THE MOST NEEDED ELECTORAL REFORM Wasted Votes Aren't Just for Third Parties

By Douglas Amy, 1/24/2001

Many Americans think it's unfair that George W. Bush won the presidency with a minority of the popular vote, and there has been much banter about the obvious electoral reform: scraping the electoral college. But there is another reform that could have far more widespread and profound impacts on American politics: replacing single-member district, winner-take-all legislative elections with proportional representation (PR) elections. Proportional representation uses multi-member districts: instead of electing one legislator in each small district, PR uses larger districts that elect several members at once. The proportion of votes a party receives determines which candidates win the seats in these multi-member districts. If we have a  ten-member PR district in which the Democrats win 50 percent of the vote, they would receive five of those ten seats. With 30 percent of the vote, the Republicans would get three seats. And if a third party received the other 20 percent of the votes, it would get the remaining two seats. (For more information on PR systems, see "How Does PR Work?")

At first glance, this voting process might seem a bit strange to many Americans. We are used to our single-member district system, in which we elect one candidate in each legislative district. But our approach to elections is increasingly at odds with the rest of the world. The vast majority of Western democracies see American-style elections as outmoded and unfair and have rejected them in favor of proportional representation. The United States, Canada, and Great Britain are the only Western democracies that continue to cling to winner-take-all arrangements.

The Problem with Single-Member District Elections

The single-member district system has been on the wane worldwide because it has a number of serious drawbacks. It routinely denies representation to large numbers of voters, produces legislatures that fail to accurately reflect the views of the public, discriminates against third parties, and discourages voter turnout. All of these problems can be traced to a fundamental flaw in our system: only those who vote for the winning candidate get any representation. Everyone else -- who may even make up the majority when third parties run -- gets no representation.

We are all familiar with this problem. If you are a Democrat in a predominately Republican district, or a Republican in a Democratic one, or an African-American in a white district, or a third party supporter in any virtually any district, then you are shut out by our current election system. You might cast your vote, but it will be wasted on a candidate that cannot win. In the 1994 elections for the U.S. House of Representatives, more than 26 million Americans wasted their votes on losing candidates. Under single-member district rules we may have the right to vote, but we don't have the equally important right to be represented.

To make matters worse, this denial of representation often produces disproportionate representation in Congress and our state and local legislatures. Parties often receive far more (or far fewer) seats than they deserve. For example, in the 1996 elections for the U.S. House of Representatives, the Democrats won 66 percent of votes in Massachusetts, but received 100 percent of the state's ten seats. The Republicans cast 33 percent of the vote, but they were all wasted and they received no representation. The distortion of representation was even worse in Washington State, where the Republicans took second place with 47 percent of the vote, but won 67 percent (six out of nine) of the House seats. Americans have become used to this kind of political injustice, but citizens in most other democracies are not willing to put up with it.

Under proportional representation rules, no significant groups are denied representation. Even political minorities, who may constitute only 10 to 20 percent of the voters, are able to win some seats in these multi-member districts. In PR systems, nearly everyone's vote counts, with 80 to 90 percent of the voters actually electing someone, compared to 50 to 60 percent in most U.S. elections. Under PR, we can also be sure that our legislatures will accurately reflect the voting strength of the various parties. If a party receives 40 percent of the vote, it will get 40 percent of the seats, not 20 percent or 60 percent as can happen now with our system.

More Choices for Voters

Voters in the U.S. are increasingly dissatisfied with the offerings of the two major parties and recent surveys indicate that over 60 percent of Americans would now like to see other parties emerge to challenge the Democrats and Republicans. Voters are showing increasing interest in alternatives such as the Reform party, the Libertarian party, the Greens, and the New Party. But under our current rules, none of these parties stand a realistic chance of electing their candidates. Winner-take-all elections require candidates to receive a majority or plurality of the vote to win, and minor party candidates can rarely overcome that formidable barrier. As a result, third party supporters waste their votes on a candidate who cannot win; or worse, inadvertently contribute to the election of the candidate they least like-- as Nader supporters did in the 2000 presidential election. They often vote for the lesser-of-two-evils among the major party candidates or do not vote at all.

In short, single-member district elections are rigged against minor parties and serve to unfairly protect the major parties from competition. Under PR, many minor parties, needing only 10 to 20 percent of the vote to elect a candidate, would quickly become viable and we would have a truly competitive multi-party system.

This would give American voters what they say they want: more choice at the polls, and it would encourage higher levels of voting. People would be more likely to vote if they had an easier time finding a candidate or party they could support enthusiastically. Voters would also know that their vote would not be wasted. Because of such inducements, voters in PR countries typically turnout at rates of 70 to 80 percent, compared to 50 percent or less in the U.S. Voting systems scholars estimate that adopting PR in the U.S. would increase voter participation by 10 to 12 percent, which would translate into millions of more voters at the polls.

A multi-party system would ensure that our legislatures represented the variety of political perspectives that exist in the electorate. More representative legislatures would foster more exciting and wide-ranging political debate and inject new ideas into decision making.

Solving our Voting Rights Problems

Another major advantage of proportional representation is in the area of voting rights. Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier has argued that PR would help to ensure fair representation for racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S. Currently, supporters of voting rights are facing a difficult dilemma. The Supreme Court has cast doubt on the constitutionality of creating special minority-dominated districts. These districts have been the main avenue by which minorities have increased their representation in Congress over the past few decades. But if we abandon this approach, how do we avoid going back to the old, white-dominated districts?

Under proportional representation, minorities in majority white districts could still elect their own representatives. Studies have shown that in Cincinnati and other places where proportional representation has been used in the United States, minorities were more fairly represented. Proportional representation would ensure fair representation for both whites and minorities, and do so without creating special districts. (For more on this issue, see "Fair Representation for Racial Minorities: Is Proportional Representation the Answer?")

The same logic holds true for women. The United States continues to lag far behind many other Western democracies, with the percentage of women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives hovering around 13 percent. In many other countries that figure for their lower houses is 20, 30 and even 40 percent. Scholars have found that many more women tend to be nominated in countries using PR voting; and the more women that are nominated, the more they win office. The adoption of PR in the U.S. would be one of the most effective ways to increase the number of women in elected office. (For more information, see "Ain't I a Voter: Voting Rights for Women.")

Implementing PR in the United States

In the U.S., much of the grassroots political activity promoting PR has taken place on the local level. For example, in the 1990s, two large cities-- Cincinnati and San Francisco-- voted on referendums to adopt PR. Both efforts were narrowly defeated, with PR garnering the support of almost 45 percent of the voters in both cases.

Proportional representation is also feasible for Congressional elections. The Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington, D.C., has developed plans for Georgia and North Carolina that demonstrate how easy it would be to create multi- member PR districts for U.S. House elections. Such plans would not require a constitutional amendment. All that would be needed is to repeal a 1967 federal law requiring single-member district elections for the House, and several bills have been introduced in Congress that would do just that. In fact, with the approval of the Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act, some states are already using PR in local elections, allowing minorities to elect their fair share of representatives.

The debate over proportional representation is just beginning in this country, but it is an idea whose time has come. If we want our elections to be fair and democratic, and if we want voting to become a more powerful and meaningful political act, then it is time to take a long and careful look at this type of reform. (Additional information about proportional representation elections can be found at Proportional Representation Library.)

Douglas Amy is a professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College and a leading expert on electoral voting systems, including proportional representation, redistricting issues in the United States and the plight of third party candidacies.