"The right of voting for representation is the primary right by
which other rights are protected."
-- Thomas Paine
Inaugurating a New Tradition
With the issuance of this first annual Voting and Democracy Report: 1993, The Center for Voting and Democracy inaugurates a new tradition. Each December 16th, the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, CV&D will release this annual assessment of the state of democracy around the world and in the United States, emphasizing our particular area of interest and expertise: the voting system.
We selected the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party for obvious reasons. That act of protest in 1773 helped to turn a popular slogan into a powerful idea: "No Taxation Without Representation!" Those four words became the battle cry of the American Revolution. Making the same point with different words, our Declaration of Independence states that governments derive "their just powers from the consent of the governed." Simply put: no taxation without representation.
That phrase or slogan neatly asserts a profound moral principle of governance, a principle that while revolutionary in 1773, is widely accepted today. It expresses the basis for governmental legitimacy. And it succinctly expresses the essence of democracy.
The etymology of the word "democracy" itself is instructive. "Demos," in the original Greek, means "people." "Cracy" is a suffix derived from the Greek "Kratia" or "Kratos" meaning "rule" or "government." Hence, "democracy" should mean "government of the people," or simply "popular government."
Why a Report in 1993?
Representative democracy is on the ascendancy around the world. This worldwide movement has been particularly dramatic in recent years in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Since the sudden and spectacular demise of Soviet Communism and the Soviet Union itself, multiparty elections have been held in many countries that for decades knew only the tyranny of sham elections and one-party rule.
If 1989, with the opening of the Berlin Wall, will be remembered as the watershed year in this global trend toward representative democracy, 1993 should go down in history as one of the most significant years ever in the related and critically important field of voting system reform.
This report is our first attempt to record significant efforts at electoral reform in a wide variety of countries, from South Africa to Russia, from New Zealand to the United States.
1993's Big Story: Rise of "Mixed Member" Systems
While notable reforms have been proposed and adopted in many countries, the clearest trend -- which has gone largely unreported in the American news media -- is the widespread embrace of "mixed member" voting systems.
In brief, the "mixed member" system, modeled generally after the proportional voting system used in the Federal Republic of Germany, combines essential elements of the world's two major methods of voting: 1) the winner-take-all system (either plurality or majoritarian), in which assembly members are elected from single-member districts; and 2) proportional representation (PR), in which the remaining seats are allocated "in proportion" to the percentage of votes received by various parties or candidates.
Before 1993, the democracies using mixed member systems were Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria and Senegal. Now, the line-up of countries that have adopted mixed member systems include: Russia (population 149 million), Mexico (population 90 million), Italy (population 58 million) and New Zealand (population 3.3 million). Japan (population 124 million) adopted such a system in January 1994.
All told, in less than a year, countries comprising roughly 425 million people have switched to mixed member systems. If you add the 107 million people in German, Hungary, Bulgaria and Senegal, more than half-a-billion people now live in countries that employ mixed member systems. This mass movement catapults this best-of-both-worlds approach into the front ranks of the world's most widely used voting systems.
Important Variations Among Mixed Systems
There are important variations within mixed member systems. In Germany, the PR seat allocation is done in what some experts call a "compensatory" manner. The vote for the party list in fact determines the overall composition of parliament, with seats first filled by the winners of the single-member district seats. The list seats, therefore, in effect are used to compensate for electoral distortions that take place in the single-member district elections. We call this voting method "mixed member PR."
Russia and Mexico, however, keep the results of the single-member district and proportional seats separate, which usually means the largest party will win a majority of the district seats and a plurality of the proportional seats; Japan has also adopted this mixed member system rather than the German model. Failing to use the compensatory system opens democracies to distorted results and problems with gerrymandering and malapportionment of district populations. Clearly, the compensatory approach adds an important degree of fairness.
The "Scale of Proportionality" chart on page 4 helps to put the world's major voting systems into perspective.
New Zealand and the Need for a U.S. Commission
The case of New Zealand's switch to the German-style mixed member PR system is especially instructive for the United States. Alone among the other countries adopting mixed member systems in 1993, New Zealand changed from the winner-take-all plurality system now used in the U.S. In addition, the decision to change via a national referendum came after remarkably widespread public debate and discussion triggered by the report of a 1986 Royal Commission. The Royal Commission spent two years investigating the subject before concluding that New Zealand should adopt the mixed member PR system.
Following the New Zealand example, The Center for Voting and Democracy has proposed creation of a similar national commission in the U.S. This commission would ideally be appointed by the President, but it could also be established privately. State and municipal level commissions should also be created to examine the full range of issues related to the voting system, representation and democracy.
The Vital Link between Voting and Representation
The Center for Voting and Democracy believes that translating votes into representation and political power is what democracy should be about. We are dedicated to educating the American people about the most effective means for our citizens to secure adequate and fair representation of their views in the corridors of government. Hence our commitment to "making your vote count."
But since the effectiveness of a citizen's vote varies with the vagaries of the voting system used, the obvious question becomes: which voting system is best suited for translating a voter's preference into actual representation?
To answer that, it is important to appreciate the role of a voting system in general terms. Think of the voting system as the underlying infrastructure of democracy. It determines the path a citizen's vote follows after it is dropped into the ballot box. Is that vote wasted? Or does it reach its intended destination -- helping to elect that citizen's candidate of choice?
You can also think of the voting system as a prism which can either reflect accurately or wildly distort the voting preferences of the electorate.
The voting system we use in the United States -- the winner-take-all plurality system -- relies on the antiquated notion that a single representative from a district is capable of representing all of the people who live in that district: even those voters who voted against that representative. The result is that some voters' views are represented accurately while others with dissenting views are effectively disenfranchised.
Our "first-place-takes-all" plurality voting system ensures two things: first, the "balkanization" of the electorate into geographic "districts" so that representation is based on where you live, not what you think; and second, that a large number of votes will be wasted on losing candidates -- up to 49% in a two-person contest and 66% in a three-way race.
Winner-Take-All in Canada, France, New Zealand
In Canada, France and New Zealand, national elections were held during 1993. All three countries offer graphic evidence of the inherent distortions of "pure" winner-take-all systems.
Consider Canada. According to media reports, national elections in October resulted in a "landslide" victory for the Liberal Party and a humiliating rout for the ruling Progressive Conservatives. However, the Liberals won a less-than-resounding 41.6% of the nationwide vote, which was magnified into 178 (more than 60%) of the 295 seats in parliament -- what Douglas Rae terms a "manufactured majority.". In contrast, the Conservatives, with 16% of the vote, managed to secure only two seats (0.7%), compared with 153 seats in the previous parliament.
The two other parties of note -- the Reform Party and the Bloc Quebecois -- are essentially regional parties: in fact, although together comprising over a third of parliament, none of their candidates ran directly against one another. The Reform Party won 18% of the national vote -- just 2% more than the humiliated conservatives -- but won 46 seats in the western provinces of Alberta and British Columbia because of its geographically-concentrated support.
Likewise, the Bloc Quebecois, now the second largest party in parliament, won all of its 54 seats in Quebec (where it won 72% of seats with less than a majority of the vote). But the party actually won only 14% of the national vote, less than the Reform Party, less even than the humiliated Conservatives. Such results clearly have exacerbated regional tensions.
France's spring elections produced even more distorted results. France uses a winner-take-all system with a majority required in each single-member district through run-off elections. The victorious coalition of center-right parties won 39% of the nationwide vote, yet a disproportionate 80% of the seats in the National Assembly. In other words, the winner-take-all system forced parties representing over 60% of the population to divvy up a meager 20% of the seats in parliament.
Finally, in New Zealand's last winner-take-all voting election, a new government won an absolute majority with a mere 35% of the vote. A smaller party that won 18% of the vote captured only 2% of seats.
The 1993 Canadian, French and New Zealand election results are strikingly similar to the 1992 elections in the United Kingdom. Last year, John Major's Conservative Party managed to turn an anemic 42% of the vote into another slim parliamentary majority. Supporters of the Labour and Liberal Democratic parties accounted for nearly 58% of the vote but, because of the voting system, found their party preferences relegated to opposition status. In fact, the British have been ruled by minority governments since World War II.
These distortions are connected directly to the winner-take-all voting system, showing the dangers of basing representation only on single-member districts.
What is Proportional Representation?
In contrast to the winner-take-all voting system, proportional representation (PR) more fairly distributes representation to reflect voter preferences. Under PR, the right of decision belongs to the majority, but the right of representation belongs to all. Seats in a representative assembly are distributed in proportion to the votes cast for competing parties or candidates.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, "The case for proportional representation is fundamentally the same as that for representative democracy. Only if an assembly represents the full diversity of opinion within a nation can its decisions be regarded as the decisions of the nation itself."
Most democracies use forms of PR because PR systems guarantee that all voters receive their fair share of representation. What could be more democratic than awarding seats in proportion to votes?
Toward a More Perfect Democracy
Since a constitutional amendment is not required, the people of the United States could easily decide to change our method for electing local, state and federal representatives. At a minimum, how our votes get translated into representation and political power should be a matter of intense interest and widespread public debate.
The preamble of our Constitution dedicates this nation to the creation of a "more perfect Union." It is more than time for us to begin the process of creating a "more perfect democracy." The Founders certainly were wise not to mandate any particular voting system as part of our Constitution, which gives us the freedom -- perhaps the responsibility -- to bring our own judgment to bear on this central question. And that process must begin with a sober re-examination of our long-held, but inadequate conception of representation. This report is designed to help that effort at re-examination by stimulating informed debate. As noted above, The Center for Voting and Democracy also proposes that the debate in the U.S. about voting system reform should be facilitated through the educational work of blue ribbon commissions at the local, state and national levels.
These panels would serve to educate the public and the media about the function of voting systems in the practice of any democracy. Most importantly, the reports and recommendations of these commissions would equip citizens with the information they need to make informed judgments about the pros and cons of the many responsible and democratic alternatives to the unfair winner-take-all voting systems currently used for nearly all U.S. elections.
Matthew Cossolotto is President and Chair of the Board of The Center for Voting and Democracy. A corporate executive and former senior aide to ex-Speaker of the House Jim Wright, Cossolotto is author of The Almanac of European Politics, to be published in 1994 by Congressional Quarterly.
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