'Complicated' Is In the Eye of the Beholder

by Rob Richie and Steven Hill
June 9, 1997

In recent weeks, Americans have had a chance to observe from afar the national elections of several democratic allies. Comparisons are inevitable and instructive, particularly regarding the impact of U.S.-style "winner take all" voting systems on representation.

In its national elections, France continued its merry dance with winner-take-all eccentricity.  In 1993, a center-right coalition turned only 39% of the popular vote in the first-round of elections into 80% of seats after the runoff. Two weeks ago, the Socialists dramatically overturned the center-right coalition, turning only 24% of the first-round vote into a majority of seats in the runoff with support from candidates from the Communists and Greens.

In Canada's bizarre winner-take-all elections, the Liberal Party won a majority of seats with only 38% of the popular vote-less than Bob Dole's percentage of the vote in the 1996 presidential race. The Liberals did not win a popular majority in any of Canada's 12 provinces, and won more than 40% in only three, but was able to take 101 of 103 seats - 98 percent - in Canada's biggest province, Ontario, with only 48 percent of votes in that province. The Reform Party benefited from winner-take-all in the west, where it won a lopsided 92 percent of Alberta's legislative seats with 54 percent of the vote, and took three-fourths of seats in British Columbia with only two-fifths of the vote. And the Bloc Quebocois became the third largest party in parliament, despite finishing fifth in the national popular vote and running no candidates outside of Quebec!

The British elections were similarly disproportionate. After 24 years in power, the Conservatives were tossed out by the Labour Party, which won 65 percent of the seats in the House of Commons. The results were reported as a stunning landslide victory and a turnaround of British politics. Yet the Labour Party won barely 43 percent of the popular vote, less than a majority, and hardly a mandate. But don't feel sorry for the Conservatives -- in the four previous British elections the Conservative Party won majorities of legislative seats despite never winning more than 45% of the popular vote. Characteristically for winner take all elections, over 14 million of those who voted´┐Ż 48 percent -- elected no one with their votes.

Ah, those crazy European elections, we Americans shake our heads. Thank goodness that our elections aren't subject to such distortions.

Unfortunately, they are. The pundits just don't tell us about it. For example, the Republicans have a comfortable majority of seats in the House, but won only 49% of the nationwide popular vote. In 1992, the Democrats turned their 51% of the popular vote in House races into 59% of seats. In 1994, there were seven states where parties with fewer votes in House races won more seats; in Texas, congressional districts gerrymandered by Democrats led to the Republicans winning only 37% of seats with their 58% of votes.

Such are the vagaries and peculiarities of "winner take all" elections, all around the world.

Meanwhile, Ireland recently elected a new parliament with its choice voting form of proportional representation. Of 37 democracies with at least 3 million people and a high human rights rating, 31 use forms of proportional representation rather than the U.S.-style "winner take all" system. The American media -- such as the Associated Press, Reuters and the New York Times -- tend to ridicule the Irish system, repeatedly labeling it as "complicated" in the most recent election. Yet the system is very popular in Ireland, and this year the two major parties -- along with six smaller parties -- generally won representation in proportion to their support in the electorate.

Such results are typical in countries with proportional representation. Unlike most voters in winner-take-all democracies, voters also have real choices. Ireland has between three and five representatives in its multi-seat districts, and every district is competitive with representatives from at least two parties winning seats, and in most cases three or four parties. By giving voters choices and the confidence that their votes will count, democracies with proportional representation have much higher voter turnout, typically 75 to 95 percent of eligible voters, than in the United States where the "silent majority" in 1996 simply sat on their hands on election day.

The legitimacy of any government rests in large part on how well it reflects the popular will, as expressed at the ballot box. But with such distortions and discrepancies between the popular vote and representation in "winner take all" elections, it's no wonder that most established democracies have replaced "winner take all" systems with forms of proportional representation. The Labour Party in Britain and the Socialist Party in France are on record as favoring a change to proportional representation, and may sponsor national referendums within the next few years. The influential British Economist and the Toronto's Globe and Mail are in favor of proportional representation. France already uses PR for elections to the European parliament and for many localities, and Great Britain uses it for many non-governmental organizations.

Soon, the United States may be the only long-established democracy left still shunning the "complicated" proportional voting systems in favor of its antiquated 18th century "winner take all" voting system.


Rob Richie is executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonprofit organization based in Washington DC that educates about voting systems.  Steven Hill is the Center's west coast director.  

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