"[American legislatures] should be an exact portrait, in miniature,
of the people
at large, as it should think, feel, reason, and act like them." -John Adams
Flaws in Winner-Take-All Voting
The winner-take-all, single-member district election system has been on the wane worldwide because it often produces unfair and undemocratic results. 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 to office.
The source of these faults can be traced to a fundamental flaw in the single-member district system: it is designed to ensure representation only for the majority of voters in a particular geographic area. Only those who vote for the winning candidate in a district get representation in this system. Everyone else -- who may make up 49% of the electorate in the district -- are considered losers not meriting representation. All in the minority in a single-member district are thus effectively disenfranchised; their vote is worthless because it cannot help 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 can be shut out of electing a candidate of choice by our current election system and have no one to speak for you in the legislature. Under single-member district rules, you have the right to vote, but not the right to be represented through casting an effective vote. This electoral injustice is an inevitable part of our present system.
In contrast, proportional representation (PR) systems are one-person, one-vote systems designed to ensure that first, all voters are able to elect their own representatives and second, all city, state and federal legislatures accurately reflect the variety and strength of the political perspectives present in the electorate.
To achieve these aims, PR systems use non-winner-take-all methods in multi-member districts.
Several candidates are elected in each district, which allows nearly all voters to elect someone to represent them and that allows 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 six of the ten district seats, a party winning 20% of the vote wins two seats and so on.
Notice that parties need not get a plurality or majority of 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 government. Although there are many different forms of PR in use worldwide, what they all share is a commitment to empower all voters and ensure that all have fair representation.
Creating a Competitive, Multi-Party System
In order to appreciate the many advantages of PR, it is useful to imagine for a moment how our elections would be transformed if we were to adopt PR systems here in the U.S.
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 come away from the polling places with nothing to show for their efforts. Instead, nearly all voters -- 80% to 95% -- would have someone to represent them in the legislature, in contrast to the 50% to 60% that is common now in our single-member district system. For the first time, nearly all citizens would have a voice in government. They would have someone they can talk to in city hall or Congress -- and someone to promote their interests.
PR would allow us to break the monopoly of the two-major parties and to create a true multi-party system in the U.S. Our current two-party system severely restricts the choices of American voters. We can go into any shoe store in the U.S. and have dozens of styles of shoes from which to choose, but when we go into the voting booth, we usually have only two choices. It is ludicrous to believe that two parties can represent the wide variety of political opinions in the U.S.: a fact that more and more of the public are now recognizing.
A majority of Americans now say they would like to see new parties to challenge the Democrats and Republicans, but our current single-member district system makes it almost impossible for such minor parties to succeed. 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 cannot win is a waste of their vote -- and so they reluctantly switch to a more "realistic" major party candidate. This plurality barrier explains why virtually all of the more than thousand minor parties started in the U.S. during the last two hundred years have died 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 10%, 20% or 30% of the vote. Suddenly, minor parties could become viable in the U.S. For the first time, we could have a viable Green party, Libertarian Party African-American-oriented party or Taxpayers Party. Voters would 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. It would become much easier for new ideas and new voices to be heard in our political system. The press would have to pay more attention to minor party candidates because they would now have a realistic chance of being elected. And with a multi-party system, our city councils and state and federal legislatures would truly reflect the diversity and range of political views in our society.
Increasing Voter Turnout
PR would also increase voter participation in the U.S. Huge numbers of Americans are now so alienated from our elections that they don't bother to participate. The fact that most people don't vote most of the time only casts doubt on the democratic legitimacy of our elected governments. While democracies with PR routinely enjoy voter turnouts of over 80%, we are lucky to get 50% for presidential elections, and it is usually much lower for congressional elections.
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 a large party discourages turnout. In our current system, there is no incentive for Democrats to turn out in districts dominated by Republicans. Under current voting 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, all voters can elect someone -- those in the second largest party as well as smaller ones -- and so everyone has a reason to vote. With PR it does make a difference whether a party gets 10, 20 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 turn out -- and of parties to mobilize their supporters everywhere.
Responding to the Criticisms of PR
Strong arguments also can be made for how PR would eliminate or at least modify our problems with gerrymandering, pork barrel policies and under-representation of women and racial and ethnic minorities. But of course PR is not without its critics. The objections to PR offered by these critics are generally weak and poorly supported by evidence, however.
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 democracies, where voter participation is usually dramatically higher than in the U.S. There is no reason to believe that PR elections would be any more difficult for Americans to use than it has been for the voters in other western democracies.
Other critics have argued that PR creates unstable and short-lived governments, as in Italy. But such instability is very rare; most PR countries have enjoyed long and stable coalition governments, and even when not, relatively stable policy-making. Most important, instability is a potential problem only in parliamentary systems, where the government is dependent on the existence of a stable parliamentary coalition. But in our system, the executive is elected separately and so the whole question of government instability becomes moot.
In addition, PR is often accused of making it easier for small extremist parties to elect candidates and gain excessive power in coalition governments. But most PR countries set a threshold of votes that parties must obtain to win any representation -- Germany's is five percent, for example -- and this keeps out almost all of these marginal extremist parties. Furthermore, bigger parties always have more power in coalitions than smaller parties.
Finally, critics suggest that the use of PR in the U.S. would mean that voters only would be able to vote for parties, not for individual candidates, and that they would lose their local district representatives. But several forms of PR -- such as the preference voting system used in Ireland and the mixed member PR system used in Germany -- allow voters to vote for individual candidates and to retain local representation.
Douglas Amy is head of Mount Holyoke's Department of Politics, Research Chair of the Advisory Board of The Center for Voting and Democracy and author of Real Choices/New Voices: The Case for Proportional Elections in the United States, New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
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