Proportional Representation The Key to Democracy

Proportional Representation: The Key to Democracy

By George H. Hallett, Jr.

Second and revised edition, 1940


George Hallett Jr. was one of the foremost proponents of proportional representation in the United States in the early part of this century. He tirelessly campaigned for this reform and wrote extensively on its advantages; and he eventually saw this system adopted in two dozens U.S. cities. In most cities, however, PR came under repeated political attack, primarily from politicians and parties who had enjoyed a monopoly on power before the coming of PR. In this book excerpt, Hallett offers rebuttals to many of the common criticisms leveled at the preference vote during his day. Many of these same criticisms continue to be raised by PR opponents today.





 In this chapter we shall consider briefly the objections to P. R. which are most often heard.

Does P. R. Promote Racial and Religious Blocs? The most frequent objections to P. R. are not to the principle itself but to the real or supposed effects of applying it. "Your arithmetic is good," some objectors say, "but we can put up with bad arithmetic better than with some of the evils its correction would bring."

The most usual objection of this kind, particularly in cosmopolitan cities, is based on the fear that P. R., in offering representation to minorities, will divide the people into national, racial, and religious blocs, that the representatives of these blocs will trade with each other for their selfish advantage, and that the general interests of the public will suffer.

In meeting this objection it would be foolish to deny that some of the voters will vote along these lines under P. R., as they do under other methods of election, or that they will elect some of the representatives on this basis. It would be a mistake, however, to concede that such votes are always unintelligent or that their representation is unfortunate.

Could anyone seriously contend, for example, that the Negroes of Harlem, with special and difficult community problems of their own, should not try to elect one of their own leaders to represent them? They did not actually do so in either of the first two New York P. R. elections because not enough of them supported the Negro candidates to make up the large quota required in New York. A prospect of their doing so with credit in the future was indicated in 1937 by the good showing of Dr. John Johnson, widely respected Negro minister.

In Cleveland, which has a similar Negro community, there was one Negro councilman before the adoption of P. R. He was part and parcel of the dominant political machine. (Later he was sent to the penitentiary for accepting a bribe.) Under P. R. the Negroes not only increased the amount of their representation but improved its quality. One of their best representatives, a capable Negro lawyer named Clayborne George, was first elected to the Council without the endorsement of either political party. Such an independent election would have been unthinkable in that part of the city before the advent of P. R.

Even in Cleveland, which is one of the most cosmopolitan of our cities, a majority of the councilmen were never elected on racial and national lines under P. R. There were certain parts of the city, however, where people with a common national ancestry were congregated and where, quite naturally and properly, the nebulous differences between national party affiliations in city elections were subordinated in the voting to the voters' desire to elect one of their own people. The representation they secured on this basis was in many cases better than they had secured under the ward plan. Such representation did not emphasize sectional feeling, but rather the reverse. With each element fairly treated, with no group feeling the sting of discrimination, they were all free to work together as fellow-Americans in solving the common problems of the city. William R. Hopkins, who worked with the P. R. Council for six years as city manager and for two years later as a councilman himself, gave this testimony to the New York Charter Revision Commission of 1934:

"From actual and intimate experience with four of the five councils elected under the proportional representation plan I have no hesitation in saying that we found it the ideal plan for use in a city composed of many diverse groups, and we also found that it brought out of these groups a better type of representation than had previously come from them.

"But while these councils were so clearly representative of groups, the group representatives were most zealous in the promotion of everything advantageous to the city as a whole. They showed less disposition to act on purely local or group lines than their predecessors and were more devoted to the general good of the entire city. Neither in the elections nor in the framing of city policies was there ever any assertion of group interest to the detriment of any other group or of the city as a whole."

While P. R. gives to any sort of community of interest among groups of voters such prominence as the voters themselves wish to give it, it does not create a division of any kind and it does not enforce a division arbitrarily as the ward or district system often does. As a practical matter a person living in Harlem, whether colored or white, must be represented in the state Assembly by a Negro, and a person living elsewhere in New York City must be represented by a white man. In South Boston it is folly to nominate anyone but an Irish Catholic: a contest there between Patrick O'Flannigan and Saltonstall Cabot would be a walk-over for O'Flannigan no matter what the relative qualifications of the gentlemen might be.

In certain wards in Cleveland before the advent of P. R. voters never had a chance to vote for anyone for Council who did not belong to the dominant nationality of the ward. When P. R. came in, the Poles, the Hungarians, and the Czechs still had candidates of their own nationalities, but they were thrown together in a larger district and invited to express an order of choice among candidates of all kinds. Most of them continued to give first choices to their own national group, but the opportunity to express later choices induced many of them, for the first time in local elections, to go outside of that group. After a few years there developed a contest on municipal policies which so split the Polish community that when the second-strongest Pole was defeated more than half of his ballots failed to show next choices for the one Polish candidate remaining, many of them going to non-Polish candidates instead; and consequently for that term no Pole was elected. A large part of the Polish voters were represented, however, by others for whom they had voted.

There were a number of striking cases in Cleveland in which even those voters who were expected to follow nationalistic or religious lines failed to do so. In 1931 the "Irish Derby" of the first district went German and a well- qualified German Democrat was elected over an undistinguished Irish machine Republican by votes transferred from an Irish Democrat. In 1929 an Anglo-Saxon Democrat overhauled a Jewish Republican on votes transferred from another Jewish Republican and was elected. The defeated Jewish Republican and the elected Anglo-Saxon Democrat were running on the same good-government ticket, which meant more to their supporters in voting for a councilman than race, religion, or national party. This is the usual experience under P. R. when there are real issues that the voters care about.


Does P. R. Deprive Localities of RepresentationStrangely enough, persons who object to P. R. because it even allows one sort of sectional representation often object to it also because it does not require another kind. Representation by place of residence may have as little to do with big governmental issues as representation by race, nationality, or religion. Yet one of the most frequent objections to P. R. is that it does not require representation by localities.

Here again the objection is highly theoretical and has practically no basis in fact. A city electing its council at large by P. R. could elect all the councilmen from one neighborhood, but no city has ever done so. For to get this result under P. R. it would be necessary for nearly all the voters to vote for candidates from one neighborhood in preference to the candidates who live elsewhere, and that never happens.

If a quota of a man's neighbors want to elect him under P. R., all the other voters together cannot prevent it.

Parties and civic groups, in nominating their tickets, take geographical as well as other sectional divisions into account so as to give those voters who think geographically a chance to vote that way without going outside their tickets. That makes it easy in most cases to vote for the policy you want and for a neighbor at the same time. Enough voters do vote for their neighbors so that the members elected by P. R. are well distributed geographically We have examined all the American P.R. elections and there is no exception to this statement. This is true in spite of the fact that many of the voters are but little concerned about the places of residence of their representatives. At the first P. R. election in Cleveland 62 per cent of the voters gave their first choices to candidates who did not live in their own wards, to which they had formerly been limited in their council votes.

P.R. has a great advantage over the ward or district system in not emphasizing geography unduly, just as it does not emphasize unduly nationality or religion. Two of the most valuable members of the Cleveland Council under P. R., Mayor John D. Marshall and Professor A. R. Hatton, lived in the same ward and could not both have been elected under the ward plan. When P. R. was abandoned in Cleveland, Mayor Marshall declined to run again. It was generally assumed that he did not run because his ward had become predominantly Italian and would not have elected him. In one of the P. R. elections he had run only third in his own ward, but in the large P. R. district he had always enough supporters to be elected.


Does P. R. Help Extremists and FaddistsP. R. is often objected to on the ground that it will help extreme parties or groups with particular fads that might not otherwise have had a chance of electing anyone.

That P. R. may give representation to such groups is not to be denied. But it will not do so unless they have a substantial part of the votes. No Communist, for example, has ever yet been elected in an American P. R. election.

If an extremist group does have a substantial part of the votes, denying it representation is as silly as an ostrich's sticking his head in the sand. There is always the danger, under the old plan of elections, that such a group will suddenly sweep in with more than its share of the members and with no minority experience to prepare it for the responsibilities of control. This is what happened in Alberta in 1935 when the new Social Credit Party suddenly monopolized the entire provincial legislature except for the two P. R. districts and one other. It is what happened in Ontario in 1919 when the Farmer and Labor Parties, with less than a third of the votes, elected a majority of the provincial legislature, in which they had had only one member before.

Many of those in Cincinnati who objected to P. R. because in 1935 it elected the Rev. Herbert Bigelow, single taxer, public ownership advocate, and ally of Father Coughlin, thought better of their objection when he was elected to Congress under the old system in 1936, taking one of his associates with him. By capturing the Democratic primaries in a Democratic year the Bigelow minority group monopolized the entire congressional representation of Cincinnati, whereas in the P.R. Council it had had only one seat out of nine.

The representation of groups thought of as extreme is often helpful on current issues. Due proportional representation of the Socialist Party, for example, in our legislative bodies might have helped often to block the schemes of machine politicians and hastened the advent of woman suffrage, which the party strongly favored. It could not have established socialism, for on that issue the majority had not been convinced that it was right.

It is said that "the best way to discredit a fool is to hire him a hall." And if, as sometimes happens, a "faddist" or "extremist" turns out to be not a fool but a wise man ahead of his time, then too the best thing to do is to hire him a hall.

Does P. R. Increase the Bargaining Power of MinoritiesUnder proportional representation, as under the old system of election, a minority may hold the balance of power. And it may use this advantage to bargain effectively for what it wants. A case in point is the one just referred to, that of Mr. Bigelow in Cincinnati, who held the balance of power between the Republican organization and the Charter Committee and delayed the organization of the city Council for a week while a satisfactory compromise was worked out between him and the City Charter Committee.

Those who make this objection are straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel. For the sake of avoiding an occasional bargain, which may indeed give a minority something that it wants but only with the consent of a majority, they are willing to substitute downright minority control. The largest of the three groups in the Cincinnati situation was the Republican organization, which was not a majority. A plurality election might have avoided the Bigelow bargain by giving this minority organization a majority of the councilmen, but that would have meant an outright violation of the will of the majority. It would probably have meant also a return to the spoils system of government, from which a majority of the citizens were thankful to be delivered.

Furthermore, not even the creation of a fictitious majority can prevent the bargaining power of minorities. It might if the fictitious majority were really united. But anyone who remembers the log-rolling and dissension of some recent national conventions knows that the parties which win majorities under the old methods are not united. A majority party is a union of differing minorities, held together (when it is held together) by the very bargaining to which objection is made. Sometimes this is made very clear, as when Senator John J. McNaboe, Manhattan Democrat, harassed the Democratic leadership by using his balance of power in the New York Senate throughout the troubled session of 1934.

Under the old plan the minorities do most of their bargaining before election and prevent certain issues from being raised at all. We can all think of one or more important changes which have long been desired by a majority of the people but which legislators avoid like the smallpox because they are objectionable to some powerful minority in a position to swing an election against them by withdrawing its block of votes.

Whenever there are two or more people to be considered, there is no way of avoiding bargaining and compromise. There has always been plenty of it in the old New England town meeting. If there must be bargaining, let us see that it is such as a majority of the people would probably approve. This is much more likely if it is done by representatives of a real majority after an election in which the people have had a chance to vote freely on the issues, as under P. R., than it is if the issues never come before the people at all.

Does P. R. Make Legislation HarderPeople sometimes fear that a body with all elements in it will be strong in oratory but weak in accomplishment.

This fear has little basis in experience. Because of the superior quality and public spirit of a majority of the members elected by P. R., the records of P. R. bodies have almost always far surpassed those of bodies elected by the old methods.

In a surprising proportion of the questions acted on by P. R. bodies it has proved possible after discussion to take action unanimously. A detailed analysis of the first year's work of the first P. R. council in Toledo, published by the Toledo Commission of Publicity and Efficiency in its Toledo City Journal for January 23, 1937, contrasts the harmony of sessions of the P. R. council with the bickering and obstruction of earlier councils and shows that all but seven of the 161 important ordinances passed during the year were passed by unanimous vote. When unanimous action is taken in such a really representative body, it is almost sure to have the backing of the public which is so important to any policy's success.

Does P. R. Break Down One-Party GovernmentThe contention that it does is usually based on the experience of various European countries which have had party-list systems of P. R. Frequently France is brought in, though France has never had anything that could properly be called P. R. at all.

There is plenty of ground for debate as to whether one-party government is really desirable, even in national elections. There is no need to enter that debate, however, for those who think that one-party government and P.R. cannot go together are making a wrong assumption. The many-party system of Europe was not a result of P.R. It would be more correct to say that P. R. in Europe was a result of the many-party system. European countries adopted their list systems of P. R. because one-party government did not exist, which made it obviously important that the representation of the minority parties taking part in government should be accurate instead of distorted.

In some cases the number of large parties increased under these list systems of P. R., in others it decreased. But in either case it would be a mistake to assume that under the best system of P. R. the number of parties would surely have been the same as under the list system. The list systems give each party its fair share, but they do not give the party voters adequate control over the party. Under them, if you do not like the persons nominated by your party, you may have no recourse but to start a new one. For this reason minor differences which the Hare system would have taken care of by giving representation to both wings of an existing party have often led to new parties.

It is perhaps significant that the only country which has the best form of P. R. for all its national elections, Eire (formerly the Irish Free State) is one of the very few democratic countries which has recently had a single party in control. The Fianna Fail, Mr. DeValera's party, elected a full half of all the members in each of the three successive Dail Eireann elections of 1933, 1937 and 1938, and in the last of these it secured a majority of sixteen over all others combined. Furthermore, the one- party government of the Irish Free State is a development under P.R, not a survival from another system.

At one period in the Free State's history its two major parties got out of touch with popular sentiment and there was temporarily a large falling away from both of them, with a corresponding growth in the minor parties. Thereupon both major parties took steps to mend their ways, and when another election was held a few months later there was a swing back toward the two-party system. That trend has continued.

Other things being equal most people seem to prefer to belong to a large and powerful group. As in the Irish Free State, the use of P. R. in our national elections might help in a realignment of parties to make them correspond more closely to the real trends of public opinion; but with representative results within each party assured and with sentiment here for the two-party system as strong as it is, there seems no reason to expect that the best form of P. R. would bring any startling departure from the two- party system in the United States.

Of course in local elections, where the national parties seldom have much real validity, the result may be different. In some of the smaller P. R. cities national party lines have been almost completely forgotten so far as city elections are concerned. But even in cities there is a tendency under P. R. for strong civic groups to develop, which serve the proper function of parties in guiding the course of government. The Cincinnati City Charter Committee, the Toledo City Manager League, the Hamilton Charter Commission group, and the Wheeling Association are cases in point.

Is P. R. Hard to UnderstandAdmittedly very few of the people in P. R. cities could conduct a P. R. count. But the people can readily understand everything about P. R. which really concerns them. They can understand how to vote; that is as simple as 1, 2, 3. They can understand that the system gives them a chance to have their vote count, if not always for a first choice, then for a second or a third. They can understand that it gives representation to minorities and assures majority rule. And they can look upon the results and see that they are good.

The voters do not have to count the ballots, though anyone of average intelligence can easily learn how if he wants to take the trouble. The rules are simpler than those of baseball, and incomparably simpler than those of bridge.

But, except that a thorough understanding will keep them from accepting the false statements about P. R. which machine politicians often circulate, it is not important whether the voters master the succession of simple steps in the P. R. count or not. When you post a letter in New York to a village in Scotland, you do not know by what route it will go. And you do not need to. All you need to know is that the system of transmission is one that will stand investigation and carry the letter.


Does P. R. Make Campaigning HarderCandidates and their friends sometimes complain that P. R. makes them cover a larger area and thus gives an advantage to those with money or newspaper support.

Of course money and newspaper support always help. But those who make this objection overlook the fact that it is not necessary to reach all the voters, but merely to convince a quota of them. A quota may be cultivated in one part of the city or in one group of citizens. To convince a quota anywhere in the sort of competition that P. R. provides is a formidable task for one who starts unknown. But for a candidate with an established reputation, the sort of candidate whose election is likely to be of most value to the city, it may require no campaign at all. It will be remembered that Professor A. R. Hatton, one of the country's leading authorities on municipal government, was elected to the city Council under P. R. in Cleveland without party support and with no campaign expense except for the circulation of his nominating petitions. It should be remembered, too, that P. R. eliminates entirely the expense and trouble of a primary campaign.

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