lessons from Scotland and Wales
By Steven Hill and Rob
Democracy in the
United States is as sluggish as the economy. Americans avoid the
polls in droves, the courts keep weakening hard-won reforms and
Congress and most state legislatures are more polarized, more immune
from electoral competition and less representative of our nation's
diversity than a decade ago.
Elections this month in Scotland and
Wales give a glimpse of a better way. British electoral traditions
were immensely influential in our choices as a nation, and recent
political reforms shine a welcome beacon of hope for its former
In Wales, the parliament became the first high-level
legislature in the world in which women make up at least half of
representatives. In contrast, the number of women in our Congress is
stalled at 14 percent and is declining in state legislatures.
politician Rhodri Morgan commented, "What is so remarkable is that
up until the last decade of the 20th century we had an appalling
record. Until 1997, Wales only ever had four women Members of
That was when Wales introduced a full representation
voting system. With full representation, nearly all voters are able
to join with other like-minded voters to elect their favorite
candidates, in contrast to U.S.-style, winner-take-all districts,
where winners must garner more than 50% of the vote. The Welsh
results show how, under full representation, even a traditional
society can swiftly change.
Meanwhile, Scotland in its national
elections is a one-party stronghold of the ruling Labor Party, with
lopsided results as dull and predictable as most of our legislative
elections. But full representation for its regional parliament has
broken up the political machine.
The Scots use a "mixed" system,
with some seats elected by winner-take-all, one-seat districts like
those in the United States, others by full representation. With just
34% of the vote, Labor won a 63% landslide of seats decided in
winner-take-all contests. But because Scotland adds on seats to
ensure the legislature reflects the overall vote, Labor ended up
with a fairer share of 39% of seats. It now has reached out to
others to form a governing coalition rather than ram its own agenda
down the throats of the majority who voted against it.
produced these results, but the largest was full representation.
Full representation systems produce more representative legislatures
and in turn more representative policy and greater potential to
define and change the direction of that policy.
Nearly all of the
world's established democracies use one of the many versions of full
representation (also known as "proportional representation"). Every
nation in eastern Europe that established democracy after the fall
of the Soviet Union uses full representation. South Africa adopted
full representation with its all-race elections. And leading
analysts like Fareed Zakaria call for its use in Iraq to provide for
In the United Kingdom, full representation has
been adopted in recent years for elections to the European
Parliament, London city council and the new regional assemblies.
Given public support for change, the House of Commons may not be far
Full representation is catching on in more American
elections. Most presidential primaries will allocate convention
delegates by full representation in 2004, while a growing number of
American localities are rejecting winner-take-all. In 2000,
Amarillo, Texas became the largest city to use a full representation
system. After being all-white for two decades, its seven-member
school board now has two Latinas and one African-American. Women won
more seats, and turnout surged.
With our British political
forebears showing the way, it is time for this wave of democracy to
wash across the Atlantic. We need to replace our stultifying
18th-century winner-take-all methods with "full representation for all."