by Douglas J. Amy

The Center for Voting and Democracy - www.fairvote.org/


Americans continue to be disillusioned with politics. Cynicism about candidates and parties runs high and voter turnout is abysmally low. A number of proposals designed to revitalize American elections have been made, including term limits and campaign finance reform. But a new reform is also beginning to get some attention: replacing our present single-member district, winner-take-all election system with proportional representation (PR) elections.

What exactly is PR, how does it work, and what are its advantages over our present system?

Describing how it works is simple. Proportional representation systems come in several varieties, but they all share two basic characteristics. First, they use multi-member districts. Instead of electing one member of the legislature in each small district, PR uses much larger districts that elect several members at once, say five or ten. Second, which candidates win the seats in these multi- member districts is determined by the proportion of votes a party receives. If we have a ten-member PR district in which the Democratic candidates win 50% of the vote, they would receive five of those ten seats. With 30% of the vote, the Republicans would get three seats. And if a third party received the other 20% of the votes, it would get the remaining two seats.

At first glance, this voting process might seem a bit strange to many Americans. We are used to our single-member district system, in which we elect one candidate in each legislative district, with the winner being the candidate with the most votes. But while we view this winner-take-all system as "normal," in reality our approach to elections is increasingly at odds with the rest of the world. The vast majority of Western democracies see American-style elections as outmoded and unfair and have rejected them in favor of proportional representation. Most of Western Europe uses PR and, with the exception of Ukraine and Belarus, all the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have chosen PR over our form of elections.

The United States, Canada, and Great Britain are the only Western democracies that continue to cling to winner-take-all arrangements.

The Problem with Single-Member District Elections

The single-member district election system has been on the wane worldwide because it has a number of serious drawbacks. It routinely denies representation to large numbers of voters, produces legislatures that fail to accurately reflect the views of the public, discriminates against third parties, and discourages voter turnout. All of these problems can be traced to a fundamental flaw in our system: only those who vote for the winning candidate get any representation. Everyone else -- who may make up 49% of the electorate in a district -- gets no representation.

We are all familiar with this problem. If you are a Democrat in a predominately Republican district, or a Republican in a Democratic one, or an African-American in a white district, then you are shut out by our current election system. You might cast your vote, but it will be wasted on a candidate that can not win. In the 1994 elections for the U.S. House of Representatives, more than 26 million Americans wasted their votes on losing candidates, and so came away from the voting booth with no representation. Under single-member district rules we may have the right to vote, but we don't have the equally important right to be represented.

To make matters worse, this denial of representation on the district level often produces distortions in representation in Congress and our state and local legislatures. Parties often receive far more (or far fewer) seats than they deserve. For example, in the 1994 elections for the U.S. House of Representatives, the Democrats won 42 percent of votes in Iowa, but none of the state's five seats in the House. In Washington State, the Democrats won almost 50 percent of the vote, but received only 22 percent of the House seats. Americans have become used to this kind of political injustice, but citizens in most other democracies are not willing to put up with it.

Proportional representation has been widely adopted because it avoids an outcome in which some people win representation and the rest are left out. Under proportional representation rules, no significant groups are denied representation. Even political minorities, who may constitute only 10-20 per cent of the voters, are able to win some seats in these multi-member districts. In PR systems, nearly everyone's vote counts, with 80-90 per cent of the voters actually electing someone, compared to 50-60 per cent in most U.S. elections. Under PR, we can also be sure that our legislatures will accurately reflect the voting strength of the various parties. If a party receives 40 per cent of the vote, it will get 40 per cent of the seats, not 20 percent or 60 percent as can happen now with our system.


The unfairness of winner-take-all elections and the advantages of proportional representation are particularly obvious when we consider the situation of third parties in the U.S. Voters are increasingly dissatisfied with the offerings of the two-major parties and recent surveys indicate that over 60 per cent of Americans would now like to see other parties emerge to challenge the Democrats and Republicans.

Voters are showing increasing interest in alternatives such as Ross Perot's Reform party, the Libertarian party, the Greens, the New Party, and the Rainbow Coalition. But under our current rules, none of these parties stands a realistic chance of electing their candidates. Winner-take-all elections require candidates to receive a majority or plurality of the vote to win, and minor party candidates can rarely overcome that formidable barrier.

This plurality barrier explains why even though we have had over a thousand minor parties started in the U.S. during the last two hundred years, virtually all have died out relatively quickly.

Adopting PR would finally allow for free and fair competition between all political parties. Supporters of minor parties are forced to either waste their vote on a candidate who cannot win; vote for the lesser-of-two-evils among the major party candidates; or not vote at all. In short, single-member district elections are rigged against minor parties and serve to unfairly protect the major parties from competition.

This problem would end under proportional representation, which is designed to ensure that all political groups, including minor party supporters, get their fair share of representation. Minor parties would need only 10 or 20 per cent of the vote to elect a candidate. Under PR, many minor parties would quickly become viable and we would have a truly competitive multi-party system. This would give American voters what they say they want: a much greater variety of choices at the polls.

Offering voters more choices would also encourage higher levels of voting. People would have more reason to vote because they could more easily find a candidate or party they could support enthusiastically. Voters would also know that their vote would not be wasted, but would count to elect the candidate of their choice. Because of such inducements, voters in PR countries typically turnout at rates of 80-90 per cent, compared to 50 per cent or less in the U.S.

A multi-party system would also ensure that our city, state, and federal legislatures represented the variety of political perspectives that exist in the electorate. Our society is becoming more politically heterogeneous, and yet our legislatures are made up of the same old Republican and Democratic politicians. Some of our widespread political malaise might disappear is we had policy-making bodies that reflected the diverse perspectives in the electorate. More representative legislatures would foster more exciting and wide- ranging political debate and inject new ideas into decision making.

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