What's the Key to Real Reform? 
It's the Voting System!

by Matthew Cossolotto

"Reform" has never been more popular. During the shortened presidential primary season, leading candidates in both major political parties made impassioned pleas for reforming everything from our current campaign finance laws, to our education system and Social Security. In his heated battle to fend off the John McCain challenge for the Republican presidential nomination, Governor George W. Bush claimed to be a "Reformer with Results." Vice President Al Gore has embraced the cause of campaign finance reform with the intensity and alacrity of a recent convert, calling it his number one legislative priority.

But even as major political figures are tripping over themselves to pick up the "reform" mantle, one thing is missing: Meaningful proposals for "real" political reform. I have yet to hear a major candidate even mention "voting system reform" - which happens to be the single most significant step we could take to reform our political system. Many other countries - including the United Kingdom and Canada - have held high-profile public debates about voting system reform for many years.

It's the Voting System, Stupid Why is the voting system so important? Simple. A country's voting system determines how the votes of the electorate get translated into representation and political power. In the United States, we use what political scientists call a "plurality/winner take all" system for electing most of our public officials. With very few exceptions the candidate with the most votes wins.

We inherited our plurality/winner-take-all system centuries ago from our British colonial masters. The country has changed dramatically over the years. But our voting system has remained essentially unchanged as if trapped in an 18th century time warp. By contrast, most of the other mature democracies began adapting some form of "proportional" voting as early as the mid-19th century.

There's a big difference between winner-take-all voting systems and proportional voting systems. Without getting too technical, one of the biggest differences is that proportional systems tend to be associated with multi-party democracies, while winner-take-all systems like we use tend to reinforce a two-party duopoly.

Many Americans accept our two-party system as an article of faith, as if it was somehow enshrined in the Constitution. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Constitution makes no mention of political parties. Nor does it stipulate a particular voting system. We are completely free - Constitutionally speaking - to scrap our antiquated winner-take-all voting system in favor of a more modern, diversity-tolerant system like proportional voting.

Under proportional systems, seats in a legislative assembly are allocated in rough proportion (hence the term "proportional representation") to the votes received by various parties or candidates in an election. Under proportional systems, a party or candidate that receives 10% of the vote receives roughly 10% of the available seats. Nothing could be fairer than that. And nothing could be more in keeping with the true spirit of representative democracy.

By contrast, under winner-take-all systems, a winning candidate in a two-person race need only receive one vote over half of the votes cast (50% plus 1) in order to win the seat. Thus, 100% of the representation from a given district goes to the candidate who receives just over 50% of the vote, a disproportionate share by any reasonable definition. Over 49% of the voters in that particular election would go unrepresented. Those votes, in effect, are "wasted" on a "losing" candidate. When candidates who garner just short of 50% of the vote lose, something's wrong with the underlying voting system. As Hamlet might say, something's rotten in our democracy.

Because our voting system results in such a high percentage of "wasted" votes, it should come as no surprise that voter turnout in the United States is so anemic. A mere 36 percent of eligible voters bothered to cast ballots in the 1998 election, the lowest turnout for a midterm election in over 50 years. Only 49% -- less than half! -- voted in the 1996 presidential election, the lowest voter participation rate in 70 years. If you include voter turnout for off-year, local elections - typically in the abysmal 5% to 10% range - our democracy seems to be in the throes of a near-death experience. Proportional systems, on the other hand, tend to be associated with much higher voter turnout rates, typically in the 80% to 90% range.

As our democracy limps into a new millennium, saddled as we are with an alienated, apathetic and cynical electorate, we should be willing to explore the full range of alternative voting systems. Let's not be lured by the siren songs of ersatz reformers. Self-proclaimed "reformers" in American politics should be encouraging a far-ranging debate about changing our outdated and unfair voting system. Reforming our voting system - and thereby breaking the two-party duopoly -- holds the key to creating a much healthier and more vibrant democracy for the 21st century.

About the Author Matthew Cossolotto, a former congressional aide, is the author of the Almanac of European Politics. From 1992-1996, he served as the founding president of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a non-profit educational organization dedicated to educating the public about the benefits of alternative voting systems