Democracy of a Different Flavor
Proportional Representation Could Cure Voter Apathy

Published July 20th 2005 in Fort Worth Weekly
What would you think of a democracy where in the past three election cycles only one of 21 races was truly competitive? How about one where, in six of those 21 races, a single candidate ran unopposed, and an average of only about 8 percent of eligible voters bothered to cast ballots? You wouldn’t exactly call that a healthy democracy, would you? Well, would you call Fort Worth a democracy?

In the past three city council election cycles, in 2001, 2003, and 2005, the best place to hide in all of Fort Worth on Election Day was your friendly neighborhood polling place. In May, my wife and I voted near closing time, and we were numbers 34 and 35 to do so in our precinct. The poor, bored-out-of- their-gourd poll workers greeted us as if they were the cast of Lost, and we were going to rescue them from their island.

So. All of us say we believe in democracy. Certainly our neighbor in Crawford talks about it often, especially after we’ve invaded some country or other. But are we willing to talk seriously about the quality of our democracy?

Is the persistently low voter turnout here a sign that the vast majority of Fort Worthians are content with business as usual? Maybe, but I think a more likely explanation has been offered by Steven Hill and Rob Richie, both of FairVote, an international nonprofit organization to which I also belong, that researches and advocates election reforms. Hill and Richie wrote, in an editorial regarding the Seattle political situation, that with so few serious opponents running, “incumbents don’t really have to campaign hard and work for your vote. They don’t have to justify their actions ... or tell you their plans. When election results are so predictable, most voters have the sense to ignore the charade and stay home.”

And isn’t that exactly what the powers-that-be want? I mean, in any other democracy, an average turnout of 8 percent would be seen as a crisis, a complete repudiation by the people of their governing body. Here, it barely elicits a shrug. Perhaps that’s because city leaders know exactly where they want to lead the city on a whole list of issues, including the Trinity River boondoggle, and they’d just as soon not have too many citizens mucking up their plans.

So what can we do? Do what almost every other western democracy does: Institute proportional representation. Australia, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark, Japan, Spain, Mexico — all those countries use “PR,” as it’s called, and the list goes on to include even Iraq.

What exactly is PR? As Prof. Douglas J. Amy of Mount Holyoke College explains, it’s a system “designed to insure that all political groups get their fair share of seats and power in the political system.” FairVote, in fact, calls PR full representation. If your group wins 15 percent of the vote, you get 15 percent of the representation — unlike our system, where you can get up to 49.9 percent of the vote and no representation. Of course, “political groups” needn’t be political parties, so Fort Worth could institute proportional representation and still keep city elections nonpartisan. However, instituting PR would involve some kind of multi-member districts, either yoking together a number of districts or combining all districts together. But regardless of how we did it, a city council elected through PR would more truly reflect the ethnic and political make-up of our city and would represent the concerns of most Fort Worthians, not just downtown business interests.

Some might object to the loss of single-member districts, but I say good riddance to that gerrymandered relic of Tammany Hall and ward-heeling. In truth, we all have more in common with people across town who share our political philosophy than those who happen to be in our same city council district. But most importantly, according to an analysis by Harvard University Prof. Pippa Norris, countries that use proportional representation, on average, have higher turnouts than countries that use our antiquated 18th-century winner-take-all system.

And it may come as a shock, but Texas is no stranger to proportional representation. At least 17 city councils and school districts in Texas from Abernathy to Yorktown have used cumulative voting, a type of proportional representation. In 2000, the Amarillo school board used it for the first time, and their voter turnout tripled.

How could we change the way we vote in Fort Worth? First, a petition drive would be needed to collect signatures of 5 percent of the qualified voters (a little less than 10,000 signatures) calling for a charter amendment election. If the amendment were approved by voters, we’d time-travel from the 18th century to the 21st century. Or, to use an analogy from The Sun magazine, we’d instantly go from Democracy 1.0 to Democracy 3.4.

So who out there is willing to pound the pavement, make phone calls, do all the grassroots grunt work necessary to take us from a sham democracy to a real one?

Ken Wheatcroft-Pardue is a part-time writer and full-time citizen. He can be reached at [email protected].