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MSNBC



Democracy lessons from Scotland and Wales
By Steven Hill and Rob Richie

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 colony.

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.

Welsh 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 Parliament."

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.

Many factors 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 greater stability.

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 behind.

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."


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