Case Closed: The Move to Fair Elections in Mexico and Elsewhere

By Rob Richie and Steven Hill
Published July 11th 1997
Mexico's recent elections are the latest in a string of elections providing insight into one of the twentieth century's quiet, but critically important political debates: the relative merits of winner-take-all and proportional representation voting systems. The essence of the debate is whether it is more important to have a legislature fully representing voters' viewpoints or to allow a major party to win a distorted number of seats and have one-party government. Proportional representation (PR) systems provide fair representation to political forces that participate -- the principle is that the percentage of seats won by a party should equal its share of the vote -- but tend to result in coalition governments.

In some ways, the debate already has been resolved in favor of PR. Of 37 democracies with at least three million people and a high human rights rating in 1995 from the organization Freedom House, 31 use PR for their main legislature, two use majority systems (although both use PR for some national elections) and only four use plurality, winner- take-all systems. But those still using plurality include the United States, Great Britain and Canada, meaning that the debate certainly is not over in the English-speaking world.

Mexico is one of a growing number of democracies that use a sensible mix of the two approaches. The PRI, the party that has run the nation for seven decades, won 39 percent of the national vote compared with 27 percent for a center-right party and 26 percent for a left-leaning party. Five other parties took the rest.        Mexico's House has 500 seats, and 300 are elected by a U.S.-style plurality system in one-seat districts -- whoever has the most votes wins. Early returns for these seats gave 161 to the PRI and 139 to other parties. If the only seats in the House were elected by plurality, the PRI would have won its usual majority with the support of less than two in five voters.

For the many observers pleased to see multi-party democracy coming to Mexico, the key was that 200 seats were allocated by a form of PR. With 39% of the national vote, the PRI won 78 seats for a total of 239, short of a majority.

Last month, Canada showed just how bizarre the results can be when only having winner-take-all elections. The Liberal Party retained its majority with only 38% of the popular vote -- less than Bob Dole's vote share in our 1996 presidential race. The Liberals won more than 40% of the vote in only three of 12 provinces, but turned 48% of the vote in Ontario into 98% of seats. At the same time, the system rewarded the regional strength of the Reform Party in the west and the separatist Bloc Queboicois, which became the second and third largest parties in parliament with just 30% of the national vote between them.

The British elections were similarly distorted. After 18 years in power, the Conservatives were tossed out by Labour, which won 65 percent of seats with barely 43 percent of the popular vote. But don't feel sorry for the Conservatives -- in the four previous British elections the Conservative Party won parliamentary majorities despite never winning more than 45% of votes. It's no wonder that polls show overwhelming support for PR in Britain.

Meanwhile, Ireland just elected a new parliament with its choice voting form of PR. The American media often ridicule the Irish system, labeling it "complicated." Yet the system is very popular, and the two major parties -- along with six smaller parties -- once again won representation in proportion to their support in the electorate. Voters also tossed out the incumbent government, as they have done in every election since the 1970s -- not satisfied with having the fastest- growing economy in Europe, they use their competitive system to keep pressing for improvements.

Fair results are typical in countries with PR. Unlike most voters in winner-take-all democracies, voters also have real choices. Ireland has between three and five representatives in its multi-seat districts, and every single district has representatives from at least two parties, and in most cases three or four parties. By giving voters choices and the confidence that their votes will count, democracies with PR often have voter turnout of 75% to 95%.

That's a far cry from the United States, where a majority of eligible voters sat out the 1996 election. The United States also is not immune from distortions in votes to seats despite the hurdles it creates for third parties. The Republicans have a majority of House seats, but won only 49% of the nationwide popular vote. In 1994, there were seven states where parties with fewer votes in House races won more seats; Democrats gerrymandered Texas' districts so that they 63% of seats with only 42% of votes.

The Labour Party in Britain has pledged a national referendum on PR. Support understandably rises in Canada, with the largest newspaper the Globe and Mail repeatedly editorializing in favor of a mixed PR system. New Zealand abandoned plurality voting for PR in a 1993 referendum.

Debate about PR is beginning to heat up in the United States. It's about time, as soon it may be the only full-fledged democracy left shunning "complicated"  PR systems in favor of its antiquated winner-take-all system.

Two pro-PR bills were introduced in the 1996-1996 session of Congress, and likely will be re-introduced soon. San Francisco came close to adopting PR for city council elections in 1996. If only because of our low turnout, it is time for us to reexamine an antiquated, 18th-century voting system that deprives voters of real choices, new voices and accurate representation.


(Rob Richie is executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonprofit organization based in Washington DC that educates about voting systems. Steven Hill is the Center's west coast director.)