The New York Times Flunks Democracy 101

Robert Richie

An Error-Filled Editorial
        On April 24, 1993 the New York Times ran an editorial entitled "Proportional Representation Flunks." Commenting on a recent national referendum in Italy, the Times harshly criticized the form of elections used in nearly all of the world's democracies. Its editorial is a prime example of a dangerous "electoral illiteracy" in the United States that limits our understanding of political developments in other countries and of a powerful potential reform of our own political system.
        Schooled in decades-old myths, U.S. editorial writers have a nearly unanimously negative view of proportional representation (PR). Papers editorializing against PR after the Italian referendum included the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Cleveland Plain Dealer and Sacramento Bee. But none quite approached the vitriol of the Times' attack.
        The Times editorial first got the facts of the Italian referendum wrong. The Italian vote was to modify its PR system, not to adopt a pure "winner-take-all," U.S.-style system. More importantly, the Times turned reality on its face by asserting that most nations have winner-take-all systems and that the use of forms of PR in Italy, Poland and Israel is "a historical oddity."
        In fact the only well-established democracies in the world to use our plurality form of winner-take-all are Britain, Canada, India, Jamaica and Pakistan. With former British colonies being the only nations to institute the system this century, winner-take-all is far more of a "historical oddity" than PR.

More Electoral Illiteracy at Home
        The Times later ran letters rebutting their Italy editorial, but on the same day further evidenced its electoral illiteracy with an editorial against the preference voting system used to elect the city's Community School Boards. The Times inaccurately described how the system works, then bizarrely termed "undemocratic" a system in which nearly every voter -- almost always over 90% -- helps elect someone with the same voting power as everyone else. (See article in this report by Richard Engstrom.)
        New York city's school boards have problems, but preference voting is not one of them. In fact the boards have a far fairer racial, ethnic, gender and ideological balance than the city's other elected bodies. In this year's election, voter turnout doubled over the last election, and both sides in the well-publicized debate over the city's "Rainbow Curriculum" announced they felt well-represented after the election.
        But you wouldn't know the elections had any positive results from most of the city's media. For too many journalists, learning about different forms of democracy is a challenge they refuse to accept. The National Public Radio reporter covering the community school board elections called the system "crazy," and Newsweek last year dismissed cumulative voting -- the system used to elect Boards of Directors of some of our largest corporations and, for over a century, the Illinois state legislature -- as "bizarre."

The British Media Far Ahead
        The British media is far ahead of the U.S. curve on knowledge of voting systems despite Britain's own use of winner-take-all. At the same time the U.S. media was cheerleading the Italian referendum, major British papers were warning about the divisiveness that could follow further moves to winner-take-all, aware from its practice in India and elsewhere that it far from guarantees "stable" two-party democracy.
        The British Economist -- which the New York Times has called "the most sensible publication in the English language" -- in 1991 editorialized for proportional representation and against winner-take-all voting, bluntly calling the latter "undemocratic." Rather than continue to show their own lack of knowledge with short-sighted editorials and one-sided news coverage, perhaps Times journalists could spend a little more time at the library to learn how democracy really works at home and around the world.

        Robert Richie is National Director of The Center for Voting and Democracy.

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