Allocate lawmakers' seats by percent of vote

By Alan Toth
Published February 15th 2005 in Portland Press Herald
If the cardinal sin of our current system of representation were that someone could get elected to office without having won a majority of votes, then instant runoff elections would be an improvement.

In races with three or more candidates, you would vote for your favorite candidate first and then indicate who would be your second choice.

If no majority winner appears from those running, that's fine. Just add first- and second-place votes together and the candidate with the majority of that total is the winner.

This avoids three problems. It means you will not have to be governed by someone who, God forbid, did not get a majority. It also means the expense of a runoff between the two highest vote-getters is avoided, as happens now in places such as Louisiana.

Finally, it means third-party candidates will no longer be accused of playing a spoiler role, as the second-place votes of people who gave them their first-place vote would still be counted.

Jim Brunelle's Feb. 2 column sees instant runoffs as becoming increasingly necessary in this era of the growing weakness of the two major parties and emergence of minor ones.

But one must ask if simply installing measures to restore a majority winner is what is needed if creating strong parties that represent what people really believe is the goal.


What instant runoff does is prop up a majority-winner-take-all system of representation. While it may open the door slightly to the possibility that a minor party could be the second choice of most voters, it does not guarantee "outside the box" thinking.

Representation is what democracy is supposed to be all about. What instant runoff ends up doing is still creating winners and losers, thus leaving vast numbers of people without a voice at the public policy table.

What we need is not a refurbished majoritarianism, but a system that makes winners out of everyone while at the same time strengthening the connection between what voters really believe and what parties really stand for.

The reform that more adequately meets that goal is "proportional representation."

That is actually more in tune with what Maine already, in principle, recognizes in the way it portions out its four Electoral College votes. A presidential candidate doesn't automatically get all the Electoral College votes if he wins a majority of votes statewide. Two of those votes are portioned out to whoever wins each congressional district. This creates the opportunity for more of a connection between voters and a presidential choice.

Proportional representation takes that principle and expands upon it. If we want strong, principled parties and a system that represents real debate and choices then we need to move to such a system.

It is superior to instant runoff for many reasons. In a majoritarian system, one party could, in principle, win a majority in every state House and Senate seat and end up with 100 percent of the seats, thus disenfranchising vast portions of the electorate.

Even though such a sweep is unlikely, leaving some persons not being represented is inherent in a winner-take-all system.

It would be more democratic if a party got no more or less of the seats than it deserves. If a party gets 20 percent of the statewide vote, it gets 20 percent of the available representative seats, or 20 percent more than the nothing offered by the current system.

In this way, parties would encouraged to more sharply define their distinctives in order to separate themselves from the pack. By rewarding principle as opposed to mere power-seeking, this would move parties away from being overly vulnerable to interest groups.

Instead of operating as mere electioneering machines, with their candidates operating as independent jugglers of interests, this approach does more to encourage parties taking the higher road of programmatic vision for the greater good of the state or nation.

It also better enables party leaders to keep their representatives in line for the enactment of the party's vision.


This is a system that not only rewards principle as opposed to mere power-seeking, it also rewards voters with the more likely opportunity for hearing real debate that explores all options, thus giving them real choices.

it's true that instant runoff would be an improvement of sorts, but proportional representation is the real deal.

As membership in the traditional two major parties continues to decline, it is more consistent with the growingly independent heart of a state that already incorporates something like the same principle in its Electoral College voting.