Every November most progressive voters groan as we engage in the familiar routine of choosing between the "lesser of two evils." Democrat or Republican, pick your poison. There is usually a clamor for a third party, whether Rainbow, Green, Labor, New or Social Democrat. Despite wishful thinking, nothing electable ever emerges on the leftist front, and in 1994 many progressives didn't even bother to vote unless it was to oppose some Republican or regressive initiative or referendum.
Meanwhile, in Germany, which also held its national elections in 1994, the Green Party emerged as the third largest political party in its parliament. They increased their legislative seats by six times, from 8 to 49. A pacifist party, the Party for Democratic Socialism, won 30 seats. Women increased their legislative numbers to 176, which is 26% of the German legislature. Why can't progressives and women have similar successes in the United States, one might wonder? Could it be that the United States is just too darn conservative?
Many factors -- cultural, social, economic, racial -- determine voter priorities. But by far the most critical factor that keeps progressives from being elected is the "winner-take-all" voting system. It is nearly impossible for progressive candidates -- or any other third party or minority candidate -- to win a seat under a winner-take-all voting system, since by virtue of being a minority progressives cannot attract a majority of votes.
A majority of votes is a heck of a lot of votes to win, requiring a lot of campaign money and candidates to "mainstream" themselves -- running on safe, usually conservative issues like law and order, crime, deficits and cutting taxes and government spending. Lost are the voices of homeless advocates, jobs for inner-city youth, critics of environmental racism, labor, class-based candidates and more.
PR to the Rescue
There are other methods of voting used by most of the democracies in the world today, called proportional representation (PR). Under PR, candidates and political parties are elected in proportion to the number of votes received. For example, with one type of PR (there are several, both partisan and non-partisan), 20% of the vote in a ten seat district wins two -- 20% -- of the seats (whereas in a winner-take-all election that same 20% wins zero seats). One need not come in first to win a seat.
PR results in viable third parties and independent candidates, and since there are more choices for voters, voter turn-out in countries with PR typically is 70%-90%, as compared to 39% in the U.S. during the 1994 elections. PR is also a type of campaign finance reform. Since it requires a lower percentage of votes for a party or independent candidate to win a seat, it also lowers the amount of money those candidates need to spend to win a seat.
In short, PR opens up the political system and gives more choices to voters, allowing minority representation but majority rule, and ensuring that the legislative body, whether federal, state or local, reflects the different perspectives in the electorate.
It is the PR voting system used in Germany that has allowed the Green Party to be a potent political force. What's more, the constant presence of the Green Party acts as a check against the rightward drift of the Social Democrats, since progressive voters have somewhere else to turn.
No wonder that progressives like Lani Guinier, Ralph Nader, Dolores Huerta and Eleanor Smeal, as well as centrists like pundit Kevin Phillips and 1980 independent presidential candidate John Anderson are increasingly interested in PR as a way to remedy problems of underrepresentation.
PR can be introduced into the U.S. without any federal constitutional amendments. It is already being used in some cities, like Cambridge MA, Peoria IL, Chilton County, AL and others. All that is required is a change in applicable laws, either by voter initiative or by act of the legislature.
By changing its law a state could use PR to elect its state assembly and senate, local governments and even the electors for the Electoral College. If Congress were to amend a 1967 law requiring single-member districts for elections to the U.S. House of Representatives, a state could adopt PR to elect its congressional delegation.
Head into the 21st century, the United States needs a voting system that will produce legislatures that reflect the diversity of our population. In any democracy, nothing is more fundamental than the voting system. Grassroots organizations may agitate for progressive social change in health care, homelessness, farm worker rights, multicultural diversity and numerous other worthy causes, but if the voting system restricts who is elected into office, then often the grassroots efforts do not translate into positive political results. Alienation and disaffection result, making it doubly difficult to mobilize and empower underrepresented constituencies.
By changing to PR, what we stand to lose is the two party duopoly of our political process, mud-slinging campaigns that are bought by the highest bidder, and candidates who will promise anything to anybody to get elected. Any takers?
Steven Hill is the West Coast coordinator of The Center for Voting and Democracy and
an experienced grassroots activist.
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