How to Implement PR in the United States

Plans to Elect Officials from Congress to Your P.T.A.

Rob Richie

People often discover proportional representation (PR) voting systems because of concern about a certain level of election. Perhaps they are frustrated by lack of real choices in Congressional elections. Perhaps their party's state legislators are moving away from the party's core principles. Perhaps they believe their community would be better served by a more diverse city council.

But as one learns about PR, it becomes clear that PR makes sense for all legislative elections. PR embodies two fundamental democratic principles: voters should be able to help elect someone and self-identified groups should be able to win their fair share of seats. Here is how to implement PR systems for all U.S. elections, from the U.S. Congress to private organizations along with proposals to reform presidential elections.

U.S. Senate: Unlike House elections, constitutional change is necessary to use PR for the Senate to avoid requirements for two senators per state. New Yorker executive editor Hendrik Hertzberg has proposed an amendment to give each state one senator and have the other half of the Senate elected nationally by PR in staggered terms. With 16 or 17 seats up every two years, preference voting would allow some 95% of voters to help elect a Senator each election.

U.S. House: Most members of Congress could be elected by PR right now without constitutional change. Either Congress could require all states with more than two members to use PR to elect their House delegations or states could adopt PR systems on their own.

A mid-sized state like North Carolina could take an incremental approach and adopt preference voting in four, three-member districts or could go to a statewide PR system for its 12 House members. Big states like California would be perfect candidates for German-style mixed member PR. The only barrier to adopting PR for Congress right now is a 1967 law mandating that states use single-member districts. Given that many states have used multi-member districts for House elections in the past and that PR would allow states to avoid the costs of redistricting, there is a strong argument that Congress at least should restore states' opportunity to use PR.

Full constitutional change would liberate one-seat states from having up to half of their voters unrepresented in the "people's House." Either a national system of mixed member PR or adoption of preference voting in 3-to-7 member districts would provide the best balance between geographic and other interests.

State Legislatures: Some states could adopt PR systems for their legislatures with a simple statute change; others would require changes in their constitution. Once able to use PR, state legislatures would have great flexibility in choosing systems, allowing states to truly be "laboratories of democracy."

Illinois in fact used cumulative voting, a semi-PR system, from 1870 to 1980, and as recently as thirty years ago a majority of state legislators were elected from multi-member districts.

As examples of how states could easily adopt PR, Washington and New Jersey now have two-member districts and thus could implement mixed member PR without drawing new districts. Maryland, New Hampshire and other states with multi-member districts easily could use preference voting to elect legislators within current districts.

Cities and counties: Local government is where PR systems have the most history in the U.S., with preference voting (PrV) once used in major cities like New York, Cincinnati and Cleveland and cumulative voting adopted in many recent voting rights cases. As a system that can be used in either partisan or non-partisan elections, PrV is recommended for local elections, either for all seats or along with some single-member districts.

PrV has particular relevance where changing demographics raise tough issues like managing growth and having inclusive governance. Given one-party domination in many cities, PrV also is attractive for opening up politics to diverse viewpoints.

Organizations: Preference voting is an ideal system to elect the leadership of organizations -- from a local PTA to a national religious denomination. Hundreds of universities, trade unions and non-profit organizations use PrV in Britain, and a growing number do in the U.S. The ballot-count is the only potential hassle, and computers make the count easier than ever.

U.S. President: As with all single-winner offices like governor and mayor, a president by definition cannot be elected by PR. But one still can improve the plurality method of voting used for presidential elections. Plurality elections -- in which whoever gets the most votes is the winner, even if that total is below 50% -- conflict with the theory of one-winner representation: if one person is to represent all, shouldn't the winner at least be the one most voters prefer?

Majority preference voting (MPV) is one of several possible reforms. Voters in MPV rank candidates in order of preference: 1, 2, 3 and so on. If no candidate wins 50% of first choices, then ballots for the last-place candidate are redistributed to second choices. This process continues until a candidate wins with 50% or is the only candidate left. With MPV, voters avoid the "lesser of two evils" dynamic. They can vote their conscience by voting for their favorite candidate because they still have a second chance if that candidate cannot win.

For U.S. President, two steps could be taken without a difficult-to-achieve constitutional amendment to abolish the electoral college. Either of these changes could be mandated by Congress for all states or could be adopted by individual states without any action by Congress.

One reform would be to adopt majority preference voting in states and still allocate electoral college votes by a winner-take-all allocation. The winner at least would be more likely to have majority support, a pressing point when only one state in 1992 was won with over 50% and there is a chance that five or six major candidates may run in the 1996 general election. (See John Anderson's article in Chapter Six for a detailed argument for majority preference voting for presidential elections. )

Another reform would be to allocate states' electoral college votes by PR. First introduced in the Senate in the 1860s, this proposal was supported by both Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon and considered by Washington state in 1993. Democrats already use PR in presidential primaries, and Republicans may soon wish they did. With several candidates running in the front-loaded 1996 primaries, many states likely will give all their delegates to GOP candidates "winning" with well under 30%.

Rob Richie directs The Center for Voting and Democracy.

Sample Legislation For Congress

To provide that a State that uses a system of limited voting, cumulative voting or preference voting may establish multi-member congressional districts.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of American in Congress assembled:

Section 1. Multi-Member Districts With Certain Qualifications Are Permitted for Elections of Representatives within States

(a) In General - Notwithstanding Public Law 90- 196 (2 U.S.C. 2c), a State entitled to more than one Representative in Congress may establish a number of districts for election of Representatives that is less than the number of Representatives to which the state is entitled as long as that State uses a system of limited voting, a system of cumulative voting or a system of preference voting in its multi-member districts.

(b) Limited Voting Described - Limited voting is a system in which a voter may not cast a number of votes that is more than one-half the number of Representatives to be elected.

(c) Cumulative Voting Described - Cumulative voting is a system in which a voter may cast a number of votes up to the number of Representatives to be elected, and the voter may distribute those votes, including fractions of votes, in any combination, including all votes for one candidate.

(d) Preference Voting Described - Preference voting is a system in which a voter ranks the candidates and candidates win by reaching a required threshold of votes. After totaling first-place votes, all candidates who have reached the threshold are declared elected. Votes in excess of the threshold are transferred to the voters' next-choice candidates: either some votes at full value or all votes at an appropriately reduced value. When no candidate is above the threshold and all seats have yet to be filled, the candidate with the fewest top-ranked votes is eliminated, and all of his or her votes are transferred to the next-choice candidates at full value. Voters may rank candidates equally. When candidates are so ranked, the value of the ballot is divided equally among such candidates.

The threshold is calculated as: (1) votes divided by the number of Representatives to be elected; (2) votes divided by the number of Representatives to be elected plus one, plus one vote; (3) or any number between the number calculated under clause (1) and the number calculated under clause (2).

(e) Equality Requirement - In a State that uses districts in a system of limited voting, a system of cumulative voting or a system of preference voting, the number of residents per Representative in a district shall be equal for all Representatives elected.

(f) Single-Member Districts Allowed - A State may use single-member districts alone or in combination with multi-member districts.


Table of Contents
Chapter One