but one party would win all. In 1832 and 1834, for example, the Democrats swept New Jersey's six at-large U.S. House seats despite barely 1,000 votes separating the top Democrat from the lowest Republican in each election. Reformers sought district elections to diversify representation. In retrospect, proportional representation systems would have been the sensible approach, but the first articles detailing mechanisms of PR were not published until the mid-1840s and not widely circulated until John Stuart Mill's advocacy in the 1860s. The most influential early advocate of PR in the United States was Charles Buckalew, a U.S. Senator from Pennsylva-nia, 1865-1871. Sen. Buckalew's pro-posals gained significant sup-port in Congress, and he played a central role in the adoption of cumu-lative voting in several cities and in Illinois for state legislative elec-tions (see sidebar). But earlier in his career he had been an advocate of district elections. In an 1867 speech Buckalew sheds light on the motivations of district reformers and what might have happened if they had known about PR 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 [of Pennsylvania] by which your city is bro-ken into [sin-gle member] districts. [Ap-plause] 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 shift-ing 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 politi-cal commu-nity, and allow the different political interests which compose it, by choosing in single districts, to be repre-sented in the Legislature of the State. Unfortu-nate-ly, when that arrangement was made for your city (and for Pitts-burgh also, to which it will soon apply), this just, equal, almost perfect system of voting [proportional voting], which I have spoken of tonight, was un-known; it had not then been an-nounced abroad or considered here, and we did what best we could."

Cities Swinging Between At-Large and Wards

Although most congressional elections have used districts since 1842, when the first law requiring district elections was adopted, cities have swung back and forth between at-large and ward elections. As discussed by Buckalew, major cities largely moved to ward elections in the 19th century, but by the turn of the century, many leaders in the progressive movement sought citywide, at-large elections in order to break up political "machines" that dominated many cities. The shift back to at-large elections occurred after proportional representation systems were developed, and indeed many leading reformers advocated PR rather than winner-take-all elections. The National Municipal League, Walter Lippman, A. Philip Randolph, Murray Seasongood, Fiorello La Guardia and League of Women Voters founder Carrie Chapman Catt were among many influential advocates of PR, more specifically the choice voting system that was adopted in numerous cities at that time. Unfortunately, PR proved more controversial than other elements of the municipal reform package-- perhaps because of its more decisive impact on democratizing power. Although choice voting was adopted in several major cities and upheld in 24 of the first 26 repeal attempts around the nation, it encountered increasing resistance. New York City's repeal of choice voting in 1947, after two previously failed attempts, set off a wave of repeals that by 1961 left Cambridge, Mass. as the only city with the system. The very strength of choice voting was a weakness in the post-Cold War period: opponents could pick on unpopular minorities like leftists and blacks to convince a majority of voters to reverse their previous support for the system. Black voters in cities like New York, Cincinnati and Toledo voted to keep choice voting, but were out-numbered. Since the 1960s the national pendulum has swung back toward ward elections, but this time without nearly as much debate over PR. The new wave of reformers saw the early 20th century municipal reformers as elitists, more concerned about downtown business interests than those of neighborhoods and minorities. Residential segregation by race in many cities made ward elections an obvious solution for those interested in racial diversity on councils. The allure of guaranteed representation of all parts of a city was powerful, even if historical memory about the problems of ward elections in cities was short and neglect of the problems with district elections at other levels of government was troubling. Indeed, ward elections have been disappointing to many in such cities as Oakland and Boston, but more cities keep adopting wards out of frustration with winner-take-all, at-large systems.

The Modern Case for Proportional Representation in Cities

Proportional representation allows cities to have the best of ward elections and the best of at-large elections. In contrast to at-large elections, diverse voters can win their fair share of representation. Campaigns are less expensive because it takes fewer votes to win, and candidates can choose to focus their campaigns on particular constituencies. In contrast to ward elections, however, those seeking representation are not required to be geographically concentrated. Representatives can work side by side with the same constituents, and citywide policy is less likely to be left to mayors and city managers. There are particularly good reasons to consider PR systems as we head into a new century of increasing diversity and residential dispersion of minorities in cities. Several cities had bitter and expensive battles over drawing single-member district lines after the 1990 census. In cities like New York, Oakland, Los Angeles and Chicago, blacks, Latinos, and whites fought over redistricting; the resulting court battle in Chicago cost taxpayers $10 million to defend a ward plan despite the fact that its intended impact was to protect incumbents and stifle competition. Battles over district lines promise to be only more contentious after the year 2000, both because of rising diversity (with Asian Americans having a significantly greater presence in many cities), decreasing residential segregation and recent Supreme Court rulings that make "creative" redistricting all the more difficult. Already some minority leaders are re-thinking reliance on wards. When faced with the choice between ward elections and choice voting in San Francisco in 1996, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund supported choice voting. Austin's at-large system is under review, and several leading black political leaders have expressed support for choice voting rather than wards. While fair minority representation may be the most immediate reason to consider proportional systems, there are additional compelling arguments. One is that cities need innovative leadership. Too many cities have static elections in which voters have little ability to vote for change -- or if they do vote for change, it is greater than they might want. Ward elections also can keep most representatives focused on ward issues, leaving citywide policy-making more to mayors and city managers who by definition cannot be fully representative of the community. Proportional systems certainly can open a closed political system. In 1935, Democrats backed by Tammany Hall won 62 of 65 city council seats in New York City. After adopting choice voting in 1936, Democrats barely won a majority. Although maintaining their majority in five choice voting elections, they faced serious competition from four other parties and from reformers from within. After restoring ward elections, the Democrats won all but one seat in the first elections with districts in 1949. Democrats have dominated council elections ever since. Many municipal reformers for understandable reasons also are seeking campaign finance reforms. But taking the money out is only an initial step. One also must put the people in, and the full representation provided by PR systems enables people to come together, organize, voice their interests and have a fair chance to win and sustain representation. They create a new space for community organization and independent representation.

A Growing Movement

Grassroots activity in support of proportional representation has grown dramatically in recent years. At a national level, Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) has introduced the Voters' Choice Act to allow PR systems for congressional elections. At a news conference when the bill was first introduced in 1995, speakers included the directors of the National Women's Political Caucus, U.S. Term Limits and the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. Grassroots activists and civic leaders are raising the idea of PR in numerous states and cities. The black caucus in Georgia's state legislature has introduced bills to adopt PR for its congressional elections and held hearings around the state in the fall of 1997. An elections task force in North Carolina gave bi-partisan support to a bill to allow localities to adopt PR systems. Texas in 1995 approved allowing school districts to use PR systems, and more than 40 Texas localities have adopted cumulative voting to settle voting rights suits. The ACLU of Washington has adopted a policy in support of lifting all legal restrictions on using PR for local, state and federal elections. Boston's leading black elected officials support PR for city council elections, the Center for Voting and Democracy has been asked to testify about PR before charter commissions and task forces in such localities as Cincinnati, Detroit, Miami Beach, Nassau County and San Francisco. Activists are planning initiative campaigns for PR for state or local elections in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington and Washington, D.C. Such initiative campaigns have real opportunities for success. In Cincinnati in 1988 and 1991, under-funded initiatives to restore choice voting for city council elections each gained 45% of the vote. After a two-year study in San Francisco, a task force recommended that choice voting replace the city's winner-take-all, at-large system. The Board of Supervisors in July 1996 voted 10-1 to place choice voting on the November ballot. It also voted 7-4 to put single-member districts on the ballot. San Francisco would have been the first American city to adopt a PR system by popular vote since the 1950s. The community coalition that rallied around choice voting indicate where support may be found for future PR efforts. Choice voting picked up early support in communities of color -- several leaders in these communities recognized that their voting power would be enhanced by choice voting more than by ward elections. Choice voting won the endorsement of the Democratic Party, the San Francisco Examiner, MALDEF, NOW, the largest Bay Area labor unions (including SEIU Locals 790 and 250, the ILWU and HERE), Mayor Willie Brown and leading city organizations representing tenants, environmentalists, Asians, gays and lesbians. In the election, choice voting was defeated 56%-44%, and wards were adopted by 57%-43%. Exit polls revealed that choice voting won more than 75% support from black votes and a higher percentage of support from Latinos, Asian Americans and self-identified liberals than did the ward proposal. Wards won due to greater support from moderates and conservatives who were less influenced by the mostly liberal-leaning endorsements. The quickly-organized campaign for choice voting was able to win over many community leaders and organizations, but its budget of less than $30,000 was not enough to reach enough of the city's 600,000 eligible voters in a short campaign for an idea that was new to most San Franciscans and received limited media coverage.

Building a Democracy for the 21st Century

In the language of Alvin Toffler, we have entered a third wave, an information era in which old technologies and institutions may be quickly superseded by new institutions. Yet we grasp desperately onto a conception of representation that has decreasing relevance to our society. Our communities of interest are increasingly non-geographic, but more cities keep moving to council representation based solely on geography -- a move that tends to decrease the citywide influence of the one elected institution in which representation of diversity and real deliberation is possible. The growing diversity of our cities is forced into wards that represent diversity well only when communities stay segregated and racial and ethnic groups stay uniform. Proportional representation holds the promise of representing existing diversity while at the same time encouraging new political forces to develop, voice their interests and earn a place at the table. PR certainly is a way out of the legal and political battles over redistricting, but more fundamentally, it is about providing "universal coverage" for minority representation in a manner analogous to how Social Security protects low-income seniors through helping all seniors. "Everybody wins" sounds too good to be true, but it is the logic of a proportional system. With all substantial political forces winning a fair share of representation and with parties in power likely to reach out to include candidates from these forces, policy-making will more naturally reflect the united will of the community. Any efforts to bring people together in a community to solve problems will be reinforced by ensuring that most of these people having strong representation in elected government. New rules are never the answer in themselves. But they create the foundation from which to build, the form into which people can provide content. As they confront sinking participation, struggles over a shrinking tax base and controversies over fair representation, cities have a great opportunity going into a new century: the opportunity to consider a full range of democratic reforms to enable their people to debate and make policy to build healthy communities. The fundamentally fair level playing field of full and proportional representation will be an essential part of any reform package.

BOX 1:


The Center for Voting and Democracy has commissioned Daniel Johnson-Weinberger to interview Illinois political leaders about the state's use of cumulative voting to elect its lower house from 1870 (when it was adopted to help promote unity after the Civil War) to 1980 (when it was repealed in a populist initiative that also reduced the size of the legislature). The interviews have demonstrated strong bi-partisan support for cumulative voting, including the senate majority and minority leaders. Illinois' cumulative voting elections were a modest departure from winner-take-all elections -- a "semi-proportional" system rather than a proportional one. Representatives were elected from districts with three representatives. Voters could vote for one, two or three candidates. If 25% of voters supported just one candidate, that candidate was sure to win. This relatively minor modification of winner-take-all rules had a profound impact on the state's politics. Perhaps most significantly, nearly every district had two-party representation, the positive implications of which are mentioned repeatedly in our interviews.

(Dawn Clark Netsch served Illinois as a delegate to the 1970 constitutional convention, as a state senator and as state comptroller. She was the Democratic nominee for governor in 1994.)

[As a state senator] I had a chance to see how the House operated. I came to realize that in those days there was such a marked difference between the house and the senate. The house had lots more free-wheeling, innovative people, and ours was just like a prison practically. I came to realize how much cumulative voting and multi-member districts were responsible for that difference. Some of the best legislators were Democrats from the suburban area who would never have been elected in single-member districts and some of the best legislators on the Republican side were legislators from Chicago districts who would never have been elected under single-member districts. I realized how important it was that when the Republicans went into their caucus in the House, there were a couple of people who were from Chicago. That was very important. I think by the same token it was important to have suburbanites -- very strong voices, good progressive Democrats -- in the Democratic caucus who could say "Hey wait a minute, you guys from Chicago, you don't own the whole world, people are going to the suburbs and here's something you ought to be taking into account."

(Jeff Ladd served as a delegate to the 1970 constitutional convention. He is now the chairman of Metra, the commuter rail authority for suburban Chicago, and chairs a commission looking into state legislative redistricting.)

Cumulative voting offered an opportunity for a lot of people to get involved in politics who today can't because of how things are set up. If you could show community support through the kinds of activities that you were involved in -- whether charitable or something else -- and thought there was a good chance to get a quarter of the votes plus one, you could get elected. The party bosses couldn't stop you. It resulted in a much less partisan legislative body, one that was much more open to dealing with members on the other side based on the strength of ideas rather than the party relationship. I think that's absent today. Almost everything is a partisan vote and very uncivil.

(State Senator Arthur Berman, a white Democrat, was elected to the Illinois House in 1968 and served there until elected to the Illinois Senate in 1976.)

Cumulative voting brought legislators with a different point of view. They added something to the debate and added something to the discussions that I thought was very helpful. True democratic, with a small "d" process, because you had different points of view from the same areas of the state..... It diminished the role that we see being played today by legislative leaders. Today you see the very, very powerful role that the legislative leaders play in raising money and diverting that money to candidates that they want to support. Back under cumulative voting, the power of the leadership wasn't what it is today because candidates for the House only needed one-quarter of the vote. They could concentrate on the people they wanted to have vote for them, and they didn't have to go and get Big Money from the leadership. They could do it primarily through their own resources.

(Senate Minority Leader Emil Jones is a black Democrat from the South Side of Chicago.)

[Since the repeal of cumulative voting] it's gotten more regional. Chicago has been cut off regionally. There are some swing districts that can go either way, but Chicago has gotten isolated because it's so heavily Democratic.... I know many critical issues where cumulative voting was a great help, because you always had that other voice. You had that person who would stand up and do what they felt was right to do. And they had enough support in their district to keep winning even though that support was minority support.... You always have that minority view out there, one that does not support the view of the majority. Cumulative voting took care of that. In a winner-take-all election there is no one there to also express the minority view. So in the legislature I thought it was very intriguing. It was a very good concept to ensure that the views of the minority are respected. Otherwise you end up in a government where you have sheer tyranny to a certain degree, where the majority will run roughshod over the minority. Cumulative voting prevented that from happening.

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July 2nd 2009
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