Full Representation is Fair for Everyone

51% of the Vote Should Not Mean 100% of Power  

Lani Guinier

In a recent interview in the Fletcher Forum (excerpted with its permission), University of Pennsylvania law professor Lani Guinier explained flaws in single-member district, winner-take-all elections.

A simple, winner-takes-all system seems so normal to Americans because it is what we are used to. If you look at in context however, the only countries that still use single member district, winner-takes-all plurality systems exclusively, are former colonies of Great Britain.

Most of the rest of the world has moved to some system of proportional representation or some system in which there are multiple forms of representing voters. The reason they have moved to alternative election systems is because they have learned, in part, from our mistakes. The United States may have been one of the first democracies, but that does not mean we have the last word on what a democracy is.

Our approach essentially allocates power by geographic regions. It groups people together based on where they live and it assigns them a single representative: it aggregates a group of people who are in what we call a district, and it gives them one person to represent them. We then have an election, people vote, and whoever gets the most votes in that particular election gets all of the power.

Technically, then, 51% of the people in the district can get 100% of the power. The assumption is that the 51% of the people who have the most votes and therefore elect the representative, are going to elect someone who will represent all of the people in the district, including the 49% who did not vote for him or her.

That assumption is based on the "golden rule," or principle of reciprocity, which says that whoever is in the majority today will not be permanently in the majority but has to worry about potential defectors who may join with today's minority to become the next governing coalition. Therefore, in order to insure that the members of the current majority will be treated fairly when they are in the minority, the current majority treats the current minority fairly. That is one of the reasons that we think of simple winner-takes-all majority rule as being fair.

However, there are other ways in which you can justify simple majority rule if you think about a district or a geographic unit as simply one unit within a much larger territory. If the territory is subdivided in a way that is "representative," then presumably (and the simple majority, winner-takes-all rule rests upon this presumption), the 49% in one district may be a majority in another district. It is therefore assumed that this group gets direct representation of its interests from people who are elected in other districts by like-minded voters.

There is a second assumption: that the 49% in our hypothetical district is treated fairly by the governing majority, and is directly represented by majorities in other districts that were elected by like-minded voters. The group that is in the minority does not have to wait for a time when it becomes a majority in that district in order to be treated fairly. But it is essentially a principle of virtual representation, or vicarious representation, to claim that the present minority is represented or has surrogate representatives who, though not elected by it, are responsive to its interests.

A third assumption that undergirds simple, winner-takes-all majority rule in these districts is that the district itself represents some kind of group that is cohesive or has enough similar interests that a single representative can fairly provide constituent service. For example, I live in Pennsylvania and I am assumed to be represented by two Senators even if I did not vote for them because, as a resident of this state, I have certain interests that they are going to represent regardless of our respective politics.

Now those three assumptions about simple, winner-takes-all majority rule, are flawed when you have a permanent majority or a majority that monopolizes power. If you have a system in which the majority in one district is a majority in every district, then the 49% minority is not really represented. It is represented on the hope or promise of "the golden rule," but it is not represented in terms of that second assumption I described as the virtual or vicarious representation principle.

Lani Guinier is author of The Tyranny of the Majority (Free Press, 1994).  
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