Proportional Representation

Proportional representation is the principle that a legislature should reflect all of the voters who elect them. Like-minded voters should be able to elect representatives in proportion to their number. In contrast, most elections in the United States are winner-take-all: instead of reflecting all voters, our legislators reflect only the biggest or strongest group of voters that elected them, leaving all others unrepresented. The use of winner-take-all voting methods in our elections for state legislatures and Congress is a central reason for major problems with our politics: gerrymandering, partisan gridlock, no-choice elections and distortions in fair representation all have roots in the inherent problems of winner-take-all methods.

At FairVote, we advocate for American, constitutional, and candidate-based forms of proportional representation, which we call "fair representation voting." Read on to learn more about fair, proportional representation systems in use across the United States today, about FairVote's efforts to expand their use, and how to promote change in your community today. 

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Fair Representation Voting

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FairVote advocates for forms of proportional representation voting methods informed by American, candidate-centered values, called fair representation voting. Unlike European systems, which generally focus on party lists, FairVote's fair representation voting methods are American solutions using American ideas. Under fair representation systems in the United States, voters would and do vote for individual candidates and have representatives tied to their communities.

Ranked choice voting, cumulative voting, limited voting, and Districts Plus are all types of fair representation voting advocated for by FairVote. To learn more about ranked choice voting, go to our ranked choice voting page. To learn about any of the other types of fair representation voting that FairVote works on, explore this page further, and watch our video below to learn more about what fair and proportional representation mean to us.

Ranked Choice Voting is Easy as 1-2-3

Ranked Choice Voting

Ranked choice voting (RCV) is a fair representation voting system where voters maximize the effectiveness of their vote by ranking candidates in single- and multi-seat districts. RCV gives like-minded voters the chance to win legislative seats in proportion to their share of the population, unlike America’s current system of winner-take-all elections, which awards 100% of power to a 50.1% majority of voters. Countries such as Australia and Ireland and American cities like Minneapolis and Cambridge use ranked choice voting to elect their governments.

Because of its proven history, its candidate-centric character, and its ability to allow voters to express their full, honest preferences on their ballots, ranked choice voting is the best fair voting system for use in U.S. elections.

Ranked choice voting has proven to be an effective tool in electing representative governments abroad and at home, encouraging coalition-building among minority groups and parties, while accommodating voter choice. Read more about ranked choice voting, our flagship reform, here.

Fair Representation Voting in the United States

Fair voting systems have a long history of use in a variety of elections throughout the United States at the state, county, and city levels. Illinois elected its House of Representatives by fair representation voting for over one hundred years, and cities across the United States use methods such as cumulative voting or limited voting to elect their City Councils. 

Well over one hundred U.S. cities and counties use some form of fair representation voting today to elect their boards of supervisors, city councils, school boards, or other elected offices.

Here are some of the cities with the most robust use of fair representation voting methods:

  • Cambridge, Massachusetts has used ranked choice voting to elect its nine-member city council since 1941. Cambridge locals and academics have praised the system for ensuring full representation of Cambridge citizens and maintaining proportional representation for women and racial minorities, even during periods of elevated tensions elsewhere.
  • Chilton County, AL uses cumulative voting to elect both its seven-member county commission and five-member school board.
  • Peoria, IL uses cumulative voting to elect five at-large members in its 11-member city council.
  • Amarillo, TX uses cumulative voting to elect its school board and college board of trustees.
  • Port Chester, NY uses cumulative voting to elect its board of trustees/city council

Most of these uses were implemented in response to lawsuits brought under the Voting Rights Act. FairVote produces a booklet describing how fair representation voting can remedy vote dilution claims and under what circumstances they should be used.

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Fair Representation and the Voting Rights Act

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, as amended in 1982, prohibits the use of election systems which dilute the effectiveness of racial minority votes. Winner-take-all election schemes, whether at-large or by district, may dilute the votes of minorities, including racial minorities. Fair representation voting has been used to resolve many cases brought against small jurisdictions under the Voting Rights Act. Here are some resources regarding the intersection of proportional representation and the voting rights of racial minorities:

Fair Representation in Illinois: 1870–1980

Following the civil war, Illinois suffered from severe partisan polarization between the Republican-controlled northern half of the state (including Chicago) and the Democrat-controlled south. Like partisan polarization today, this trend resulted in most legislative districts in Illinois being strongly Democratic or strongly Republican, utterly excluding moderates and members of the minority party from every district's representation.

To resolve the problem, Illinois adopted a fair representation voting method in 1870, electing its house of representatives three-seat districts using cumulative voting. Illinois repealed the system in 1980, through a poorly publicized amendment on the ballot known as the 'Cutback Amendment' because it reduced the size of the Illinois house.

Since then, there have been a number of calls for a return to fair representation voting in Illinois, including a bill introduced by Barack Obama when he was a state senator in 2001. That same year a commission convened to study fair representation voting in Illinois concluded that the system offered greater choice for voters, provided candidates easier access to the electoral system, provided better mixed representation by party, and more. To learn more about proportional representation in Illinois, see our Spotlight: Illinois page.

Ranked Choice Voting for City Councils at the Turn of the Century

The first U.S. city to adopt at-large ranked choice voting for its city council was Ashtabula, Ohio in 1915. During the first half of the 20th century, ranked choice voting spread rapidly as part of the progressive movement. At its peak, some two-dozen cities adopted it, including Cincinatti, Cleveland, Boulder, Sacramento, and even New York City. New York City continued to use ranked choice voting for its school board until 2002 when those school boards were abolished.

As the progressive era transitioned into a period characterized by racial tensions and fear of communism, at-large ranked choice voting became a victim of its own success. In Cincinnati, ranked choice voting enabled the election of two African American city council members into the 1950's. In 1951, African American attorney Theodore M. Berry won with the highest percent of the vote, which ordinarily would result in him becoming mayor. Instead, the city council chose one of the white councilmen to become mayor. Finally, Cincinnati repealed ranked choice voting in 1957 in the fifth Republican-led repeal attempt. Following civil unrest stemming from racial tensions in the 1960's, the Kerner Commission cited the repeal of ranked choice voting and its effect on African American representation as one cause of the city's violence.

Similarly, in New York City, ranked choice voting cut off the stranglehold previously held by the Democratic Party in the city. In the last election before adoption of choice voting, Democrats won 99.5% of the seats on the Board of Alderman with only 66.5% of the vote. Under ranked choice voting in 1941, Democrats won 65.5% of the seats with 64% of the vote, a much fairer result. However, ranked choice voting enabled representation of minor parties, including members of the Communist Party. During the Cold War, the Democratic Party took advantage of fears of communism to make a successful push for repeal of ranked choice voting. That repeal successfully prevented the election of communists to the city council, along with members of all other minor parties, but it also brought back an era of unrepresentative elections to New York City.

Other Fair Representation Voting Methods

FairVote has identified ranked choice voting as our preferred fair representation voting method: RCV promotes majority support, discourages negative campaigning, provides more choice to voters, minimizes strategic voting, promotes minority representation, and saves money on primaries and runoffs. We continue to work on variety of fair voting reforms outside of ranked choice voting, such as Districts Plus, cumulative voting, and limited voting.

The methods discussed here are more susceptible to gaming or tactical voting than ranked choice voting is, and are less effective than RCV at promoting minority representation and improving voter choice, among other benefits of RCV. While each of these methods provides greater proportional representation to voters in the cities, states, or countries where they are used, we recommend them only as steps toward the use of ranked choice voting.

Cumulative voting and the single vote method have each been used in local and state government throughout the United States, and are described in more detail below. Districts Plus is FairVote's improvement upon single-winner districts: a mix of Mixed-Member Proportional systems used in countries such as Germany and New Zealand with American-style, candidate-based elections.

Cumulative Voting

In places that use bloc voting, voters have a number of votes equal to the number of candidates who will be elected, but they are restricted to casting no more than one vote per candidate. This winner-take-all method can easily be made into a fair representation voting method by extending cumulative voting rights to the voters. Illinois elected its State House of Representatives from three-seat districts with cumulative voting from 1870 to 1980, with a number of important benefits. Voters have cumulative voting rights in at-large elections in several jurisdictions in Alabama, California, New York, South Dakota, and Texas. Additionally, cumulative voting rights are often extended to shareholders in corporate elections to prevent a single majority shareholder from controlling the entire board of elections.

Limited Voting/Single-Vote Method

The simplest fair representation voting method is a variant of "limited voting" (so-called because voters have fewer votes than the number of seats to be elected) called the single vote method. Each voter has one potent vote, and the candidates who receive the most votes are elected. When electing at-large, counties in Connecticut and Pennsylvania are required by state law to use limited voting with limited nominations, meaning that political parties must nominate fewer candidates than the number of seats to be filled. Local jurisdictions in Alabama and North Carolina have adopted the single vote or other variants on limited voting in response to lawsuits brought under the Voting Rights Act.

Districts Plus

For those who like local, geographic-based representation, Districts Plus is a particularly attractive fair representation voting system. It makes every vote in every district meaningful in every election, and ensures that the party that receives the most votes wins the most seats.

Districts Plus preserves the current system in which most representatives are elected from single-member districts. It adds "accountability seats" to the legislature to guarantee that when one party's candidates gets the most votes, that party will win the most seats. As a result, every contest in every district is meaningful in every election. Parties will have an incentive to field strong candidates in every district, no matter how imbalanced that district may be.

Display of Michigan's Current Electoral Outcomes vs. Electoral Outcomes under Districts Plus

FairVote has developed a comprehensive Districts Plus plan for the Michigan House of Representatives, which experienced a lack of accountability in the 2012 elections after Republicans retained control of the House despite Democrats receiving the majority of votes. To learn more about how Districts Plus would work in the United States, read that report here. We include Districts Plus as a key policy to enhance the democratic process in our Policy Guide 2016.

Districts Plus is a variant of a system that is commonly used internationally in countries such as Germany and New Zealand called Mixed Member Proportional. MMP is a mixture of traditional winner-take-all systems and proportional representation systems used across the world. MMP can be used to improve both single-member district, winner-take-all systems and multi-member districts elected under proportional voting forms of proportional representation. See FairVote's blogs on Germany's 2009 Elections, Scotland's use of MMP, and proportional representation methods in Malta for more on what Districts Plus could and does do in international elections to improve representation, or watch the video below to learn more about Multi-Member Proportional systems.

Open Ticket Voting

The open ticket method, or "unordered open list system" combines the benefits of proportional representation with simplicity for voters and administrators. Voters cast a single vote for a single candidate in a partisan election. Candidates are elected if they pass the same threshold used in ranked choice voting. Additionally, remaining seats are filled by looking at what proportion of voters voted for candidates of the same political party. For example, in a three-seat district in which a majority of voters favored candidates running as Republicans, two seats would be awarded to Republican candidates.

A Fair Representation Voting Plan for the California State Assembly

While much of the current dissatisfaction with American politics stems from the effects of winner-take-all congressional elections, similar problems exist in the states. Fortunately, fair representation voting systems can improve elections at all levels of government.

Our fair representation voting plan for the California State Assembly would reshape the state's politics by combining assembly districts into multi-seat "super districts," similar to those proposed in Monopoly Politics for the election of the U.S. House. The adoption of such a system would give California voters more choices, more competitive elections, and help promote fair representation of political and ethnic minorities.

  • A plan overview is available here.
  • A comparison of current and proposed districts can be found here.
  • As an example, analysis of a hypothetical Bay-Area super district and its impact on Assembly elections is available here.

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