When Every Vote Counts:
A Look at Proportional Representation
by Professor Douglas Amy, Mount Holyoke College
Originally printed in "Blueprint for Social Justice"
Volume XLVI, No. 8, April 1993
Americans remain highly disenchanted with US elections- and for good reasons.
We are frequently confronted with poor quality candidates who are constantly
constrained by the limited choices offered by a two-party system. Recent polls
reveal that a majority of Americans now would like to see other parties emerge
to challenge the Democrats and Republicans. In addition, American elections
still produce legislatures that fail to reflect the diversity of its citizens.
In particular, our legislatures continue to underrepresent various
political and racial minorities. African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians still do
not occupy their fair share of seats in our legislatures. And despite 1992 being
billed as the "Year of the Woman" in elections and in spite of the
unprecedented number of women being elected to Congress, that institution
continues to be 90% male.
Dissatisfaction with American elections has lead many Americans not to vote
at all, or to desperately embrace instant candidates like Ross Perot or quick
fix reforms like term limits.
But there is a better alternative- a fundamental structural reform that would
make American elections more fair, provide voters with more meaningful choices,
and produce legislatures that are more truly representative of the public. That
reform is to rep lace our present single-member district plurality elections
with a system of proportional representation (PR).
Many Americans view our current plurality system as being the most natural
one- we assume most democracies elect members of their legislatures one at a
time in districts, with the winner being the candidate with the most votes; a
plurality. But in fact t his system is considered to be outmoded and unfair by
most other western democracies and they have deliberately rejected it in favor
of an alternative system- proportional representation elections. Even the
emerging democracies in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union that have
rushed to embrace American capitalism have refused to seriously consider
adopting American-style plurality elections. All have adopted some form of PR.
Among western nations, only the US Great Britain, Canada and New Zealand
(first PR elections in 1996) continue to cling to plurality elections. And a
serious public discussion about switching to proportional representation is
currently taking place in al l of these countries- except ours. Indeed, in New
Zealand that debate culminated last fall in a national referendum on their
election system, in which 85% endorsed a change to proportional representation.
The plurality system has been on the wane worldwide because it is often
unfair and undemocratic. Among other things, it routinely denies representation
to large portions of the electorate, artificially restricts the party choices
offered to voters, and forms a barrier to the election of women and minorities
The source of these fault can be traced to a fundamental flaw in the
plurality system- it is designed to ensure representation only for the majority
of voters in a district. Only those who vote for the winning candidate get any
representation in this sys tem. Everyone else- who may make up 49% of the
electorate in a district- are considered losers who do not merit representation.
All of those in the minority in a single-member district are thus effectively
disenfranchised- their vote is worthless because e it cannot serve to elect
anyone to represent them.
We are all familiar with this problem. If you are a Democrat in a Republican
district, a minor party supporter in any district, an African-American in a
white district, or a white in a Hispanic district, then you are shut out by our
plurality election system and you have no one to speak for you in the
legislature. Under plurality rules you have the right to vote, but not the right
to be represented. This electoral injustice is an inevitable part of the
In contrast, PR is designed to ensure that all voters are able to elect their
own representative, and to guarantee that all city, state, and federal
legislatures accurately reflect the variety and strength of all the political
perspectives present in the electorate. To achieve these aims, proportional
representation systems use multi-member districts. Several candidates are
elected in each district- at it is this arrangement that allows nearly all
voters to elect someone to represent them and that allow s the seats to be
divided up in proportion to the vote each party receives in the district.
For example, in a ten-seat district, a party winning 60% of the votes
receives 6 of the 10 district seats, a party winning 20% of the vote wins 2
seats, and so on. Notice that parties need not get a plurality or majority o the
votes to win representation . As a result, there are few wasted votes in PR
elections, and even those in the minority are able to win their fair share of
seats and to have a voice in the government. Although there are many different
forms of PR in use worldwide, what they all share e is a commitment to empower
all voters to ensure that all have fair representation in government.
In order to appreciate the many political advantages of PR, it is useful to
imagine for a moment how American elections would be transformed if we were to
adopt this system here in the United States.
First, we would see elections become a much more democratic and
representative process. Tens of millions of Americans would no longer be wasting
their votes. They would no longer be coming from the polling places with nothing
to show for their efforts. Instead, nearly all voters- 80-90%- would have
someone to represent them in the legislature, in contrast to the 50-60% that is
common now in our plurality system. For the first time, nearly all citizens
would have a voice in their government. They would have someone they can talk to
in city hall or congress, and someone to promote their interests.
PR would also allow us to break the monopoly of the two major parties and
create a true multiparty system in the US. Our current two party system severely
restricts the choices of American voters- we can go into any shoe store in the
US and have dozens o f styles to choose from, but when we go into the voting
booth we have only two parties to choose from. It is ludicrous to believe that
two parties can represent the wide variety of political opinions in the US- a
fact that more and more of the public are now recognizing. A majority of
Americans now say they would like to see other parties emerge to challenge the
Democrats and Republicans, but our current plurality system makes it almost
impossible for such minor parties to flourish. It requires that a candidate get
a majority or plurality of the vote to get elected- and by definition, most
minor party candidates cannot attract that many votes. Potential minor party
supporters quickly realize that to vote for a minor party candidate who can't
win is a waste of their vote, and so they reluctantly switch to a more
"realistic" major party candidate. This plurality barrier explains why
even though we have had over a thousand minor parties started in the US during
the last two hundred years, virtually all have dies out relatively quickly.
Adopting PR would finally allow for free and fair competition among all
political parties. Parties could get candidates elected even if they only
receive 20-30% of the vote. Suddenly, minor parties would become viable in the
US. For the first time- we could have a viable Green Party, or African-American,
or Latino Party, or Tax Payers Party. Voters would finally have some real
choices at the polls- not merely a choice between the lesser of two evils.
Political campaigns would be re-invigorated, with a variety of candidates
expressing different ideologies and offering different analyses of our pressing
problems. The press would have to pay attention to minor party candidates,
because they would now be realistic candidates with a good chance of being
elected. And with a multi-party system, our city councils and state and federal
legislatures would really reflect the true diversity and range of political
views in the US.
Adopting PR in the US would allow racial and ethnic minorities to finally
have their fair share of seats in our legislatures. Currently,
African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians are severely underrepresented. For
example, while African-Americans make up 11% of our population, they occupy less
than 4% of elected offices in the US. The Hispanic population makes up almost 9%
of the total US population, and yet currently only 4% of the seats in the House
and none in the Senate are occupied by Hispanics (19 93).
PR is a simple and elegant way to ensure these minorities their fair share of
political power. Whether they form their own parties or run as part of the
slates of the established parties, minorities would quickly increase their
numbers of legislative seats under PR rules. And it would do so while avoiding
all the controversies and difficulties involved in the other current approach to
their problem- the creation of single-member districts with a majority of
Another advantage of PR is that women would have a much better chance of
being elected. The underrepresentation of women in our legislatures is another
ongoing scandal in our political system. Even with the 1992 gains, women
currently make up only about 11% of the US House and 6% of the Senate (1993)-
figures that lag behind most PR countries PR countries typically have higher
rates of female elected officials- for example, women occupy between 25 and 35
percent of the seats in the national legislature s in Scandinavia. This is
primarily because women are nominated in much higher numbers as part of the
party slates of candidates used in PR systems. Parties cannot leave women off
their slates for fear of being accused of sexism. The adoption of PR in the US
would be one of the most effective ways to quickly increase the number of women
in elected office.
Proportional Representation would also increase voter participation in the
US. Huge numbers of Americans are now so alienated from our elections that they
don't bother to participate. Voter turnout continues its 30 year decline in the
US- most people no w don't vote most of the time and this can only cast doubt on
the democratic legitimacy of our elected governments. While democracies with
proportional representation routinely enjoy voter turnout rates of 70, 80, and
90 percent, we are lucky to get 50 percent.
PR would encourage higher turnout for two reasons. First, in multi-party
systems, it is easier to find a party and a candidate in which you believe- one
that really reflects your particular political views. Second, there are no safe
districts in PR, where the domination of the larger party discourages turnout.
In our current system, there is no incentive for Democrats to turnout in
districts dominated by Republicans. Under plurality rules, it makes no
difference whether the Democratic candidates receive 10, 20, or 30 percent of
the vote- they still will lose and their supporters will still have little
reason to vote.
But under PR rules, all voters can elect someone, even those not in the
largest party, and everyone then has a reason for voting. And in this system it
does make a difference whether a party gets 2o or 30 percent of the vote; it has
a direct impact on the number of seats they win. So in a PR system, there is a
much greater incentive for all voters to turnout, and for parties to mobilize
voters in every district.
Proportional representation would also eliminate gerrymandering. In
single-member district systems, lines are often drawn to create district
majorities that favor certain parties or incumbents., a cynical exercise
designed to cheat some parties out of their fair share of seats. But PR uses
large multi-member districts. It doesn't matter whether a party is a majority or
a minority in such districts- all parties receive their fair share of seats.
Gerrymandering becomes virtually impossible.
Of course, PR is not without its critics. Certainly the major parties and
their entrenched politicians would not like the see PR come to the US. But the
objections to PR offered by these critics are generally weak.
For example, some have suggested that multi-party systems and PR ballots
would be too complicated and confusing for Americans. But this has not been the
case for voters in other democracy where voter participation is usually
dramatically higher than in t he US. Others have argued that PR creates unstable
and short-lived governments, as in Italy. But such instability is rare; and more
important, it is a potential problem only in parliamentary systems, not in a
presidential system like ours, with its separation of powers. In addition, PR is
often accused of making it easier for small extremist parties to elect
candidates. But most PR countries set a threshold of votes that parties must
cross to get any representation (Germany's is 5%). This keeps out almost all of
these marginal extremist parties. Finally, critics suggest that the use of PR in
the US would mean that voters would only be able to vote for parties- not
individual candidates- and that they would lose their local district
representatives. But this is not necessarily true. Several forms of PR, such as
the additional member form used in Germany, allow voters to vote for individual
candidates and to retain their local representatives.
Given the impressive advantages of PR, it is not surprising that it has
become the election system of choice worldwide. It should be pointed out,
however, that PR has not been a complete stranger her in the US. Between 1915
and 1964 almost two dozen cities experimented with PR elections. They included
Ashtabula, Boulder, Sacramento, West Hartford, Wheeling, Cleveland, Cincinnati,
Toledo and New York. Today, Cambridge, Massachusetts still uses the single
transferable vote for its city council and school board elections. The adoption
of PR in these cities usually came as part of a package of city charter changes
pushed by progressive forces as a way of reforming city government.
From all indications, PR worked quite well in these cities. It helped break
the back of the corrupt party machines and it opened up the city governments to
wider political representation. After the first PR election in Ashtabula, Ohio
in 1915, an editorial in a local newspaper noted the new diversity of political
viewpoints reflected in the new city council: "The drys and the wets are
represented, the Protestants and the Catholics; the business, professional, and
laboring men, the Republicans, Democrat s, and Socialists; the English, Swedes,
and Italians are represented. IT would be hard to select a more representative
council in any other way."
Of course, proportional representation has now largely disappeared from the
US, but not because of any flaws in the system. In some cases PR was abandoned
when other parts of the progressive reform package- like city manager- were
abandoned by these cities. In many other cases, PR was eliminated because the
political establishment in those cities resented sharing power. Leaders of the
major parties worked relentlessly to get rid of PR- often mounting three or four
repeal campaigns before becoming successful. In several cities, they focused on
the fact that PR has allowed leftists or racial minorities to be elected to city
councils, and they used explicitly racist or red-baited campaigns to help get
rid of PR. In Cincinnati, for example, PR allowed for the election of two blacks
to the city council in the 1950s. This was seen as so disconcerting to the white
majority that a repeal effort was launched that eventually eliminated PR and the
black councilors. In short, PR was usually attacked not because it didn't work,
but because it did. Because it did work to allow racial and political minorities
that were previously shut out of city government to finally receive some real
representation- and it was this empowerment that so many established politicians
There is an obvious lesson to be learned from the history of PR in the US:
that despite its clear advantages over our present political system, it will not
be an easy task to bring about proportional representation to this country. The
political establishment will again oppose this kind of electoral reform. But as
with other progressive changes that have taken place in this country, if the
public is both sufficiently informed and organized, they can make this reform a
reality. Given all its advantages , PR clearly deserves more serious attention
from political activists and concerned citizens in this country. It should
certainly be on the agenda of those groups working for progressive political
change. Switching to proportional representation elections would be an important
step in creating a more open, more just and more democratic political system in
the United States.