By Douglas J. Amy
Any objective and thorough analysis of proportional representation must take into account both its political advantages and its political disadvantages. Most of the information on this site deals with the considerable advantages of PR over winner-take-all systems. But no voting system is perfect, and you will find below a description of the major criticisms that are often made about PR – followed by the responses to these criticisms that are made by proponents of PR.
One of the reasons it is important to take a look at the case against PR is that these criticisms play a crucial role in the debate between supporters of PR and supporters of winner-take-all systems. In particular, champions of our current voting system often do not deny that it has serious disadvantages (wasted votes, inaccurate party representation, lower voter turnout, gerrymandering, poor representation of women and minorities, etc.), but argue that our system is still the most desirable because PR would be worse. Therefore, it is important to look at their criticisms of PR and to evaluate how accurate those criticisms actually are.
Probably the most common criticism of proportional representation is that as it increases the representativeness of government it also increases its instability. This accusation is based on the tendency of PR elections to produce multiparty legislatures. The more parties elected, the more likely it is that one party will not win the majority of seats and that the legislature will have to be ruled by a coalition of major and minor parties. Critics maintain that these multiparty coalitions may be quite fragile, breaking apart due to squabbles between the parties over policy issues. They often cite Italy as the classic case of this problem; it was plagued for decades by coalitions that were continually falling apart and reforming.
Proportional representation proponents have several responses to this criticism. First they admit that multiparty majorities are somewhat more likely to breakup than single-party majorities, but they argue that the instability of these coalitions has been greatly exaggerated by critics of PR. They note that multiparty coalitions are usually quite stable, and that scholars have found no widespread or systematic evidence of persistent instability in countries that use proportional representation voting. They maintain that if this problem were common, you would expect to see it in most countries that use proportional representation. But the record of PR use in dozens of European countries over many decades shows only a few instances--Italy being one of them--where instability has been a serious problem. The vast majority of PR countries have enjoyed stable and efficient governments. Even though there have been several parties in these legislatures, in practice the parties have tended to form into two broad coalitions of the left and the right--and thus operate much like a two-party legislature. And once ruling coalitions are formed, there is a great deal of incentive to keep them together. These coalitions have usually lasted many years, and in some cases, decades. PR proponents point to a study that found that several PR countries have had governments that are actually as stable, or more stable, than that of Great Britain, which has been ruled primarily by single-party majorities.
Second, PR proponents argue that even if legislative coalitions were not perfectly stable in the United States, this would not be as large a problem here as would be in a European country. Most European democracies are parliamentary systems where the break-up of a legislative coalition often requires a reshuffling of the cabinet, or even the resignation of the prime minister and new elections. But this would not be the case in the United States, and so the problem of unstable coalitions is much less of a concern here.
Critics of PR maintain that there still is a concern because the presence of multiple parties and the potential for unstable coalitions would make it more difficult to pass bills in Congress. Having so many different parties increases the danger of creating legislative gridlock. But PR proponents note that gridlock has not been a common problem in the multiparty legislatures found in PR countries. They observe that the ruling coalitions in many of these European democracies have been so strong and disciplined that these parliaments passed legislation much more quickly and efficiently than our own Congress.
In addition, some proponents of PR maintain that even if there were some shifting of coalition partners in multiparty legislatures, this would be simply be business as usual in American politics. In Congress, for example, conservative Democrats sometimes break away from their party to join the Republicans to form a majority to pass a piece of legislation, while at other times moderate Republicans form coalitions with the Democrats. Thus the presence in PR legislatures of shifting coalitions around policy issues would not be all that different from the situation found in legislatures today.
Finally, PR proponents have noted with some irony that recent critics of PR have taken to arguing that one of the problems of this system is that its coalition governments are too stable -- that they are so persistent that it becomes difficult to throw a party out of power. This clearly suggests that even some of the critics of PR do not buy into the argument that this system creates excessive legislative instability.
Critics of PR point out that in a multiparty system a small party can be in a position to determine the composition of the ruling coalition. For example, if one large party wins 42% of the seats and another 38%, and a small party wins 20%, that gives the small party the balance of power and puts it in the position of "king-maker." It can decide which larger party it joins to form a legislative majority. Thus it can be a small party, not the voters, that really decides who wins the election. This is especially a problem when a small party bypasses the party that received the most votes to form a ruling coalition with the party that came in second place. Critics argue that it is arbitrary and undemocratic to exclude the most popular party from government.
Defenders of proportional representation acknowledge the potential for this problem to occur. But they argue that this possibility can be minimized if parties are pressured to announce before the election who their likely coalition partners will be, as already happens in some countries. They also note that it is rare for a small party to bypass the party with the most voter support when looking for a coalition partner. It happens only about 12% of the time. The smaller party almost always forms a coalition with the most popular large party, and in this sense it is following, not frustrating, the public will.
Critics of PR are also concerned that small parties may exercise undo power in the ruling coalitions. They fear that these small parties can use their leverage to wring concessions from their larger coalition partners, perhaps resulting in the adoption of radical policies not supported by most voters. In Israel, for example, small ultra-religious parties have sometimes won support for some of their policy proposals by threatening to pull out of the ruling coalition.
Proportional representation proponents argue that in most cases there is nothing wrong with smaller parties having some influence over the coalition’s agenda. Indeed, that is part of the point of power sharing coalitions--they pursue a mixture of policies that represent the interests of voters who supported those parties. In addition, the record of PR use in European democracies provides very few examples of small parties acting as "the tail that wags the dog."
Many critics of proportional representation are concerned that it will increase political conflict--that the proliferation of different political parties would "balkanize" American politics, further fragmenting our society into warring political factions. Given the serious political, racial, religious, and economic divisions that already exist in our society, what we need is a political system that brings us together, not one that splits us apart. While our two large umbrella parties do bring different political factions together to negotiate and compromise, a multiparty PR system would divide people into smaller parties and further entrench our political divisions.
PR proponents argue that multiparty systems also encourage dialogue and negotiation; they simply do it at a different point in the election process. In a two-party system, negotiations usually take place before the elections. During party conventions and primaries, the various groups in umbrella parties try to settle their differences and build an electoral coalition. In a multiparty PR system, the political bargaining takes place in the legislature after the election. After the various political groups elect their representatives, then they engage in negotiation and coalition building. A study of PR use in five Ohio cities found "no systematic evidence of greater dissension on PR-elected councils compared to councils elected by other methods." The multiparty legislative coalitions typical of PR systems may actually require parties to be more cooperative and less adversarial in their relationships.
Proponents also note that overseas PR voting is often seen as the best system for societies with deep and even violent political divisions. Two countries, Northern Ireland and South Africa, have recently chosen to use PR voting, in part because the fair representation of all factions in the legislatures is seen as an essential element in promoting increased political stability and integration.
Some political commentators worry that the larger size districts used in proportional representation could increase the costs of campaigns. Consider elections for a city council. With single-member district voting, the candidates’ campaigns only have to cover one district. But if all the candidates ran in one large citywide PR district, they would have to reach many more voters in their campaigns.
PR proponents respond by observing that because candidates can be elected with a smaller percentage of the vote--say 10% or 20%--that their campaigns don’t have to try to reach all the voters. They can target their campaigns toward their likely supporters and this may keep costs lower.
Some critics of PR are concerned that since PR encourages more candidates and parties to run for office and it requires new kinds of ballots that it will be too complicated and confusing for American voters. But as proponents point out, various PR systems have been in use in other advanced Western democracies for many decades, and there is no evidence that citizens in these countries are confused or intimidated by these voting systems. With the proper voter education efforts, American voters should be able to easily master these new voting systems.
A move to very large multi-member districts undermines the intimate relationship that exists between constituents and representatives in small single-member districts. This is especially true in proportional representation systems like Israel and the Netherlands where the entire country is one district and there are not even regional districts. But even where PR uses regional districts, they may be so large geographically that access and communication becomes more problematic.
PR proponents acknowledge that there is some truth to this criticism, but maintain that it only applies to some forms of PR--most notably party list systems. Another PR system, choice voting, often uses relatively small regional districts that allow for closer constituent-representative ties. And mixed member proportional voting was actually designed to eliminate this problem. It uses small single-member districts as part of its approach in order to preserve the close constituent-representative link.
PR proponents also argue that the use of multimember districts in PR can actually improve constituency-representative relationships by encouraging greater access. They maintain that a significant number of voters in single-member districts are reluctant to approach an elected official of a different party who they feel will not be sympathetic to their concerns. But in multi-member districts, voters typically have access to representatives from several parties and this makes it easier to find a sympathetic ear. Voters are thus more likely to seek help from those officials and to more actively lobby them concerning policy matters. Moreover, because constituents will often have more than one representative from their party in their multimember district, there is an incentive for these officials to compete in providing the best constituency service.
Another accusation against proportional representation is that it encourages extremism. Critics charge that extremist parties of the left and right can find a friendly environment in PR voting. Because proportional representation makes it easier for small parties to get elected, it also makes it easier for extremist parties to run candidates and elect some of them to office. As evidence of this, they often cite the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. The proportional representation system used in Weimar Germany allowed the small Nazi party to get a toehold in the political system and it eventually used that to increase its popularity and take power. Would we want to risk the same thing happening in the United States?
Proportional representation proponents argue that using the rise of the Nazis to condemn PR is simplistic and misleading. They point out that the rapid growth of the Nazi party in the 1930s is widely acknowledged to have been due to a complex combination of factors, primary among them the economic depression of that time and the association of the Weimar Republic with Germany’s defeat in World War I. Given these conditions, the appeal of the Nazi party was strong and its power would have grown irrespective of what voting method was used. Adding support to this interpretation of the German situation is the fact that many other European countries during the time were also using PR voting systems and they did not produce fascist governments.
However, critics maintain that it cannot be denied that the low thresholds of proportional representation make it easier for small extremist parties to get elected, and that one of the advantages of plurality-majority voting is that its high threshold makes it more difficult for extremists to win office.
Proponents usually grant this point, but they also argue that this worry about extremism is greatly exaggerated. First, they charge that critics are ignoring a great deal of systematic evidence. The overall record of PR use in Western democracies shows that extremism has not been a problem. Most European countries have been using PR during the last 50 years and they have not been plagued by extremist parties. This is largely because the threshold levels in most of these countries have been set high enough--as in the 5% level in Germany--to make it difficult for these very small parties to win any seats.
Secondly, they argue that even if an extremist group elected a few members to a legislature, it would not be a political disaster--it might even have some benefits. Extending political representation to these groups can have a moderating and co-opting effect. If these groups feel that they have some voice in the political system, it could decrease their sense of political alienation and make them less likely to employ violence or other undesirable means to attract attention to their views. A recent study of voting systems in other countries found that the use of proportional representation has discouraged discontented ethnic groups from "engaging in extreme forms of resistance to the status quo."
Some critics are concerned that adopting proportional representation in the United States would make administering elections much more difficult and expensive. Election officials would have to learn new vote counting methods and seat allocation formulas. And in some cases, expensive new voting machines would have to be purchased to accommodate the new voting techniques.
Defenders respond that election administrators in countries that use PR have had no problems mastering the vote counting and seat allocation processes. So that should not be a problem in the U.S. Moreover, most PR systems can be used with existing voting machines, with the single transferable vote being the possible exception.
Critics of PR sometimes point out that in some of these voting systems, voters can only vote for entire slates of party candidates, not the individual candidates themselves. They argue that Americans prefer to vote for individuals. Being able to vote for individuals gives voters more direct control over exactly who gets elected, and gives them the power to get rid of their particular representative.
But PR proponents point out that only one form of PR – the closed party list system—does not allow voters to cast votes for individual candidates; and this system is relatively rare. All the PR systems that are being proposed for the United States – including choice voting, the mixed-member system, and open party list voting – allow voters to cast votes for individual candidates.
One of the most common concerns about proportional voting systems is their constitutionality. Some people believe that such changes in the voting system would be unconstitutional, and therefore their adoption would require a long and arduous attempt to amend state and federal constitutions. But PR proponents point out that this is not necessarily the case. The constitutional situation on the federal level is straightforward. There is nothing in the federal Constitution that requires states to use single-member district plurality voting for the House of Representatives. Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution clearly gives to the states and to Congress itself the power to decide how House seats will be elected: "The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of choosing Senators."
The only legal barrier to the use of alternative voting systems for U.S. House elections is congressional legislation passed in 1842 and 1967 that requires the use of single-member districts. The original intent of these bills was not to prevent the use of proportional or semi-proportional systems, but to stop the use of plurality at-large elections. In the 1960s, some Southern states were trying to switch to at-large elections to discourage the election of African Americans to the House, and Congress wished to prevent this political maneuver. Currently, a bill is pending in Congress that would repeal this prior legislation and allow states to adopt proportional or semi-proportional systems for U.S. House seats. (Since the Constitution stipulates that members of the Senate must be elected one at a time in the states, proportional and semi-proportional systems could obviously not be used for these elections without a constitutional amendment that changed this arrangement.)
The situation in the individual states is much more varied. Some state constitutions, such as those in Connecticut, Kansas, and Michigan, require single-member district plurality elections for their state legislatures. In many others, including Mississippi, North Carolina, and Oregon, the constitution is silent as to the method of election to these bodies, and so proportional and semi-proportional systems could be adopted without constitutional amendment. Also, in most states, local election options are not restricted by state constitutions.
No voting system is perfect and that is true of proportional representation. But when considering whether to switch to PR, the key question is not whether PR has some political disadvantages, but whether those disadvantages are outweighed by the political advantages of these voting systems. Proponents believe that the many important advantages of PR far outweigh its disadvantages and make it a much more desirable system to our current winner-take-all approach to voting.