Frequently Asked QuestionsFull representation (also known as "Proportional Representation," or "PR") voting systems are used by most of the world's established democracies. Under full representation, representatives are elected from multi-seat districts in proportion to the number of votes received. Full representation assures that political parties or candidates will have the percent of legislative seats that reflects their public support. A party or candidate need not come in first to win seats.
In contrast, in the United States we use "winner-take-all" single seat districts, where votes going to a losing candidate are wasted, even if that candidate garners 49.9% of the vote. This leaves significant groupings of voters unrepresented. Voters understand this possibility, and so often we do not vote for a candidate we like, but rather the one who realistically stands the best chance of winning -- the "lesser of two evils." Or, all too often, we don't bother to vote at all.
No wonder that, among the 21 democracies in Western Europe and North America, the United States ranks near the bottom in voter turnout.
What Are The Advantages Of Full Representation?
Greater voter turnout (typically 70-90%) because there are more choices for voters -- third, fourth, fifth parties and more from diverse perspectives including more women and minorities elected:
This leads to:
- more diverse representation
- cleaner campaigns run on the issues, not mud-slinging
- reduced effects of big money
Where In The World Is Full Representation Used?
Some form of PR is used by most of the world's established democracies, including:
| ||New Zealand|
United Kingdom (for European Parliament elections)
"Winner-take-all" is still used in France, Great Britain, and a few of France and Britain's former colonies that inherited it: the United States, Canada, Pakistan, India and various Caribbean nations. It also is used in the least democratized former Soviet Republics.
The trend in the world is toward full representation and away from "winner take all." Recently the United Kingdom, the grandmother of all "winner take all" democracies, chose to use full representation to elect representatives to the European Parliament. In their first elections for regional assemblies, Scotland and Wales also chose full representation systems.
In April 1994 South Africa decided to use full representation rather than "winner take all" to form a multi-racial democracy. In 1993 New Zealand, Japan, Russia and Mexico adopted a form of full representation. Significantly, most of the former Communist countries, including Russia, have chosen to model their emerging democracies more on proportional representation than the "winner-take-all" model. The Ukraine, which initially chose "winner take all," has now switched to a form of full representation. Both Iraq and Afghanistan have elected to use full representation systems in their first elections with the support of the UN as well as the American government.
All these countries have adopted some form of full representation because they recognize the obvious: full representation is a fairer, more flexible, more modern electoral system than the antiquated eighteenth century "winner-take-all" method.
Is Full Representation The Same As A Parliamentary System?
No, it isn't. A parliamentary system is a type of governmental system, while full representation is a type of voting/electoral system. One is about the structure of government, the other about how votes are counted. Many, but not all, of the countries using full representation combine it with a parliamentary governmental system. But this does not have to be the case, and a full representation electoral system could successfully be combined with the U.S. presidential system.
Has Full Representation Been Tried In The U.S.?
Various forms of full representation systems are used today to elect the city councils of Cambridge MA (choice voting), Peoria IL (cumulative voting), various cities and counties in Alabama, South Dakota and Texas (cumulative or limited voting), the Democratic presidential primaries, various corporate boards (cumulative voting), and the finalists for the Academy Awards (choice voting).
The choice voting form of full representation was first tried in the U.S. in the early twentieth century and worked very well in 24 cities like New York City, Boulder, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Cambridge, MA. Both the majority and various political and racial minorities gained representation where their voices had previously been unheard. The minorities at the time who won representation were Irish Catholics, Polish immigrants, African Americans and leftists. Although only two of the first 26 attempts to repeal choice voting were successful in cities around the country, formerly dominant political forces outlasted reformers and were successful in repealing full representation nearly everywhere. Their general tactic was targeting unpopular minorities like blacks and leftists.
So How Does Full Representation Work?
There are many different types of full representation, because it is a flexible system that may be adapted to the situation of any city, state or nation. Here are a few of the most common:
- List System -- by far the most widely used form of full representation. The voter selects one party and its slate of candidates to represent them. Party slates can be either "closed" or "open," with open lists allowing voters to vote for individual candidates rather than political parties. If a party receives 30% of the vote, they receive 30% of the seats in the legislature, 10% of the vote receives 10% of the seats, and so on. A minimum share of the votes can be required to earn representation; typically a 3-5% threshold is used. This type of full representation is ideal for large legislatures on state and national levels.
- Mixed Member System (MM) -- This full representation hybrid elects half the legislature from single-seat, "winner-take-all" districts and the other half by the List System. Mixed-member smoothly combines geographic, ideological and proportional representation.
- Choice Voting -- the voter simply ranks candidates in an order of preference (1,2,3,4, etc...). Once a voter's first choice is elected or eliminated, excess votes are "transferred" to subsequent preferences until all positions are filled. Voters can vote for their favorite candidate(s), knowing that if that candidate doesn't receive enough votes their vote will "transfer" to their next preference. With choice voting, every vote counts and very few votes are wasted. Choice voting is ideal for non-partisan elections like city councils. This method is also called "Single Transferable Vote" or "STV".
What About The President? We Can't Divide Up The Presidency, Can We?
No, we can't. Single seat offices like the president, governor, mayor or district representatives can't be elected with proportional representation. However, there are much better ways for electing them than what we use today, ways that guarantee that the winner will be supported by a majority of voters. The most viable is Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). IRV is related to choice voting, because like choice voting the voter simply ranks candidates in an order of preference (example. 1. Perot 2. Clinton 3. Dole). The candidate with the least number of first place votes is eliminated, and their votes are "transferred" to their 2nd choice until a candidate has a majority. It is also called majority preference voting or the alternative vote. IRV prevents "spoilers" from giving the election to a candidate who doesn't have the support of the majority without the expense and effort of a two-round runoff election.
Could Full Representation Help Break Political Impasses In The U.S.?
Yes, it could. Full representation allows small parties to be a credible alternative to voters, giving them a national audience for their views to advance new ideas. Full representation has no ideological bias, but simply facilitates a fuller and more informed discussion of policy options; this more grounded discussion in turn provides greater opportunities to move to majority consensus on difficult issues.
An example of this is the German Greens. Without ever winning a single district election or receiving more than 10% of the national vote, the German Greens were able to see several of their environmental positions become part of a national consensus. Full representation of course has no ideological bias. It simply allows majorities to make policy while also bringing minority perspectives to the table for consideration.
But I Like Having A Representative From My Own District. Won't I Lose Out Without It?
A representative from your own district is nice, but with "winner-take-all" there's a good chance you didn't vote for that representative. In the 1996 Congressional elections, only 28% of eligible voters helped elect someone. Under full representation, you will have, not one, but several representatives from a larger district. And there is a much greater likelihood that at least one of those reps will be someone you voted for, and whose viewpoint you endorse. In South Africa's 1994 full representation elections, 86% of eligible voters helped elect someone, including more than 99% of voters who went to the polls to choose among nearly 20 political parties.
Also, the mixed-member form of full representation used by Germany can give voters the benefits of both: a representative from your district, as well as a legislature that proportionally reflects the electorate.
Full representation doesn't base representation so much on geography but on political viewpoint. When our republic was young and dotted with small communities barely connected by slow communication and primitive transportation, the interests of citizens were similar to those of their neighbors. But our society is more mobile now, more multicultural and diverse. People living right next door to one another can have completely opposite viewpoints, yet with our single seat "winner-take-all" districts, only one of these voters will receive representation -- the one that voted for the winner. Simple geographical representation can no longer ensure fair political representation for all voters and all political perspectives.
What's Wrong With Only Two Parties?
Two parties limit the voters' choices. U.S. citizens would never accept an economic system that allowed us to buy cars from only two companies, or to choose from only two airlines. Why then, should we have to settle for just two options in politics? It's no wonder such a large portion of the U.S. electorate decides not to participate. They're not buying what the two parties are selling!
The logjam and partisan bickering of U.S. politics is partly the result of the winner-take-all two-party system, where each party says "Everything my party does is right and everything your party does is wrong." The optimum campaign strategy is to sling mud at your opponent, driving their voters to your party. New ideas and solutions have a hard time percolating to the surface in such a bitter environment. But this dynamic is not so advantageous when there are three or more parties.
Winner-take-all elections are also more susceptible to the corruption of big money. A majority of votes is a lot of votes to win, and a candidate has to plaster her or his name and face over every billboard, bumper sticker and TV ad to win that many votes. Since so much is at stake -- you either win the seat or you lose -- there is an urgency to spend lavishly.
But with full representation you don't have to come in first to win seats. Whatever proportion of votes your party wins, you get that many seats in the legislature. Full representation actually reduces the percentage of votes it takes for a party or candidate to win a seat. Candidates tend to run cleaner, more positive, issue-oriented campaigns, targeted at a particular constituency. Such campaigns require less money to win seats. Minor parties win representation in full representation democracies even though they spend less money than the major parties.
Could Full Representation Help In Voting Rights Cases?
Absolutely. With full representation, you actually need fewer votes to gain seats than you would under a winner-take-all system, and you can gather these votes from a larger area. This makes it easier for racial and political minority perspectives to win seats, without having to be concerned about how district lines are drawn.
In June 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Johnson that race-conscious districts are unconstitutional. Voting rights experts including Lani Guinier, Ed Still, Gerald Hebert, Pamela Karlan and Richard Engstrom have proposed various forms of full representation as race-neutral methods to give racial as well as political minorities and women a fair chance to elect representatives in competitive elections.
Does Full Representation Affect The Election of Women?
Yes, very much so. Research has shown that systems of full representation result in greater numbers of elected women, and that greater numbers of women are elected in multi-seat rather than single-seat districts. Women currently make up only 12% of the U.S. House of Representatives and 9% of the U.S. Senate. In state and local legislatures, women average only one out of five legislators. According to United Nation reports, the United States ranks low among western democracies in terms of women's representation in national legislatures. In fact, scholars have demonstrated that the underrepresentation of blacks and Latinos is largely an underrepresentation of black and Latino women. African American women have only about one fourth the representation of black men.
So How Do We Change From "Winner-Take-All" To Full Representation?
In many states it is possible to convert to full representation simply by changing applicable laws. Amendments to the U.S. Constitution are not required. The laws can be changed by a simple vote of the legislatures, or in many cases via a voter initiative. Full representation can be adapted to fit with local, state and national situations, bringing the democratic promise of "one person, one vote" closer to fulfillment.
If the political will could be mobilized, it is possible to convert immediately to a system of full representation for electing representatives to city councils, state legislatures, and even the U.S. House of Representatives. U.S. Senators could be elected by Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), giving voters more choice. As a bonus, full would spare states the torment of legislative redistricting, an arduous, bitter and partisan gerrymandering affair.
Where Can I Learn More About Full Representation?
Here's a partial reading list:
- Proportional Representation & Electoral Reform in Ohio. Kathleen Barber; Ohio University Press, 1995.
- The International IDEA Handbook of Electoral System Design
- Of Grunge and Government: Let's Fix this Broken Democracy. Krist Novoselic; RDV Books, 2004
- Fixing Elections. Steve Hill; Routledge, 2002
- Real Choices, New Voices. Douglas Amy; Columbia University Press, 1993
- Tyranny of the Majority. Lani Guinier, 1994
- Boston Review. "Reflecting All of Us: the Case for Proportional Representation," by Rob Richie and Steven Hill, Feb. / March 1998
- Electoral Systems and Party Systems Professor Arend Lijphart; Oxford University Press, 1994
- United States Electoral Systems: Their Impact on Women and Minorities. editors Dr. Wilma Rule and Dr. Joseph Zimmerman; Praeger Publishers, 1992
- "A Radical Plan to Change American Politics" by Michael Lind, Atlantic Monthly, August 1992
- Choosing an Electoral System, edited by Arend Lijphart and Bernard Grofman, Praeger Press, 1984.
- The Power to Elect, Enid Lakeman, Heinemann Press, 1982.
- Seats and Votes, Rein Taagepera and Matthew Shugart; Yale Univ Press, 1989.
- PR: The Key to Democracy, George Hallett; National Municipal League, 1940.
- Considerations on Representative Government, John Stuart Mill; Park, Son and Bourn, 1861.
- Women, Elections and Representation, by Robert Darcy, Susan Welch and Janet Clark; Longman Press, 1987.
How Can I Get Involved In the Full Representation Movement?
You can get involved by becoming a member of FairVote-the Center for Voting and Democracy. Check out our get involved page for more ways to help the cause.