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"Reflecting All Of Us"

Just What Is Proportional Representation?

Thursday, February 10, 2000
D A I L Y   S P E C I A L

You've heard the statistics: women account for only 12% of the US House and 9% of the US Senate. Some say those numbers are so low because women have trouble fundraising. Others believe that women just aren't interested in the competitive nature of politics. And then there is that lingering attitude that women just don't make good leaders. Robert Richie and Steven Hill of the The Center for Voting and Democracy contend that the main reason there are not more women legislators is because of how we elect our legislative bodies. In their book, "Reflecting All of Us" Richie and Hill make the case for proportional representation as a solution to this problem.

Please define proportional representation. How is it different from the current way we elect our representatives?

Richie: Proportional representation defines voting systems by which groupings of voters can win representation in proportion to their share of the vote. And what's different from that and the US-style winner-take-all system is that it can take 51% of the vote to win a seat. Typically in a two-person race, you have to have that much. ... In a proportional system, you can win a seat in proportion to your share of the vote even if it is less than 51%. So with a multi-seat district system, meaning one in which there is more than one seat to be elected, you can win a fair share of the seats based on your votes. So if it is five seats and you have 20% of the votes you can win one out of five seats.

Let's say someone is running for a House seat from the 5th District of CA. Can you give us a real life example of how proportional representation would affect that candidate?

Richie: Well, the first step is to not have geography determine representation in the dominant way it does now, so that the idea of one person running for one district or for one seat would be changed, and people would be running for several seats. So you would combine existing districts into what we call super-districts. In California, you would have that district, you proposed District 5, and the districts next to it combined into a single district. And the more seats there are, the lower the share of the votes it takes to win. If you combine five of them, it takes about a fifth of the vote to win. If you combine 10 of them, it takes about one-tenth of the vote. In a real life example, if you went to a 10 seat district, you would be running in a district that is 10 times as big as it is now, but you would need a much smaller share of the vote. If there's a type of voter out there that wants you in that isn't necessarily geographically concentrated, but spread out, then these voters could pool their votes and put you in. I haven't mentioned a specific system because there is a whole range of proportional representation systems, some are based on voting for parties, what most other countries use, and then some based on voting for candidates. The most simple candidate-based system would be, a candidate would run in that district and then everyone would have one vote. So even though there are ten seats to be elected you would have one vote. If a candidate got at least one-tenth of the vote, they would be sure of winning.

Hill: Just to make clear that for the most part, when you are talking about proportional representation, you are not talking about single seat districts. There are proportional systems that combine the two; that's why it's hard to say that there is an exact rule here. As Rob said, proportional representation is really more of a principle that blocs of like-minded voters win representation in proportion to their voting strength. So there are different ways of doing it.

Are there any states that use proportional representation either at the national or local level?

Hill: There are states that use multi-seat districts. In fact, Maryland, where our offices are, uses three seat districts. None currently use a proportional system. The state of Illinois used a sort of proportional system in three seat districts up until 1980 and a lot of people want it back there. One of the arguments that states use is that it provided a better representation of women. About 10 seats use multi-seat districts in some form or another for their state legislatures. There is actually an interesting history in congressional elections with multi-seat districts as well.

So some states have tried multi-seat districts for their national representation?

Richie: Yes, in fact, in the early Congresses, back in the 1790s, more states used at-large elections for Congress than single member districts. And a number continued to do that for the first 50 or 60 years. But they used a winner-take-all version and it tended to result in one party winning all of the seats. So one of the reforms of that era was to provide more minority representation by breaking up an at-large winner-take-all system to single member districts. They didn't have proportional representation as a mechanism to turn to. It was a sad accident of history for those who support proportional representation because the first mechanisms to provide it were published and discussed in the mid-1840s, and it was 1842 that Congress passed the law requiring one seat districts for House elections. That law has come and gone since. In fact, a good chunk of this century it was not in place, it was not in place from the 1920s to 1967.

In order to enact proportional representation, what would Congress have to do?

Hill: Congress would have to repeal the single district member requirement, and Congressman Mel Watt [D-NC] has a bill to do that: HR 1173. It had a hearing last year and has sponsors from both parties. I don't think it is going to pass this year, but it is certainly on the table. The framing of it is a smart one. It says that states should have more options. It purports we live in a new era and the single member district system is a one size fits all approach that doesn't serve some states well, or at least might not, and states should have the right to look at something different.

Where it has worked well internationally?

Hill: That depends on your point of view of what working well means. One person's policy victory is another person's loss. I would say that the goal of proportional representation is to give broader representation to greater numbers of people and to have more people feel like their vote counts, so that when they vote for someone, they can vote for a winner. Whereas in this country, generally about 80% of voters either don't vote or vote for losers. So in that sense, I think that pretty much all the proportional countries are doing better than we are. They all give voters more choice, more parties are represented. You see much higher voter turnouts in proportional systems. We have a chart that gives the voter turnouts around the world and the general rule that you see is that the proportional democracies are at the top of the voter turnout and the winner-take-all ones are at the bottom.

Why is that?

Hill: Because voters have more choice. When they go to the voting booth, they've got choices to their left and to their right and in the middle. Not only that, you can vote with confidence knowing that they will win some seats. Most of these countries use a threshold to win representation like 5% of the vote, some use 4%, 3%, or 2%. Whereas in this country, you need at least 50% to win and in some districts 60%. So that's a huge difference and as a result, more voters can actually vote for winners. It's like the various Green Parties in Europe. If you vote for a Green Party pretty much anywhere in the United States, it's a symbolic vote, it is a protest vote. Maybe you like the Green Party but you know this person is not going to win. When you vote for the Green Party in Europe or New Zealand or Australia or even Brazil or Mexico, you know that your vote counts towards something. So there is a lot more incentive to turn out and vote for who you really like rather than vote for the lesser of two evils, which is how a lot of people in our system feel about voting.

Richie: I would add that it is not just more choices, it is better choices in the sense that there are candidates that really cover distinct parts of the spectrum that in our politics can be shut out in any given area. So that if you are a political moderate in most Southern districts, you're not likely to get a chance to elect someone. It is most likely going to be a white conservative or a black liberal based on whether it is a black majority district or not. The Rockefeller Republican, the more socially liberal Republican, is kind of a vanishing voice from our politics, or a pro-life Democrat that has views like the Pope, very pro-life, but very pro-social welfare. There are parts of the spectrum that simply don't fit in with our current, simplified politics. So with views across the spectrum, be they within parties, or outside of the proportional systems really expand those choices. ... More options will help attract people to the polls. The fact that more women run and win is a signal about this that you have different kinds of candidacies than you often have in our current system.

So what is the criticism of proportional representation?

Hill: There is not really any disagreement that these systems give more representation and that more voters vote for winners and more voters turn out. Well, there is a little bit of disagreement over what causes a higher turnout, but most people acknowledge that gives voters more choice and makes them feel like their vote counts more. Where the disagreement comes in is whether that's good or bad. Israel is the place that always gets raised. You elect right-wing extremist religious parties as the criticism goes. They will point to Italy, where so many different parties get elected that the coalition governments in parliamentary systems collapse. ... But the thing that I like to point out is that in terms of Israel and Italy, they're really not the typical experience that most countries have had with proportional representation of extreme views or coalition governments collapsing. In most countries, the democracies with proportional representation are very stable and they tend to elect two major parties and a few minor parties that become the laboratory for new ideas.

When combining districts together, wouldn't it require more money to get elected?

Richie: That is an obvious concern and I am glad that you raised it. One is we believe that money doesn't play the dominant role in how people vote that people often ascribe to it. It has a powerful impact in a winner-take-all system because it has a powerful impact on a certain share of the vote. But that share of the vote isn't necessarily that big. In a typical congressional race, we think it might impact only one out of ten voters. Most voters are going to vote on candidates based on their partisan inclinations or some other factor. But in a winner-take-all system, if you can change one out of ten voters that can change you from winning to losing. ... One thing that I think is interesting is that in multi-seat state legislative districts, it does not cost more to run and win than in single member districts in those same states, at least based on a couple of studies that we have seen. ... In North Carolina, they have relatively large districts then, when they are made into three seat districts, they are three times as large. The winners and all candidates in general spent less than in single member districts. You might say to yourself, "Well that seems crazy." There seems to be several key factors. One is they can join forces with people of their party ... to share the cost of a mailing or a TV ad, saying "We're the Republican team. Put us in." ... A lot of the money is spent on demonizing the opposition, in a zero sum winner-take-all politics, where you are trying to make your opposition look bad if it is just a one up or one down, either me or you. If I make you look bad I win. So a lot of money is spent on making those ads and responding to that. With more candidates running this is not as much of a factor.

But won't the Democrats and Republicans still have the edge over other party candidates?

Hill: Well, the Democrats and Republicans are certainly going to be the biggest parties. They might not stay that way if they were in a competitive marketplace. I don't think the fact that they spend more money is the reason why they get more votes. It's the fact that most people are Democrats and Republicans.

Richie: If you look at the proportional democracies around the world -- I study the Green Party quite a lot -- they don't spend anywhere near the amount of money that the major parties in say, Germany, spend, but they still win their fair share of the seats. ... And that is true of other parties. ... There are only about 15% of voters who are what we call swing voters. So in that kind of a proportional representation climate, if there are 10% of voters who agree with the Green Party, the Green Party is going to win 10% of the seats. And if there is 40% that agree with the Democratic Party then they will win 40% of the seats. The amount of money spent doesn't really change the outcome.

How can proportional representation increase the number of women in legislative bodies?

Hill: There are a few ways it helps women. When you look around the world at the democracies where women win in much greater numbers than in this country, you see democracies like Sweden, which had 40% women, and Norway, which is about 40%. In Scotland and Wales, which just had their first elections for their regional government, women won around 40% of the seats. Again you see this very clear divide between countries that use proportional representation. The reason seems to be the following: when you only have one vote for your one seat district, because of lingering attitudes of sexism and what have you, there is still this reluctance to vote for women. There also seems to be some evidence that women don't want to enter the fray, so to speak, because that head-to-head combat can get pretty nasty and ugly. I am not sure how convinced I am by that evidence, but it does seem to be there. There's other evidence, even in the United States, that women win more in at-large, multi-seat districts than in single-seat districts. ...

Richie: On the statistical side of things, there are countries that have a mix of proportional systems and single-district systems and women win far more, typically two to three times more of the share of the seats, in proportional systems. And the same goes here in the US, where there is a combination of single-district and multi-districts within a state, women win a significantly higher number of seats in the multi-seat district races.

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