What is Proportional Representation?

Center for Voting and Democracy


Proportional representation (PR) voting systems are used by most of the world's established democracies. Under PR, representatives are elected from multi-seat districts in proportion to the number of votes received. PR assures that political parties or candidates will have the percent of legislative seats that reflects their public support. A party or candidate need not come in first to win seats.

In contrast, in the United States we use "winner-take-all" single seat districts, where votes going to a losing candidate are wasted, even if that candidate garners 49.9% of the vote. This leaves significant blocs of voters unrepresented. Voters sense this, and so often we do not vote for a candidate we like, but rather the one who realistically stands the best chance of winning -- the "lesser of two evils." Or, all too often, we don't bother to vote at all.

No wonder that, among the 21 democracies in Western Europe and North America, the United States is next to last in voter turn-out, with only 36% participating in the 1994 Congressional elections and 44% in the 1996 Congressional elections (a presidential election year).


What Are The Advantages Of Proportional Representation?

Greater voter turn-out (typically 70-90%) because there are more choices for voters -- third, fourth, fifth parties and more, from diverse perspectives, including more women and minorities elected.


Women and minorities elected:

* 40% women in Sweden

* 39% in Norway

* 33% in Finland and Denmark

* only 12% in the U.S.


This leads to:

* more diverse representation

* cleaner campaigns run on the issues, not mud-slinging

* reduced effects of big money


Where In The World Is Proportional Representation Used?


Some form of PR is used by most of the world's established democracies, including:





















New Zealand








United Kingdom (for European Parliament elections), and more...


"Winner-take-all" is still used in France, Great Britain, and a few of Britain's former colonies that inherited it: the United States, Canada, Pakistan, India and various Caribbean nations.

The trend in the world is toward proportional representation and away from "winner take all." Recently the United Kingdom, the grandmother of all "winner take all" democracies, chose to use PR to elect representatives to the European Parliament. In their first elections, Scotland and Wales chose proportional systems, and there will be a national referendum on voting system reform in Great Britain by 1999.

In April 1994 South Africa decided to use PR rather than "winner take all" to form a multi-racial democracy. In 1993 New Zealand, Japan, Russia and Mexico adopted a form of PR. Significantly, all of the former Communist countries, including Russia, have chosen to model their emerging democracies on proportional representation, not the "winner-take-all" model. The Ukraine, which initially chose "winner take all," has now switched to PR.

All these countries have adopted some form of PR because they recognize the obvious: PR is a fairer, more flexible, more modern electoral system than the antiquated eighteenth century "winner-take-all" method.


Is Proportional Representation The Same As A Parliamentary System?

No, it isn't. A parliamentary system is a type of governmental system, while PR is a type of voting/electoral system. One is about the structure of government, the other about how votes are counted. Many, but not all, of the countries using PR combine it with a parliamentary governmental system. But this does not have to be the case, and a PR electoral system could successfully be combined with the U.S. presidential system.


Has Proportional Representation Been Tried In The U.S.?

Various forms of proportional and semi-proportional systems are used today to elect the city councils of Cambridge MA (choice voting), Peoria IL (cumulative voting), various cities and counties in Alabama, South Dakota and Texas (cumulative or limited voting), the community school boards in New York City (choice voting), the Democratic presidential primaries, various corporate boards (cumulative voting), and the finalists for the Academy Awards (choice voting).

The choice voting form of PR was first tried in the U.S. earlier this century. PR was tried in the U.S. in the 1920's and worked very well in 24 cities like New York City, Boulder, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Cambridge, MA. Both the majority and various political and racial minorities gained representation where their voices had previously been unheard. The minorities at the time who won representation were Irish Catholics, Polish immigrants, African Americans and leftists. Although only two of the first 26 attempts to repeal choice voting were successful in cities around the country, formerly dominant political forces outlasted reformers and were successful in repealing PR nearly everywhere. Their general tactic was targeting unpopular minorities like blacks and leftists.


So How Does Proportional Representation Work?

There are many different types of PR, because it is a flexible system that may be adapted to the situation of any city, state or nation. Here are a few of the most common:

* List System -- by far the most widely used form of PR. The voter selects one party and its slate of candidates to represent them. Party slates can be either "closed" or "open," with open lists allowing voters to vote for individual candidates rather than political parties. If a party receives 30% of the vote, they receive 30% of the seats in the legislature, 10% of the vote receives 10% of the seats, and so on. A minimum share of the votes can be required to earn representation; typically a 3-5% threshold is used. This type of PR is ideal for large legislatures on state and national levels.

* Mixed Member System (MM) -- This PR hybrid elects half the legislature from single-seat, "winner-take-all" districts and the other half by the List System. Mixed-member smoothly combines geographic, ideological and proportional representation.

* Choice Voting -- the voter simply ranks candidates in an order of preference (1,2,3,4, etc...). Once a voter's first choice is elected or eliminated, excess votes are "transferred" to subsequent preferences until all positions are filled. Voters can vote for their favorite candidate(s), knowing that if that candidate doesn't receive enough votes their vote will "transfer" to their next preference. With choice voting, every vote counts and very few votes are wasted. Choice voting is ideal for non-partisan elections like city councils. This method is also called "Single Transferrable Vote" or "STV".


What About The President? We Can't Divide Up The Presidency, Can We?

No, we can't. Single seat offices like the president, governor, mayor or district representatives can't be elected with proportional representation. However, there are much better ways for electing them than what we use today, ways that guarantee that the winner will be supported by a majority of voters:

* Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) -- related to choice voting, because like choice voting the voter simply ranks candidates in an order of preference (ex. 1. Perot 2. Clinton 3. Dole). The candidate with the least number of first place votes is eliminated, and their votes are "transferred" to their 2nd choice until a candidate has a majority. Also called majority preference voting or the alternative vote.

* Approval -- Voters are allowed to vote for all candidates they approve. For example, Bush-Yes Perot-No Clinton-Yes. The candidate with the highest number of "yes" votes wins. Click here for a more complete explanation.

* Condorcet's Method -- Like preference voting and majority preference voting, the voter simply ranks candidates in an order of preference (ex. 1. Perot 2. Clinton 3. Bush). Unlike majority preference voting though, several two-way races are simulated using the ballots, determining who would win a Perot/Clinton race, who would win a Perot/Bush race, and who would win a Bush/Clinton race. The one who wins all of the pairwise elections wins. Click here for a more detailed explanation.

All of these methods give voters a greater voice in how their vote is used, and alleviate the "lesser-of-two-evils" problem for voters. Our current winner-take-all system promotes candidates who blame all of our problems on those who would never vote for them, and punishes candidates who come up with pragmatic, middle-ground solutions.


Could Proportional Representation Help Break The Political Impasse In The U.S. Over Important Issues Like Health Care?

Yes, it could. PR allows small parties to be a credible alternative to voters, giving them a national audience for their views to advance new ideas. PR has no ideological bias, but simply facilitates a fuller and more informed discussion of policy options; this more grounded discussion in turn provides greater opportunities to move to majority consensus on difficult issues.

An example of this is the German Greens. Without ever winning a single district election or receiving more than 10% of the national vote, the German Greens were able to see several of their environmental positions become part of a national consensus. Proportional Representation allows majorities to make policy while also bringing minority perspectives to the table for consideration.


But I Like Having A Representative From My Own District. Won't I Lose Out Without It?

A representative from your own district is nice, but with "winner-take-all" there's a good chance you didn't vote for that representative. In the 1996 Congressional elections, only 28% of eligible voters helped elect someone. Under PR, you will have, not one, but several representatives from a larger district. And there is a much greater likelihood that at least one of those reps will be someone you voted for. In South Africa's 1994 PR elections, 86% of eligible voters helped elect someone.

Also, the mixed-member form of PR used by Germany can give voters the benefits of both: a representative from your district, as well as a legislature that proportionally reflects the electorate.

PR doesn't base representation so much on geography but on political viewpoint. When our republic was young and dotted with small communities barely connected by slow communication and primitive transportation, the interests of citizens were similar to those of their neighbors. But our society is more mobile now, more multicultural and diverse. People living right next door to one another can have completely opposite viewpoints, yet with our single seat "winner-take-all" districts, only one of these voters will receive representation -- the one that voted for the winner. Simple geographical representation can no longer ensure fair political representation for all voters and all political perspectives.


What's Wrong With Only Two Parties?

Two parties limit the voters' choices. U.S. citizens would never accept an economic system that allowed us to buy cars from only two companies, or to choose from only two airlines. Why then, should we have to settle for just two options in politics? It's no wonder such a large portion of the U.S. electorate decides not to participate. They're not buying what the two parties are selling!

The logjam and partisan bickering of U.S. politics is partly the result of the winner-take-all two-party system, where each party says "Everything my party does is right and everything your party does is wrong." The optimum campaign strategy is to sling mud at your opponent, driving their voters to your party. New ideas and solutions have a hard time percolating to the surface in such a bitter environment. But this dynamic is not so advantageous when there are three or more parties.

Winner-take-all elections are also more susceptible to the corruption of big money. A majority of votes is a lot of votes to win, and a candidate has to plaster her or his name and face over every billboard, bumper sticker and TV ad to win that many votes. Since so much is at stake -- you either win the seat or you lose -- there is an urgency to spend lavishly.

But with PR you don't have to come in first to win seats. Whatever proportion of votes your party wins, you get that many seats in the legislature. PR actually reduces the percentage of votes it takes for a party or candidate to win a seat. Candidates tend to run cleaner, more positive, issue-oriented campaigns, targeted at a particular constituency. Such campaigns require less money to win seats. Minor parties win representation in PR democracies even though they spend less money than the major parties.


Could Proportional Representation Help In Voting Rights Cases?

Absolutely. With Proportional Representation, you actually need less votes to gain a seat than in the winner-take-all system, and you can gather these votes from a larger area. This makes it easier for racial or political minority perspectives to win seats, without having to gerrymander districts.

In June 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Johnson that racially gerrymandered districts are unconstitutional. Voting rights experts like Lani Guinier, Ed Still, Gerald Hebert, Pamela Karlan and Richard Engstrom have proposed various forms of PR as a race-neutral method to give racial as well as political minorities and women a fair chance to elect representatives in competitive elections.


Does Proportional Representation Affect The Election of Women?

Yes, very much so. Research has shown that systems of proportional representation result in greater numbers of elected women, and that greater numbers of women are elected in multi-seat rather than single-seat districts. Women currently make up only 12% of the U.S. House of Representatives and 9% of the U.S. Senate. In state and local legislatures, women average only one out of five legislators. According to United Nation reports, the United States ranks 24th of 54 western democracies in terms of women's representation in national legislatures. In fact, scholars have demonstrated that the underrepresentation of blacks and Latinos is largely an underrepresentation of black and Latino women. African American women have only about one fourth the representation of black men.


So How Do We Change From "Winner-Take-All" To Proportional Representation?

In many states it is possible to convert to PR simply by changing applicable laws. Amendments to the U.S. Constitution are not required. The laws can be changed by a simple vote of the legislatures, or in many cases via a voter initiative. PR can be adapted to local, state and national levels, bringing the democratic promise of "one person, one vote" closer to fulfillment.

If the political will could be mobilized, it is possible to convert immediately to a system of proportional representation for electing representatives to city councils, state legislatures, and even the U.S. House of Representatives. U.S. Senators could be elected by Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), giving voters more choice. As a bonus, PR would spare states the torment of legislative redistricting, an arduous, bitter and partisan gerrymandering affair.


Where Can I Learn More About Proportional Representation?


Here's a reading list:

Real Choices, New Voices. Douglas Amy; Columbia University Press, 1993

Tyranny of the Majority. Lani Guinier, 1994

Boston Review. "Reflecting All of Us: the Case for Proportional Representation," by Rob Richie and Steven Hill, Feb. / March 1998

Electoral Systems and Party Systems Professor Arend Lijphart; Oxford University Press, 1994

United States Electoral Systems: Their Impact on Women and Minorities. editors Dr. Wilma Rule and Dr. Joseph Zimmerman; Praeger Publishers, 1992

Voting and Democracy Report, 1995. CVD's survey of electoral reforms.

Dubious Democracy: 1994 U.S. House Elections. CVD's ground-breaking statistical analysis showing reasons for low voter turnout

"A Radical Plan to Change American Politics" by Michael Lind, Atlantic Monthly, August 1992

Choosing an Electoral System, edited by Arend Lijphart and Bernard Grofman, Praeger Press, 1984.

The Power to Elect, Enid Lakeman, Heinemann Press, 1982.

Seats and Votes, Rein Taagepera and Matthew Shugart; Yale Univ Press, 1989.

PR: The Key to Democracy, George Hallett; National Municipal League, 1940.

Considerations on Representative Government, John Stuart Mill; Park, Son and Bourn, 1861.

Women, Elections and Representation, by Robert Darcy, Susan Welch and Janet Clark; Longman Press, 1987.


How Can I Get Involved In the Proportional Representation Movement?

You can get involved by becoming a member of the Center for Voting and Democracy.For only $15, you will receive our quarterly newsletter, as well as regular updates about the rapidly growing PR movement in the United States. Send your name, address, and check to:

Center for Voting and Democracy PO Box 60037 Washington D.C., 20039 www.fairvote.org/

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