Proportional Representation: 
Why It Matters

Access to Power

In a representative democracy, elections are about power. Winners wield power. Losers and those not engaged in election can be left behind.

Proportional representation (PR) describes voting systems used in most democracies in which parties or individuals gain office in direct relation to their support among voters. Without doubt PR is fairer than our current system.

But of equal importance, PR makes power more accessible by increasing the number of effective votes and the diversity of winners. In our current system, most elected officials -- including all members of Congress -- come from "single member districts," where winning requires gaining the most votes in that district. Up to 50% of votes in a two- person race often are "wasted;" in a three-person race, a majority can "waste" their votes.

Our system results in great injustice to any person voting with people who are in a permanent minority in their single member district. Such groups have little power, and, as a result, do not have their interests addressed or even taken seriously. They also have little chance to change the majority's views.

Who suffers?

Almost everyone suffers from our lack of PR at some point: Republicans living in Democratic districts; Democrats in Republican districts; and supporters of other parties everywhere. Particularly hurt by our system are:

People of color: All states are majority white . . . and only one U.S. senator is black or Latino. This under-representation occurs at all levels.

Women: Only recently have majorities felt able to vote for women -- and women comprise barely 10% of Congress, one of the world's lowest levels.

Third parties: Everywhere in the country supporters of "third" parties currently are in the minority -- and only one third party representative serves in Congress, and only three serve in state legislatures.

Labor: Decreases in union membership in the U.S. have caused an exponential loss of influence -- particularly because trade union members themselves rarely are elected in our system.

Uncoincidentally, we have no national health care policy, no coherent urban policy and weak protection of the environment and rights of workers. Because policy flows from those in power, the elections that put people in power and present the issues to the voters are central to changing policy.

A Change to Proportional Representation

Proportional representation (PR) gives people supporting groups of a certain size the opportunity to gain their fair share of power. By not electing all officeholders from single member districts and thus allowing the "pie" of votes to be cut differently, PR ensures voters can gain representation in proportion to their level of support. PR more fully realizes the democratic ideal of "one person, one vote" by ensuring it means "one person, one effective vote." Legislatures mirror the interests of the population, not merely one segment of it.

Most countries use PR. Every new democracy in eastern Europe chose PR. South Africa will adopt PR. Of the few democracies using the U.S. system, all are either changing to PR or seriously considering it; only India instituted the U.S. system this century.

PR comes in many forms. Some work better than others. In Germany, half of its legislature still is elected from single-member districts. In Ireland, voters choose among individuals. But in nearly every country with PR, more people vote, more parties gain office, more women are elected and more policy reflects majority interests.