The Fair Elections Movement in the United States: What is has done and why it is needed

By Robert Richie and Steven Hill
Published January 1st 2004
A note on terminology: For reasons tied to some of the unique challenges for reform advocates in the United States that are outlined in this article, American reformers have developed a new terminology: “full representation” is often used instead of “proportional representation”, “choice voting” instead of “single transferable vote (STV),” and “instant runoff voting (IRV)” instead of “preferential voting” or “the alterative vote.”

Despite energetic reformers pushing hard for proportional representation (PR) since the early 1990’s, the United States remains a unique challenge for backers of PR. The many overlapping layers of government, widespread belief in “American exceptionalism," distrust of political parties, the vast and complex nature of the country, racial tensions and voter focus on inherently winner-take-all, personality-driven executive offices generate real obstacles to winning and preserving proportional representation. Furthermore, even though every level of election in the United States experiences serious problems – such as extremely low voter turnout, few competitive races, regional balkanization along partisan lines that renders entire states into one-party fiefdoms, under-representation of racial minorities and women, and narrow debate about issues – voters’ attention is dispersed among a range of government bodies, some of which they are bound to find vaguely representative -- much the way one is bound to eventually win at least something in a casino. It is thus difficult to generate the kind of elite attention and persistent citizen movement necessary to overcome the numerous opportunities opponents have to block reform.

Historically, American supporters of PR have had real successes at a local level – but though important, these successes were nearly all for nonpartisan elections and their impact often poorly understood. In the past 15 years, non-winner-take-all systems have seen a steady advance in adoptions at a local level – more than 100 localities have gone to the semi-proportional systems of cumulative voting and limited voting - but these gains have come exclusively as a result of lawsuits brought by racial minorities seeking fair representation under the Voting Rights Act. Although some of these adoptions are in relatively large cities – a city of more than 130,000, Peoria (IL) now uses cumulative voting to elect half its city council, while Amarillo (TX), with more than 150,000 people, uses cumulative voting to elect its school board – such measures remain a distant second choice to gerrymandered single-member districts for minority voting rights backers.

In light of these conditions and the resulting conclusion that winning proportional representation in the United States will be a marathon rather than a sprint, the Center for Voting and Democracy – the national PR advocacy group that we have helped lead since its founding in 1992 – has pursued a combination of strategies quite different from those pursued in Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. We focus on the following priorities:

  • Reform efforts to adopt instant runoff voting (the American name for the Australian winner-take-all system of preferential voting), which has been adopted in San Francisco and deliberated in more than 20 of our 50 state legislatures in 2003-2004.
  • Analysis and public education about the severe problems created by winner-take-all elections, particularly the most notorious impacts on voters resulting from political gerrymandering like that in Texas and California
  • Making the case for candidate-based systems of PR (choice voting, also known as single transferable vote) as a complementary means to single-member districts to promote electoral opportunities for racial minorities
  • Introducing PR to a widening circle of groups and constituencies such as women, environmentalists and university students and otherwise becoming prepared to seize an opportunity for PR.
  • Helping to build pro-democracy coalitions with groups focused primarily on other electoral reforms and on generating voter turnout. 
In this article we elaborate on these less direct advocacy efforts for PR and the special conditions in the United States that gave rise to them. 

The Double-Edged Sword of Opportunities and Barriers 
Few nations are in need of the benefits of PR as much as the United States.
  • Gerrymandered single-member districts have reduced legislative competition to historic low levels. In three national elections for the U.S. House since 1996, fewer than one in ten races were decided by less than 10 percent, more than 98 percent of incumbents were returned to office. State legislative races are often even less competitive, with both major parties fielding candidates in fewer than 60 percent of state legislative elections since 1996.
  • Policy-making and majority interests can sharply diverge. More than 40 million Americans do not have health insurance, and a majority of American workers now make less income in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars than they did 20 years ago, even as they work 160 hours more a year. By one estimate, Congress is now on the same page as the American people only about 40 percent of the time, when it comes to issues of health care, crime, welfare and social security (Jacobs and Shapiro, 2000: 4-5)[i].
  • Private sources supply nearly all campaign funds, with less than one percent of Americans giving the great bulk of funds to candidates. Given that money’s impact is very important in primaries and in tipping close winner-take-all races, candidates in turn spend a great deal of time and energy cultivating the support of these donors.
  • National voter turnout is among the world's lowest: 139th in the world in average turnout since World War II, according to the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, and startlingly tilted in its class and race bias, with big drop-offs for racial minorities, the young, less well-educated, and lower-income. Voter turnout declines have been even more pronounced in local and primary elections, many as low as single digits.
  • The United States' increasingly complex racial and ethnic diversity is poorly represented. Under-representation can be measured at all levels of government, but perhaps most starkly in the powerful Senate. In the past century, there have been a grand total of two black U.S. Senators and one black governor elected from our 50 states – who collectively served a total of four terms. Currently the U.S. Senate has no black or Latino members, despite those Americans making up more than 25 percent of our national population.
  • The relative strength of the American women's movement is poorly reflected in Congress, where women's representation is 14 percent and where fewer states have female U.S. House members than a decade ago. Women hold barely 20 percent of states legislative seats, and their numbers have declined in recent elections.
  • Polls generally show that a majority of Americans would like to see an enduring national third party, but only five of more than 8,000 state and federal elected representatives were elected on third party tickets. When third party candidates, like the Reform Party’s Ross Perot and the Green Party’s Ralph Nader run, their supporters usually not only fail to elect their preferred candidate, but in effect help elect their least favorite candidate.

Yet each of these conditions also creates barriers to PR:
  • The lack of competitive elections, combined with generally weak party leaders and out-of-control campaign financing, make each incumbent legislator nearly invulnerable to defeat and able to wield power in their constituencies through patronage and pork barrel politics, directing government money and campaign contributions. Unless willing to look beyond their own short-term self-interest, they cannot be expected to support reforms that would undercut their power.
  • The divergence of policy from majority interest creates a class of special interests which have every incentive to thwart reform and which typically have won over allies in position to do their bidding.
  • The disparities in campaign financing, which also tie into grave concerns about income disparities overall, draw the great bulk of charitable contributions for reform work. Campaign finance reform and modest steps to expand the franchise through changes to voter registration and expanding the voter pool receive far more than one hundred dollars for every dollar given to supporters of changing winner-take-all elections.
  • Low voter turnout means that those who potentially might benefit most from reform usually aren't at the polls to support reform. Even if they are, their distaste for politics makes it hard for them to grasp the potential of reforms that typically aren’t discussed in major media.
  • Our racial and ethnic diversity means that the white majority can feel more threatened by the potential electoral success of racial minorities than anxious to allow it – and quick to ascribe racial motivations to any concept of “minority representation”, especially as most success for PR has come from the protections for racial minorities found in the Voting Rights Act. At the same time, court rulings against some district plans designed to enhance minority voting rights have contributed to leading civil rights groups being more defensive of district plans and more wary of showing openness to non-winner-take-all systems.
  • The absence of elected third party representatives, and correspondingly a votes to seats ratio like that of Canada or the United Kingdom that illustrates the problems of disproportionality, means that the multi-party argument for PR appears abstract. Majorities of votes for a party often produce a majority of seats in the legislature, particularly in the U.S. House (though not always in state legislatures, and rarely in the U.S. Senate where the Republicans enjoy a sizable "representation subsidy" resulting from equal representation regardless of population) and minor parties are not visibly deprived of many seats due to the absence of PR.
Reformers must confront other daunting challenges as well. No other nation comes close to having both federalism and the extreme presence of checks and balances at each level of government found in the United States. In Congress and in nearly every state legislature, legislation has to pass through two separate legislative houses that have essentially equal powers and then be approved by a separately elected executive. Within each legislature bills must pass through a number committees chaired by entrenched incumbents who have the power to kill or refine the legislation.

More than one level of government and one branch of government addresses nearly every major policy area. Voters in Takoma Park, Maryland, which is home base of our Center for Voting and Democracy, have a typically complex array of elected representatives. They include: a city council and separately elected mayor for the city of Takoma Park; a county commission, school board, county executive and several other county officers such as sheriff, district attorney and judges; three members of the lower house of the state legislature and one state senator; a governor and several other separately elected statewide officers, such as attorney general and state comptroller; a U.S. House Member and two U.S. Senators; and a President. These elected officials have overlapping powers and responsibilities, and are often elected at different times of the year, with separate primary elections as well.

Beyond these elected offices, there are non-elected government positions and bureaucracies that often have their own independent sources of power. Non-elected individuals with significant power can range from Takoma Park’s city manager, who makes most day-to-day decisions about city policy, all the way to Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve who sets monetary policy, and the Supreme Court and federal judiciary who serve life terms after their appointments and frequently reject or re-define laws. This high number of offices cheapens the value of any single office, even the American presidency, and the many overlapping and competing levels of government muddy citizens' perceptions of what difference PR could make in elections. When individuals do focus their attention, it is far more likely to be on executives than on legislatures. In the past two years, more than half of the states holding elections for governor have changed which party holds the office, but barely a handful of state legislative chambers have changed hands. The U.S. House of Representatives has changed party control just once in 50 years, even as the White House has changed parties six times.

Within this massive and complex governmental structure, the two major parties operate as umbrella entities through which politically ambitious individuals operate. Party primaries are open to all comers in most states – at least those with personal means and connections --, and a charismatic, well-financed  individual can come to represent the party without the blessing of current party leaders. The parties are vehicles, but the drivers are individuals with their own interests and their own set of private allies and funders that they develop over time. The parties have taken on clear definitions in the current political climate, but those definitions are quite different from what they were not long ago --- particularly in the South, where white voters have swung sharply from being heavily Democratic to heavily Republican - -and can be very different in different regions of the nation. As a result, the idea of “party fairness” in representation is less than meaningful to many Americans who look at parties with distrust.

Voter distrust of parties makes party list systems of PR a particularly hard sell in the United States. But the candidate-based PR system, choice voting (the American name for STV), presents a sizable educational challenge, as its ranked ballot mechanism for producing fair representation is less transparent. Furthermore, ranked ballot, candidate-based PR systems typically require changes to voting equipment that is widely used to count ballots in the United States. Developing and certifying new voting equipment around the country is a byzantine, decentralized process dominated by a handful of for-profit companies that typically refuse to add public interest features like the capability to count ranked ballot elections unless specifically paid for by a county or city. Even then, they typically overcharge for building this capacity.  More than one very promising reform effort in the United States has been shot down by the likelihood of the new system costing unknown amounts of money to implement.

A final challenging reality of the American political landscape is the difficulty in drawing on international examples when making the case for reform in the United States. Most Americans have an unquestioned belief that their democracy is the envy of the world. However unfounded, and whatever frustrations they might have with their own government, does not mean that they look to examples from other nations for improvement -- quite the contrary. Furthermore, the particulars of other nations’ elections held under different rules are rarely tracked and understood as they typically are viewed to have little impact on Americans. (The exceptions typically are when the results seem “bizarre”, such as the fragmented party systems of Israel and Italy.) Highly educated Americans, sadly often including political scientists, typically believe that PR inevitably results in unstable governments, that PR is the same as parliamentary government, and that single-member districts are the basic method of election all over the world, a belief reinforced by Congress in 1967 requiring single-member districts for U.S. House races.

Raising the Reform Banner: The Development of the Center for Voting and Democracy

It is against this backdrop that the accomplishments of the Center for Voting and Democracy (CVD) need to be set. Remarkably, after a promising PR movement had important gains in the first half of the 20th century – including adoptions of choice voting for city council in such cities as Cincinnati, Cleveland, New York and Sacramento -- PR advocacy was nearly completely dormant from 1950 until formation of the CVD at a national meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1992, with great ambitions, but almost no money or institutional support. It took years to have income stable enough to pay one staff member, and it was not until May 1999 that the PR movement in a nation of nearly 300 million people had more than two staffers. Moreover, most funding that has been received in recent years has not been explicitly for PR advocacy, but for efforts that are part of our indirect strategies for winning PR in the United States, such as alternatives to majority minority districts for racial representation, or instant runoff voting (see below).

There has been real progress. A decade ago, "proportional representation" sounded foreign and probably unconstitutional to nearly all Americans. Today, hundreds of publications (including our largest-circulation newspapers and magazines) have highlighted the case for voting system reform. Cities like San Francisco and Cincinnati held ballot measures for the choice voting method of PR in 1996 and 1991, winning 44 and 45 percent of the vote respectively. Recent presidential candidates such as Jesse Jackson, John Anderson, Dennis Kucinich and Jerry Brown have expressed support for PR, and higher-profile candidates like Republican U.S. Senator John McCain and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean back instant runoff voting (IRV). One of several congressional bills designed to allow states to elect House Members by PR drew supportive testimony from the U.S. Department of Justice, several Democratic and Republican U.S. House Members, and leading voting rights scholars.

Many American reformers still are learning the basic language of voting system reform, but the more they understand the range of possible voting systems and their likely impact, the more PR is being seen as a sensible complement to higher profile political reforms. Major constituency organizations now recognize that fair elections, like campaign financing and redistricting reforms, should be on their agenda. Organizations endorsing PR in the past five years include: the Sierra Club and U.S. Public Interest Research Group (US PIRG), two of the largest environmental organizations in the country; the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Organization for Women; and several state branches of the major good government groups League of Women Voters and Common Cause. These and many other leading civic and civil rights groups now regularly reference PR in their work and will include speakers on it at events. At the same time, they rarely prioritize it as a focus of their work, in part because opportunities to win PR rarely seem tangible.

The Center for Voting and Democracy was launched to support PR– indeed its initial name was “Citizens for Proportional Representation to “resuscitate American democracy.” But it redefined its program as it strategically adapted to the realities confronting its reform agenda. We now will describe the key elements of the Center’s strategy.

Instant runoff voting: Momentum for a step toward American-style PR
Many Americans -- particularly elected officials -- are cautious about moving away from our political traditions and practices, but will act if current electoral rules are transparently in need of reform or it seems in their or their party’s self-interest. These needs have been particularly clear in American single-winner elections – particularly those for executive offices like president, governor and mayor. Third party challenges typically are strongest in these high-profile races and have led to non-majority winners and debates about “spoilers.” Additionally, many primary and local elections employ traditional runoff elections that are expensive and cumbersome to run. Moreover, voters disproportionately focus on these single-winner races and can better understand the case for change.

IRV (the American term for preferential voting – AV) - though not a form of PR - would provide both better majority representation and minority participation than plurality voting. Australia has used IRV for parliamentary elections for 80 years, and Ireland uses it to elect its president. With IRV, voters rank candidates in order of choice, and the ballot-count simulates a series of run-off elections. If no candidate wins a majority of first choices, the last-place candidate is eliminated. Ballots cast for that candidate are redistributed to each voter's next choice in the next round of counting. This process of elimination of weak candidates continues until a candidate wins majority support among voters in the decisive round of counting.

IRV would resolve much of the controversy over “spoilers” in elections, a concept that has been well understood by many Republicans because of the effects of Ross Perot’s independent presidential candidacies in 1992 and 1996 and by many Democrats because of Ralph Nader’s Green Party candidacy in 2000. When compared to traditional runoffs, IRV saves money for taxpayers and campaign cash for candidates by combining two elections into one. Because of these more obvious benefits, IRV has spread much more quickly through the American political landscape than PR. In 1997, Texas became the first state to consider a statute on IRV in decades. In 1998, a charter commission in Santa Clara County (Calif.) placed an amendment on the November 1998 ballot that allowed IRV to replace runoffs in future county elections when the voting equipment was ready. In 1999, legislation to enact IRV for statewide and federal offices passed the New Mexico state senate and was for the second time considered seriously in Vermont. In 2000, Utah Republicans adopted IRV for their convention elections and in 2002 used it to nominate several Members of Congress. In 2002, San Francisco voters adopted IRV for all major city elections, while Vermont participants in 53 out of 56 town meetings voted to support IRV for gubernatorial elections. In 2003 and 2004, at least 20 states debated IRV legislation, and presidential candidates Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich regularly advocated it on the campaign trail.

Advocates of PR in the United States see IRV also as a potential steppingstone toward choice voting (STV), the ranked ballot form of PR. Because of the unpopularity of political parties, as well as exceptional circumstances of our federalism, most PR advocates see candidate-based systems as more politically feasible than party-based ones used elsewhere. Forms of PR using small multi-seat districts (three to five seats) can fit well within our current political culture. Indeed Illinois demonstrated just how well such a system could work. From 1870 to 1980, Illinois used the semi-PR system of cumulative voting in three-seat districts to elect the lower house of its state legislature. Voters had three votes, but had the option to put all three votes on one candidate. If about 25 percent of voters supported only one candidate, that candidate was sure to win; over 50 percent gave a party two seats, and at least 75 percent of votes were required to be able to sweep the district.

This relatively minor modification of winner-take-all rules had a very positive impact on Illinois politics. Nearly every constituency had two-party representation, more moderates were elected, and cross-pollenization of ideas between parties was not uncommon. Although the great majority of one-seat House districts now are safe for one party, there are relatively few areas where at least 25 percent of voters are not ready to support another party. The system fostered not only a different partisan mix in Illinois, but also a different mix of representatives from within parties since mavericks could and did buck their party leadership. In Illinois, most constituencies typically had two representatives reflecting two major factions within the majority party, as well as a representative from the smaller party that would often bring different experiences and views than representatives of that party where it was in the majority. Women won more seats than comparable states with single-member districts, and in places with substantial numbers of African Americans, black legislators regularly won, including several black Republicans, something unheard of in Illinois and many states today.[ii]

The limitations of cumulative voting in three-seat districts – it does not benefit political minorities below 25 percent support and creates incentives for parties to limit candidates and competition to avoid splitting votes – are overcome by choice voting, which also has the political benefit of building on a rich history. In the first half of the 20th century, two dozen American cities adopted it through ballot measures. The system nearly always accomplished its objectives – giving more diverse representation and breaking up the power of political urban machines-- but faced determined resistance by persistent opponents. Despite the League`s having attracted the support of retired Supreme Court justices, the founder of the League of Women Voters, US Senators, and, more quietly, President Franklin Roosevelt, its opponents persistence paid off when they were able to take advantage of the election of controversial minorities – such as Communists in New York City during the Cold War, and African Americans in Cincinnati – to reverse most gains.

IRV does not necessarily lead to choice voting, but it removes two barriers to choice voting’s adoption: the educational hurdle of introducing the new concept of ranking candidates in order of choice, and the inability of most current voting equipment and election administrators to be able to run ranked ballot elections. IRV can give third parties a stronger presence and even sometimes allow their voters to play the role of kingmaker with their lower rankings. This in turn makes it easier to show how winner-take-all elections are unfair to supporters of these parties. Hence, implementing IRV can be a step in preparing to tackle the more formidable challenge of winning PR.

The IRV Victory in San Francisco
San Francisco became the first major American city to adopt IRV to elect its local officials by a comfortable 55 percent-45 percent margin on March 2002, overcoming negative editorials in the daily newspapers, attacks from Mayor Willie Brown, well-funded opposition from the downtown business community as well as from well-connected political consultants concerned about losing opportunities for making money from the eliminated runoff election. The CVD organized a grassroots effort that reached enough San Francisco voters through extensive literature drops and phone calls to head off the late and high profile attacks. The campaign also garnered endorsements from a range of leading civic players, including Assembly Leader Kevin Shelley – since elected California’s Secretary of State – leading 1999 mayoral candidate Tom Ammiano, and significant organizational backers.[iii] In the end more than 60 percent of Latinos and African Americans supported the change, and pro-IRV arguments seemed to find a footing in all major constituencies.

The result reversed a 56 percent-44 percent defeat for choice voting in 1996, which would have applied to the Board of Supervisors. Our case was a strong one. The City had held local elections every November (citywide offices in the odd years and members of the Board of Supervisors on even years, with both sets of offices having staggered terms), with a December runoff election if no candidate received a majority in November. This process generated clear problems. First, each runoff in San Francisco costs taxpayers at least $2 million. Second, runoffs put candidates under great pressure to raise money quickly, giving greater access for special interest contributors and undermining campaign finance reform. Third, voter turnout dropped: in 2000, it declined by 50 percent between the first and second round, and the December 2001 runoff for City Attorney – the City's second most important office – generated a paltry 13 percent turnout. By producing a majority winner in a single election, IRV maximizes turnout and saves taxpayers the cost of paying for two elections and candidates the need to raise extra cash quickly.

In comparing why IRV was successful here, but failed (by margins of nearly two-to-one) in Eugene, Oregon in 2001 and in the state of Alaska in 2002, we have learned some lessons. The first is that there must be a widely agreed-upon problem to fix.  In the defeats of IRV in Eugene and Alaska and choice voting in San Francisco in 1996, there was no potential cost saving of millions of dollars resulting from reducing the number of elections. In contrast, IRV in San Francisco folded the December runoff into the November general election, allowing proponents to draw support from more moderate and conservative voters and to gain enough interest from the Department of Elections to keep it neutral in the campaign, while winning strong support from progressive voters who perceived holding just one election helping their candidates by boosting turnout and reducing the impact of campaign contributions. There were sensible arguments for Eugene to go to IRV, but not ones that could hold up to a negative campaign funded by opponents who wanted to use the initiative to mock the city council. In Alaska, there was a history of third party spoilers that hurt Republicans, but that problem sent a mixed message – Republicans were divided about whether it was good to allow third parties to potentially build support under IRV, while the Democrats were mobilized to oppose IRV as a power grab by Republicans. Election administrators were loudly opposed to IRV in both  Eugene and Alaska because of new perceived burdens on them.

In addition, we learned to avoid focusing too much on process. In contrast to Eugene, the San Francisco campaign focused on the simply stated benefits of IRV rather than the mechanics of the electoral system – its website was called “improve the runoff,” and the stress was on saving money and making the election process more efficient. The name “instant runoff voting” wasn’t even used on key pieces of campaign literature, instead just saying “Vote Yes on Proposition A.” Once process is raised, a cautious voter will shift to a ‘no” vote unless they come to understand that processt. A related lesson was that a serious campaign required serious resources. The Eugene city campaign spent less than $5,000 and the Alaska statewide campaign spent some $50,000. Once confronted with negative attacks and fervent opposition, that amount was far too little to allow an adequate response. In San Francisco, advocates spent $70,000, and the Center devoted tens of thousands of additional dollars in staff time to the effort.

There is an important postscript to the San Francisco story: powerful reform opponents do not give up easily. IRV is still alive in San Francisco, but it was not implemented in 2003 on schedule. In August 2003, a Superior Court judge ruled against forcing the City to use IRV for the November mayoral elections despite finding that the San Francisco Department of Elections was breaking the law for failing to implement IRV, characterizing its efforts to implement IRV since passage of the charter amendment as "fumbling" and "haphazard."            

The judge gave the Department permission to postpone implementing IRV until 2004 because he feared that, with time running out before the November election and the pressures of the statewide gubernatorial recall election in October, the department could not be relied on to implement IRV fairly. It was a classic Catch-22. The various government agencies charged with fulfilling the law had dragged their feet to the point where, when finally they were sued for not implementing, the judge ruled that it was too late to follow the law in 2003.

Opponents had seized upon distrust of hand ballot-counts, instead requiring that IRV be implemented on election equipment - which had to be reconfigured. This meant that, suddenly, several new players entered the picture. The vendor had to modify its equipment and receive federal and state certification for the change. The Department of Elections had to develop a plan and timeline for the vendor that was adequate for getting IRV on time and negotiate a contract. The Board of Supervisors had to appropriate funds for the contract. The Secretary of State had to certify the new equipment. The opponents who spent more than $100,000 at the ballot box to block IRV likely spent even more on public relations and legal fees in interfering with each step in this process. With none of the players doing their job - despite steady pressure from IRV proponents - the opponents ultimately achieved their goal: a mayoral runoff at the end of 2003 won by the well-financed candidate backed by the business community.

Looking ahead for IRV, there are incremental gains poised to be won in several legislatures, including requirements that new voting equipment be required to support ranked choice systems, and at least two ballot measures in cities that have reasonable chances to pass in 2004. The presidential race may again raise the “spoiler” controversy, and the argument for IRV over runoffs is stronger than ever. New data from our Center shows that voter turnout decreased in the decisive round in 82 out of 84 runoffs in federal primaries from 1994 to 2002, by an average of more than a third, and campaign finance abuses are particularly pronounced when candidates have to raise money for a second round of election.

Strategies for the Present – and Future
Many Americans are discontented with electoral politics, but few associate that discontent with one of its root causes: winner-take-all elections. To get people interested in PR, its advocates must convince them that winner-take-all elections are fundamentally inadequate for American politics in the 21st century. To that end, we have taken the lead in exposing the impact of winner-take-all elections on five pillars of a robust democracy: participation, representation, political discourse/campaigns, legislative policy, and national unity, most recently and fully in a book by one of us (Hill 2002). The central argument is that the geographic-based, two-choice/party characteristics of the winner-take-all system is fundamentally flawed and antiquated in the 21st century. This is particularly true as a result of the application of new technology (such as computer mapping of votes used for precise redistricting, and polling and focus groups used in campaigns for slicing and dicing the electorate). In addition, shifting regional and racial demographics have further exacerbated the negative effects of winner-take-all politics on each of the five democracy pillars. It becomes increasingly clear that without moving toward PR, campaign finance reform, the Voting Rights Act and other such democratic reforms, on their own, cannot bring the needed improvements.

The CVD has for nearly a decade released regular reports on the roots of lack of competition and distorted representation in U.S. House elections in its on-line reports Dubious Democracy and Monopoly Politics. The simple spreadsheet methodology of Monopoly Politics, based entirely on past federal election results in the district and whether it was an open seat, introduced in 1997, set out a path now being followed by prominent analysts (like Charlie Cook’s Political Report) picking nearly all House races early on in an election cycle, thus drawing attention to the greater impact of single-member districts and redistricting on determining winners than more publicized factors like campaign finance inequities. One effect of this information has been to highlight the fact that since many campaign donors know in advance which candidate is going to win, their money is in fact given to buy access to the legislators, not to buy the elections themselves. The report also helped quantify how many potentially vulnerable House incumbents were boosted in the 2001-2002 redistricting, helping to explain why this redistricting was so much less competitive than the post 1991-1992 redistricting, with barely any gains for women or people of color.[iv]

To draw attention to the issue of redistricting, the Center has established an ambitious, 50-state project to track redistricting around the country, posting news articles from every state on a regular basis into a public interest guide to redistricting. These efforts contributed to redistricting becoming somewhat of a “cause celebre” among national analysts and editorial pages – it is mentioned frequently as the source of the problems that we ascribe to winner-take-all elections. The next phase is for PR advocates to take advantage of the resulting attention to redistricting reforms to draw attention to just how limited those reforms can be. The challenge is to demonstrate that reform of winner-take-all is the lynchpin to breaking down the polarization and balkanization, opening up representation, expanding discourse and spurring more turnout.

A key aspect concerns minority representation. Without substantial numbers of black voters in districts, very few black candidates win; Asian Americans, Latinos and Native Americans face similar hurdles. Dependence on redistricting to improve the representation of black people and other communities of color results from three factors: white voters' general preference for white candidates; the fact that people of color are in the minority in most areas; and near exclusive use of winner-take-all elections. But the latter can be changed. With PR systems, voters in a minority position can gain the representation of which they currently are deprived. As American society grows increasingly diverse and communities of interest increasingly develop along non-geographic lines, “full representation” (i.e. PR) is drawing even more attention.

 Full representation has a history of electing racial minorities in the United States. When Cincinnati used choice voting to elect its nine-member city council from 1925 to 1955, a cohesive grouping of voters comprising 10 percent of the electorate could fill a seat. Both major parties pursued the black vote in efforts to control the council. At least one black candidate consistently was elected every election, despite blacks making up well under 20 percent of the population. In Peoria, Illinois, where blacks are a fifth of the population, black candidates have won one of five citywide seats since a proportional plan was adopted before the 1991 elections.

Cumulative voting and limited voting also have been used effectively in nearly two dozen Alabama localities for a decade in the wake of a sweeping decision in a voting rights case. In 1995, then-Texas Governor George W. Bush signed legislation to allow school districts to adopt cumulative voting and limited voting, and more than fifty Texas jurisdictions have now settled voting rights cases with cumulative voting.[v] Indeed, the most dramatic recent example of the impact of PR for minority rights comes from Texas. In May 2000, the Amarillo Independent School District for the first time used cumulative voting to fill seats on its school board.[vi] Blacks and Latinos in Amarillo together comprise nearly a quarter of the city's population, but no black or Latino candidate had won a seat on the school board in decades. The change had an immediate impact. Both a black candidate and Latino candidate won seats with strong support in their respective communities, and voter turnout more than doubled over the most recent school board election. In 2002, a second Latina candidate won, giving racial minorities three of seven seats. Racial representation had been achieved within two election cycles, nearly overnight by historical standards.

At this point, however, the leadership of minority and voting rights organizations still prefer the tried and true single-member district remedies to minority under-representation. Still, as the arrival of more immigrant communities leads to more complex multiracial and ethnic configurations renders these remedies less effective, PR systems will be a natural solution to explore – especially if basic knowledge of PR becomes more widespread. As advocates of women’s representation grow ever more restless with their under-representation, they may persuade more groups representing racial minorities to work for PR systems that enhance both women and people of color.

Lack of  knowledge about PR remains a major hurdle. To remedy this education, the CVD and a growing number of pro-PR groups at a state level[vii] pursue a range of tactics. They regularly circulate information about PR and problems with winner-take-all elections to a great number of university professors, journalists and civic leaders – many in turn incorporate this information into their work and teaching. PR advocates at both a national and grassroots level regularly meet with representatives of organizations and elected officials and make presentations at these groups’ conferences and board meetings. More and more groups have taken positions on PR, and could be mobilized if and when serious campaigns for PR are ready to be launched. Similarly, sparked by CVD efforts, numerous colleges and universities have adopted PR or IRV for student elections.[viii]

The problem is also one of coherence. Democracy in the United States falls short on a wide range of measures, many of them pursued by a wide range of dedicated organizations and reformers, each championing their specific reform. Unfortunately, these all-too-often disparate efforts have failed to make significant headway in addressing the considerable failures of American democracy. Holding back progress is the fact that the biggest pro-democracy organizations do not present an overall broad analysis, nor do they promote comprehensive solutions. Instead, groups are defined by a piecemeal agenda of their own particular favorite reforms, the value of which is exaggerated to the point of hyperbole in these groups’ efforts to secure more funding and attention.

To counter this, CVD has established a Democracy USA initiative designed to build a stronger infrastructure for a pro-democracy movement. If it comes to full fruition, Democracy USA will lead to strong, multi-issue democracy advocates in every state, able to take advantage of local and state opportunities and tap into national resources on a range of democracy issues. As a first step toward building this network, the Center coordinated a major conference in Washington, D.C in November 2003 at which a wide range of civil rights and electoral reform organizations participated. For PR advocates, a stronger pro-democracy movement in the United States would lift all boats: too often we have not been able to take advantage of a possible opening due to a lack of activist presence on the ground in a particular state. It also would allow more people to evaluate the relative merits of different reforms. Hopefully more would come to share our conclusion: that winner-take-all elections are a fundamental barrier to full-fledged democracy in the United States, and that lack of democracy, in turn, is the root cause of a Congress out of touch with the American people and their needs. Hence the absence of adequate health care, a decent quality of life, and a sane foreign policy.  The strategy of linking PR to a broader reform movement was partly successful in the early 1900’s, when PR was part of the progressive era of reforms of big city government and urban machine politics.

Two states are currently being targeted for a potential breakthrough on PR rather than IRV. With the help of a local foundation, the Center has invested heavily in building on Illinois’ history of cumulative voting for state legislative elections. A range of political leaders in the state support bringing cumulative voting back, including the two most recent governors (both Republican), the chair of the Republican party, the Democratic Secretary of State and the Democratic house majority leader. The legislature was persuaded to pass a bill in 2003 allowing counties to adopt cumulative voting. But the Democratic speaker is not supportive of the idea; hence, to go further, almost certainly a ballot measure would be necessary – a formidable challenge.

In 2004, Washington State should get a boost of attention to PR. Krist Novoselic, who made his name as the bass player for the rock band Nirvana, is a passionate advocate of fair elections. He is running to be Washington’s next lieutenant governor, and his campaign highlights his proposal to elect the state house of representatives by PR – at this point, presenting a classic party list proposal of 11-seat state legislative districts. As a neighbor of British Columbia, Washington may learn from what British Columbia’s citizens’ assembly decides to do on PR. One American variation of the British Columbia approach could be to convene a similar assembly, but with private funds rather than wait for government action. This assembly’s recommendation then would be introduced to voters around the state by civic groups like the League of Women Voters (which has endorsed PR in Washington) before seeking to place the measure on the ballot as a citizen’s initiative. Of course such a strategy is dependent on large financial resources, but there are large donors who can become supportive of reform: one individual in California donated more than 12 million dollars in 2002 to a failed effort to allow voters to register to vote on Election Day.

Winning PR in the United States is indeed a challenge; yet with energy, political smarts and a little luck, reformers should make significant strides in the coming decade.

[ii] In 1995 the Chicago Tribune editorialized in support of cumulative voting’s return, noting that "[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."  A bipartisan commission led by two of the most prominent members of the major parties, one a former federal judge and Democratic Congressman and the other the recent Republican governor, in 2001 recommended return of cumulative voting for these arguments.

[iii] Organizational backers included the Sierra Club, Democratic Party, San Francisco Labor Council (AFL-CIO), Common Cause, National Organization for Women, Congress of California Seniors, Chinese for Affirmative Action, Harvey Milk GLBT Democratic Club, Latino Democratic Club, Green Party, San Francisco Bay Guardian weekly newspaper and California Public Interest Research Group.

[iv] State-by-state measurements of competitiveness, voter turnout, effectiveness of votes, representation of women and racial minorities and the relationship of votes cast for parties and seats won by parties are available for House elections since 1982 on the Center’s website( in its Dubious Democracy report.

[v] A task force of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators found in 1998 strong interest among black legislators in seeing how PR might assist negotiations in redistricting. The National Conference of Black Political Scientists endorsed PR in 1999.

[vi] Cumulative voting was instituted to settle a voting rights lawsuit involving the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

[vii] These include Fair Vote Massachusetts, Fair Vote Minnesota, Midwest Democracy Center of Illinois and Californians for Electoral Reform).

[viii] In least two cases, U.C. Davis and the University of Illinois, PR was approved overwhelmingly in ballot measures by students