Christian Science Monitor
Matters of proportion
May 28, 2003
It was grand political theater when Texas Democratic legislators
crossed into Oklahoma earlier this month to avoid Texas Rangers
pursuing them for a quorum call to vote on a Republican
But the underlying problem is national in
scope. And for all their pretense of bravery for principle, not even
Texas Democrats were willing to take the proverbial steer by the
horns - the winner-take-all electoral system used in every federal
and state election in the United States but almost nowhere else
among the world's advanced democracies.
At issue in Texas, as
occurs periodically in all of the other 49 states, was a
redistricting map for the election of representatives to the U.S.
Congress. Because the lines between districts are arbitrary, and
because one can just as effectively win a district with 60 percent
of the vote as with 90 percent, the party in power has every
incentive to gerrymander.
Congressional districts are often molded
into snake-like shapes in order to concentrate opposition voters
into a few districts. That allows the dominant party to secure far
more seats in Congress than would be justified by its share of the
Both parties play this game. When the Democrats
controlled Texas, they shaped the districts to their advantage. Now
the Republicans are trying to do so.
There are, of course, greater
or lesser degrees of gerrymandering, but there is no way to avoid it
altogether in a winner-take-all system. The only real remedy is some
form of proportional representation.
not only gets rid of arguments over district boundaries, it also
enfranchises minorities, because the party that wins the most votes
in a district gets most, but not all, of the seats. Minority parties
can also win seats, which in the U.S. would break the duopoly held
by Republicans and Democrats.
With roughly one-third of American
voters identifying themselves as independents, isn't it time their
interests were properly represented in Washington? The essence of
representative democracy, after all, is to have a legislature that
accurately reflects the makeup of the citizenry, not one that is
skewed for partisan advantage.
But what about the downside of
proportional representation? Detractors point to Italy and Israel as
examples of the chaos that can afflict multiparty systems. They also
argue that having larger districts means losing the certainty of
having a legislator who will actually represent local interests.
Those are potential defects in some forms of proportional
representation. But other forms avoid such pitfalls by clever
design. Germany, New Zealand, and Mexico, for instance, still have
single-member districts. But they also have at-large seats, which
are used to ensure that each party's total representation in the
legislature corresponds with the popular vote at the regional or
national level, thereby eliminating all advantages of
Ireland has taken an alternative approach, setting
up relatively small multiple-member districts. That keeps
representation local. It also makes it difficult for tiny parties to
get seated, but ensures representation for significant minorities.
Also, the Irish have pioneered preference voting, which allows
voters to rank the candidates, thereby ensuring that if their first
choice does not make it, their second choice will be counted, and,
if need be, their third choice. That gives them the freedom to vote
their convictions, without fear of "wasting a vote" on someone who
appears unlikely to win.
Americans justly pride themselves in
having one of the world's longest-lived democracies. But when
hanging chads on ballots in Florida cast a pall over the
presidential election of 2000, it subjected the U.S. to global
embarrassment and ridicule, all the more so because Americans are so
prone to criticize other countries for democratic shortcomings.
spectacle of a posse of Texas Rangers assigned to arrest legislators
in an attempt to dragoon them into rubber-stamping a particularly
egregious gerrymandering scheme is yet another embarrassment and a
sure sign that electoral reform is seriously overdue.
is a senior fellow of the World Policy Institute and an associate
editor of Pacific News Service).