Assembly Bill 911 would make winners out of more voters
Voting to win

By Brian Pruka
Published May 11th 2004 in
The April elections are over, the votes have been tallied, and the winners and losers have been reported; the winning and losing candidates, that is. The winning and losing voters go unmentioned, as usual.

In Dane County, where I live, 38,770 citizens voted for a county board representative on April 6. Of these, 16,091 voted for a Dane County board candidate who lost. Put another way, 41.5 percent of Dane County voters went to the polls to elect a county board rep and got nothing in return.

But that is how democracy works, right? Somebody wins so somebody has to lose.

Well, not exactly. Although it is true that there are no perfect voting systems, some voting systems are better than others and some voting systems produce fewer losing voters.

Plurality voting with single-seat districts, the system we use here in Dane County, is not one of those better systems. In fact, plurality voting with single-seat districts is notorious for generating losing voters. For example, Jesse Ventura became governor of Minnesota in 1998 with just 37 percent of the vote. Losing voters were the majority at 63 percent.

Majority voting systems improve upon plurality by requiring the winner to gain a majority of votes cast. Losing voters can never exceed 50 percent.

But the percentage of losing voters can be reduced even further when voting for legislators. The key is to have representative districts with multiple seats.

Multi-seat representative districts are at the heart of a voting system known as proportional representation (PR), a system used to elect Legislatures in 75 nations throughout the world.

Here is what PR might look like in Dane County: Instead of 37 board members from 37 districts as we have now, there might be 36 board members elected from nine larger districts (with each district having 4 county board seats). Or we could have 35 board members elected from seven larger districts (each district having five county board seats). There are numerous options.

Consider the four-seat district scenario. With four seats per district, a candidate would need just more than 20 percent of the vote to win a seat. If all four elected candidates won with the minimum threshold of votes, they would cumulatively garner just more than 80 percent of the votes (20 percent + 20 percent + 20 percent + 20 percent + at least one more vote).

This means that in a four-seat district, 80 percent of the voters are assured to cast a winning vote. Likewise, it means that the maximum number of losing voters could be no more than 20 percent.

Contrast this with Dane County’s April 6 election, where 41 percent of the voters were losing voters. Had we used four-seat districts last week, the absolute maximum number of losing voters would have been 7,754 voters. An additional 8,337 voters (16,091 minus 7,754) would have been able to elect a county board member who they wanted.

Actually, the number of losing voters on April 6 was well more than 16,091 when you consider that almost a third of the county board seats (13 of 37) went uncontested. Let’s face it, everyone in those districts was a losing voter--they did not even have a choice of candidates.

PR not only increases the likelihood you will have more voting choices, it also makes it more likely that at least one of your district representatives will share your political views. You are more likely to feel comfortable approaching this representative about an idea or problem you have. In other words, you are more likely to participate in government after the election.

Rural liberals and urban conservatives often end up being losing voters here in Dane County. Multi-seat districts would finally give them a chance at representation on the Dane County Board. With its lower winning thresholds, PR would also give minority groups a better chance of electing a board member to represent their particular points of view.

Municipal use of proportional representation (or other voting alternatives) requires the approval of the Wisconsin Legislature. A few forward thinking legislators are starting to work on municipal voting reform. Assembly Bill 911 was introduced in the Legislature this winter to grant local governments more voting system flexibility. (The PR option was not included in this bill). The bill started a discussion among legislators about the benefits of voting reform and garnered bi-partisan sponsorship, but failed to get to a floor vote.

State Representative Marc Pocan of Madison, was a co-sponsor of AB 911 and has said he will continue to work for voting reform in the next legislative session.

Too much emphasis on which candidates win and lose takes us away from the more important issue of how many voters win and lose. When you make losers out of 41 percent of your voters, voting reform belongs on the agenda.