Limitations to a Semi-Proportional System

Joseph F. Zimmerman

Fewer Votes Than Seats in a Multi-Seat Election

        A limited voting system is one that limits voters to casting ballots for a smaller number of candidates than the number of seats on a governing body. Single-member district systems in fact involve limited voting, but their effect is different than a limited system that restricts voters to casting fewer votes than the number of seats in their constituency: for example, six votes in a nine member governing body elected at-large.
        The multi-member limited voting system is advocated by some reformers and voting rights attorneys who wish to provide direct representation for a minority political party or group. This type of limited voting may be used to elect an entire governing body or in multi-member districts which elect two or more members.

Limited Voting in New York in the 1960s
        New York City employed a single-member district system in the early 1960s, and all members of the City Council were Democrats. The City in 1963 adopted an element of multi-member limited voting by restricting political parties to only one nomination for the two at-large council positions in the city's five boroughs and by allowing voters only one vote for these positions.
        The system was adopted to ensure that a Republican candidate would be elected in each of the five boroughs. In 1969, however, Liberal Party candidates, running on the same ticket as Mayor John V. Lindsay, were elected council members at-large at the expense of Republican candidates in three boroughs. The system subsequently was invalidated on the grounds that the system violated the U.S. Supreme Court's one-person, one-vote dictum because of the varying populations of the boroughs.
        Multi-member limited voting will not violate the Court's dictum when used at-large or in equally populated districts. It has been adopted by several Alabama local governments to settle suits brought against the local governments under the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, as amended. Nevertheless, the system may be subject to attack in court in several states on state constitutional grounds.

Flaws with Multi-Member Limited Voting
        Multi-member limited voting in theory makes it impossible for the largest group or political party to win a disproportionate share of the seats on a governing body and enables the largest minority group or political party to elect one of more candidates.
        But although multi-member limited voting is preferable to the single-member district form of limited voting, it is a crude method for securing representation of minority groups and political parties. The system neither guarantees that each group or political party will be represented fully in proportion to its respective voting strength nor prevents a minority from electing a majority of the members of the governing body if several strong slates of candidates divide the votes cast. In addition, the system typically produces no representation for independent associations or minority political parties other than the largest one.
        Two hypothetical examples will help illustrate the representativeness of a nine-member city council elected by a system restricting each elector to six votes. If the electorate cast 80,000 votes for slate A, 65,000 for slate B and 55,000 for slate C, slates A will win six seats, slate B three seats and Slate C no seats; a forty percent minority thus elects two-thirds of the council members. If, in another example, a Democratic slate receives 101,000 votes and a Republican slate 99,000 votes, the Democrats with a bare majority will elect two-thirds of the seats.
        Furthermore, the majority party in a partisan multi-member limited voting system may have some of its members cast votes for a favored minority party candidate. This action encourages minority party candidates to seek the support of the majority party. A party supported by a large majority of the voters also can divide its supporters into two groups and win both the majority and minority seats on the governing body. Finally, there is nothing to prevent the majority party from assisting the formation of slates of candidates for the purpose of encouraging minority party voters to divide their votes.
        In a more subtle problem, because voters are not allowed to express preferences among candidates they support, many voters realize that they may contribute to the defeat of their favorite candidates by voting for lesser choices. Consequently, as with winner-take-all, at-large systems, limited voting encourages bullet or single-shot voting in which voters voluntarily give up voting power by voting for only one candidate.
        The potential disadvantages associated with this electoral system suggest that reformers should examine an alternative system -- the preference voting proportional representation system -- that does not suffer from these disadvantages.

        Joseph Zimmerman is Professor of Political Science in the Graduate School of Public Affairs of the State University of New York at Albany and a former chair of the Section on Representation and Electoral Systems of the American Political Science Association. He co-edited United States Electoral Systems: Their Impact on Women and Minorities (Praeger, 1992).

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