Fair Elections and Full Representation in the US

By Rob Richie and Steven Hill
January 27, 1998

Nearly all elections in the United States are based on the winner-take-all principle: voters for the candidate who receives the most votes win representation; voters for the other candidates win nothing. A growing number of Americans are working to replace such "semi-representation" with full representation. We have immediate opportunities -- at local, state, and national levels -- to join the vast majority of mature democracies that have adopted systems of proportional representation.

Proportional representation (PR) is based on the principle that any group of like-minded voters should win seats legislative seats in proportion to its share of the popular vote. In an election for ten seats, 10% of like-minded voters win one seat, 40% wins four seats and so on.  Whereas winner-take-all awards 100% of the representation to a 50.1% majority, PR allows voters in a minority to win their fair share of seats. PR would likely increase voter participation, represent more women and promote fairer representation of racial minorities -- particularly significant given the Supreme Court's assault on the Voting Rights Act. PR lessens the impact of campaign cash by allowing candidates to win with lower percentages of votes and focus on their base of support rather than expensive swing voters.

  Most dramatically, PR gives voters the power to break up the two-party monopoly. Consider the impact of a progressive minor party that could actually elect candidates. Right now, 49 out of 50 states don't have a single minor party representative in their state legislatures. With PR, that would change. In a multi-party system grounded in PR, frustrated Democrats and independent voters would have a positive alternative to supporting "the lesser of two evils." A party winning just 10% of seats could help progressives build coalitions, broadcast their ideas to a bigger audience and check any conservative drift of the Democratic Party. Note that the German Green Party regularly wins seats and influences policy despite having never won more than 10% of the national vote.

There is no guarantee that progressives would outdo conservatives in winning over the majority, of course, as all PR provides is a more level electoral playing field. But the winner- take-all monopoly facilitates "divide and conquer" strategies that can split a potential majority coalition of progressives with such wedge issues as gun control, gay rights, race and abortion. With electable choices across the spectrum, a multi-party system would show where the American people really stand. Certainly the political center of most of Europe -- with enviable policies on health care, welfare, workers rights and the environment -- is where many American progressives would love to be.

PR systems range from national "party list" systems in South Africa and Sweden to Germany's "mixed" system to the candidate-based system of choice voting used in Ireland. A PR system should be tailored to the political conditions and goals of a particular state. (See our web site for more information.)

Can PR win in the United States? Against far more formidable odds -- their nations lack citizen initiative and referendum -- reformers in New Zealand and the United Kingdom give us hope. In a 1993 referendum in New Zealand -- the result of a 7-year organizing effort by reformers -- PR prevailed despite a spending disadvantage of more than 10 to 1. In 1997, voters in Scotland won PR for their new legislature, and the United Kingdom soon may have a national referendum to adopt PR for elections to the House of Commons.

Efforts to bring PR to American elections build on a rich history. Earlier this century, two dozen cities, including Cleveland (due to the efforts of prot�g�s of the great reform mayor Tom Johnson, who had been the first Member of Congress to adopt a bill to change congressional elections to PR in 1892), Cincinnati and New York, adopted the choice voting method of PR by initiative. We can learn much from this early movement. PR was successful in achieving its reformers' primary goal: undercutting the power of one-party political machines. Unfortunately, this success led to these machines' unrelenting hostility. Although only two of the first 26 attempts to repeal choice voting in cities around the nation were successful, the previously dominant political forces eventually outlasted reformers and won repeals everywhere except Cambridge, Massachusetts. But the primary vehicles of anti-PR attacks -- racist and anti-communist appeals and concerns about costly electoral administration -- can be addressed far better today.

PR activism is on the rise again. Rep. Cynthia McKinney has introduced the Voters' Choice Act (HR 3068) to restore the option states had before 1967 to elect their congressional delegations by PR. The bill has a growing number of co-sponsors, and other pro-PR legislation likely will be introduced in 1998. (See "how to help" note below.) Several state groups have formed to promote PR, and recent PR initiatives in two major cities -- Cincinnati and San Francisco -- won 45% and 44% of the vote, respectively, despite limited funding and media exposure.

To be sure, much voter attention will continue to focus on "single-winner" executive offices -- such as president, governor, and mayor -- which do not allow for PR (which requires multi-seat districts). For executive offices, there is increasing attention on instant runoff voting (IRV, also called the "alternative vote"). Used for Australian parliamentary elections and Irish presidential elections, IRV would provide both better majority representation and minority participation than our plurality system.

With IRV, voters rank candidates in order of choice: 1, 2, 3 and so on. Each voter still has only one vote, but ranking candidates allows the ballot-count to simulate a series of run-off elections. Major party leaders appreciate IRV because it eliminates the "spoiler" problem created by minor parties. For minor parties, IRV reverses the "wasted vote" calculation and gives them more potential to build support. IRV legislation is planned in 1998 in Alaska, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Vermont. An IRV state initiative may be launched in California; IRV even could be adopted for presidential elections.

A recommended initial step is promoting commissions to study the impact of the redistricting in 2001-2 on voter turnout and representation and possible alternatives like PR. A similar commission's recommendations in New Zealand triggered that nation's move to PR, while a San Francisco commission's recommendation led to its 1996 campaign. Given the power of the case for PR, any commission with some independence may generate surprises.

Indeed, the redistricting process is the Achilles heel of a winner-take-all system. Behind closed doors, once every decade, the duopoly carves up the electorate, leaving most of us with another decade of no-choice legislative elections. With 50 states as potential battlegrounds and voter frustration everywhere, a movement for PR has a perfect opening and a natural rallying cry: "This time let the voters decide. 

(How to Help: Besides raising the idea of PR locally, we urge readers to contact their Member of Congress about HR 3068, the Voters' Choice Act introduced by Rep. Cynthia McKinney. Stress that the bill simply restores states with the opportunity to consider PR systems -- surely states should have the right to choose how their citizens choose their representatives!]

Commentaries Index