The Case for Proportional Representation

Testimony to the North Carolina Better Campaigns Commission

Robert Richie

On April 1, 1997, the Center for Voting and Democracy's executive director Robert Richie testified before North Carolina's Better Campaigns Commission. The commission is headed by four former governors of the state.

Politics Really is Broken

Good morning. It is a pleasure for me to have the opportunity to appear before you this morning. I only regret that John Anderson, the president of the Center for Voting and Democracy and former Republican Congressman from Illinois and, could not be here because of his duties as a law professor. John sends you his best and expresses his support for your commission's work.

As you are well aware, the drumbeat of criticism of the American electoral process has reached a crescendo in the 1990s. Leading senators have cut short their careers with suggestions that "politics is broken." Voter turnout has sunk to historic lows. The Supreme Court clashes over minority voting rights on a near-annual basis. The money spent on negative campaigning spirals higher. Our leaders stumble through the political thicket in search of meaningful mandates.

These problems are far from temporary aberrations; they are grounded in irreversible changes in technology, campaign techniques and demographics. While some believe we can get by with a little tinkering of the headlights, we believe it is time to look to the engine of our democracy: the power of the vote.

The case for an integrated package of reforms is a strong one. But I believe that an essential component of this package is adoption of proportional representation voting systems -- most dramatically for the House of Representatives, perhaps, but just as importantly for elections to state legislatures and many local governments.

What is Proportional Representation?

So what is proportional representation? Proportional representation, or "PR," is based on the principle that the right to decide belongs to the majority, but the right of representation belongs to all -- or at least "more," as there are some variations of PR that still set a relatively high hurdle for electing a candidate. Another way to think of PR is "full representation," as the idea is that more voters should have their vote count toward representation.

In mathematical terms, this means that seats are won by parties or groups of like-minded voters in proportion to their support among voters. 51% of votes should earn closer to 51% of seats than 100% of seats. 40% of votes should earn about 40% of seats rather than none. To realize this principle, elections cannot be held only in "single-member" districts; some representatives must be elected from constituencies with more than one representative.

It is often a surprise to Americans to learn that the United States is among a dwindling number of democracies that use "winner-take-all" voting. There are 36 democracies that have at least two million people and a high human rights rating from the organization Freedom House. Only four -- the United Kingdom and its former colonies Canada, Jamaica and the United States -- do not use PR for some national elections. And both Canada and the United Kingdom have many influential voices calling for PR; it would not surprise me if both adopted forms of PR in the next decade.

No Single Proportional Representation System

In the question period, perhaps we can explore which PR systems might be most appropriate for North Carolina. I want to stress that there is no single PR system. Some democracies set a threshold of support required to win office that is much higher than what it theoretically could be. Others allocate their seats based on votes within smaller constituencies of 3-to-10 seats, which has the effect of raising the threshold of support necessary to win representation to about 10% (10-seat district) to 25% (3-seat district) of the vote in that constituency. Some democracies use PR within parliamentary systems, but others use PR with U.S.-style presidential systems. Some democracies use forms of PR that require voters to vote for only a party. Others allow voters to express preferences for candidates within a party and some -- like limited voting, cumulative voting and choice voting, which are used in a number of local elections in the United States -- are entirely based on voting for candidates. Some democracies eliminate all of the single member districts that we use for most elections in the United States. Others have "mixed" systems that include some single member districts elections and some PR elections.

Likely Benefits from a Proportional System

We of course are not at the point of debating the fine points of PR systems. But one of my main recommendations today is that North Carolina consider taking the lead in making itself an expert on PR. The more one understands PR, the more one understands how it can have an impact on many of our great political concerns. For example, I believe the simple fact of opening up the political playing field to candidates able to win with their fair share of seats with less than a majority would do the following.

  1. First, PR would weaken political consultants' stranglehold under the current rules in favor of a more principled politics, foster more reasoned campaign discussion of complex issues and increase the connection between campaigns and governance.
  2. Second, PR would create greater incentives for voters to participate and parties to encourage participation. For one, it would ensure that voters have something to vote for: more than a third of state legislative elections regularly are uncontested, including close to half of North Carolina's seats in 1994. Leading political scientists like Walter Dean Burnham and Seymour Martin Lipset have fingered our winner-take-all system as a major culprit in our low voter turnout.
  3. Third, PR would lessen the impact of money, which is most potent when the game is "all-or-nothing" and the decision can come down to the small portion of the electorate that is most influenced by campaign advertising. In winner-take-all elections, a 5% vote swing can mean a 100% swing in representation; in PR it generally means a 5% swing in representation.
  4. Fourth, PR would integrate our legislatures in a colorblind fashion and provide a lasting solution to controversies over Sections 2 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act. As we have shown in North Carolina, simply going to four, three-seat districts for U.S. House elections would likely result in black voters having an opportunity to elect more legislators than possible in the most contorted district plan. Perhaps just as significantly, PR likely would integrate representation in both major parties, which is critically important given potential tensions arising from our nation's growing diversity.
  5. Fifth, PR would increase women in elected office to more reasonable numbers. Perhaps the most dramatic examples are Germany and New Zealand, where half of their national legislators is elected by PR, half by winner-take-all districts. In district elections, women win 13% of seats in Germany, and 15% of seats in New Zealand -- not much better than the 11% in the U.S. Congress. But women win 39% of the seats elected by PR in Germany and 45% of the PR seats in New Zealand.
  6. Sixth, PR would provide voters with increased choices and opportunities to define their own "communities of interest" as an alternative to the "coerced" geographic representation of single-member districts that are gerrymandered with increasing precision by self-interested legislators. The more that seats are apportioned by the popular vote, the weaker the power of gerrymandering.

A Constitutional Barrier Imperative for "PR"?

Contrary to popular assumption, there not only is no constitutional barrier to adopting PR systems -- at least not for state delegations to the House of Representatives -- but there actually may be a constitutional imperative to adopt PR. A November 1984 article in the Yale Law Journal entitled "The Constitutional Imperative of Proportional Representation" argues that equal voting power through PR systems represents the full promise of Supreme Court rulings on re-apportionment. In Baker v. Carr and Reynolds v. Sims, the Court required states to draw legislative districts of equal population. In Reynolds, the Court argued that: "Each and every citizen has an inalienable right to full and effective participation in the political processes of his State's legislative bodies....Full and effective participation by all citizens in state government requires, therefore, that each citizen have an equally effective voice in the election of members of his state legislature." In addition, "the weight of a citizen's vote cannot be made to depend on where he lives."

Yet if the recent redistricting debate in North Carolina teaches us anything, it is that in single-member district systems, where ones lives has everything to do with the effectiveness of one's vote. PR is the only way to simultaneously guarantee the individual and group right to both an equally weighted vote and an equally meaningful vote. The Reynolds and Carr opinions also raise a possible constitutional question about the inevitable changes in population that take place within single-member districts during a decade -- a problem that is lessened with multi-member districts and eliminated with a statewide PR system. As an interesting aside, the Reynolds majority opinion specifically suggests that one house in a state legislature could use multi-seat districts as a means to have it provide a different sort of representation than the other house.

Why PR is not in the Constitution

South Africa last winter became the latest nation to put a requirement for proportional representation in its constitution. Our framers did not do so for a very simple reason: the mechanism of PR had not been developed. But John Adams called for legislatures that looked like miniature portraits of the electorate, not the funhouse mirrors we often get with winner- take-all elections. Thomas Jefferson in his first inaugural address made a statement that gets to the core definition of PR. He said "[T]hough the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, the will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression." And James Madison's arguments in the famous Federalist Paper #10 cry out for an election system that is not "winner-take-all."

The United States of course has survived and often thrived without PR, at least at a national level. We don't need to debate the past, although I find it noteworthy that a U.S. Senate Committee in a report after the Civil War found that under-representation of minority views in both the north and the south was a contributing factor to hostilities. The report also observed that with PR, "one race cannot vote down and disfranchise the other; each can obtain its due share of power without injustice to the other, and there will be no strong and constant motive (as now) to struggle for the mastery."

A Madisonian Approach to Modern America

What is important, of course, is the future. In the context of today's urgent problems and our age of information where geography means less than in the past, James Madison and his fellow constitutional framers would not have hesitated to modify winner-take-all voting. A master of compromise, Madison would have seen the great potential in PR systems providing a means for our political system to bend without breaking. Constitutional framers in new democracies rarely adopt single-member districts, often for reasons very similar to why the United States should replace them with PR: the need to be inclusive of diverse political views and religious, racial and ethnic groupings.

That very inclusion usually translates into Madisonian moderation. Even small parties in countries with PR -- at least the ones that endure -- tend to be "mini-umbrella," multi-issue parties seeking to iron over differences within their coalition in attempts to unify supporters who don't simply rally to a single issue. Moderation also comes from the major parties co- existing in nearly every constituency. If we used a semi-proportional system in three-seat districts around the nation, I believe at least one Democrat and one Republican would win a seat in every district, giving all voters access both to a representative with the party in power and the party in opposition. This certainly would be true in a state like North Carolina with two strong parties.

As a rule, policy changes in countries with PR need majority support or at least acquiescence; governance comes from the center, not the wings. Those frustrated with the current center also have their reasons to like PR, however. One of PR's most important benefits is that it provides an ongoing means to transform the center. With increased voters choices and greater array of voices, the center is not fixed. Moderate policy comes after full articulation of ways to address a particular policy. PR obviously will not solve all the nation's ills, but it would create a process where those ills could be better articulated and addressed.

As I have said, there is no single form of PR. Appropriate forms of PR that fit a political culture need to be chosen. This could be perhaps quite different from those used elsewhere or perhaps merely modified. Given North Carolina's recent struggles over redistricting, I would think it timely for this commission to recommend formation of another high-powered commission to look at the full range of options in reapportionment for the state as we approach the next census. I believe that fair scrutiny of the options will lead to serious consideration of proportional representation and at least a re-thinking of current, politically-driven redistricting.

Thank you, and I look forward to your questions.

(Robert Richie is executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. He was joined in testifying in North Carolina by Lee Mortimer, a founding member of the Center.)


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