WHAT IS PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION
AND WHY DO WE NEED THIS REFORM?
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
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.
MORE CHOICES FOR VOTERS
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
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.