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Careless reporting: discursive pillar of our broken election regime

by Jack Santucci // Published March 31, 2006
The public gets its political information from three places: friends, school and the media. Friends get it from the same places. School ends, for most, by the mid-20s. So when the media print nonsense, they're making the public ignorant about public interest reforms.

On December 22, we blogged PR's PR problem. Regular readers will recall our point: that the media frequently and inaccurately frame proportional voting as "complex" and "foreign."

It's only complex if you don't make the effort to understand. That's true about anything. Without some level of education, tying one's shoes would be "complex." Moreover, at least some research contradicts the complexity conclusion.

The foreign frame has two prongs. One, that PR is a feature of parliamentary systems. Simply not true. Fusing the executive and legislative branches (a parliamentary system) has nothing to do with what systems are used to elect them. Look at Canada. Two, that PR is an importation from abroad. It's true we often rely on foreign examples to make our point. We have to. The 20+ domestic cases dried up when party bosses won repeal referenda by telling voters how PR helped blacks and socialists get elected. But over 100 U.S. jurisdictions still use modified forms of PR, and Illinois used it to elect the state legislature for 110 years.

Israel just held its election, and the media are at it again. Take the New York Times' attempt to explain Israel's electoral system to us:

How does the electoral system work?

By proportional representation, not direct election. Voters cast their ballot for a party list rather than individual candidates. The number of votes received by the party determines how many of its members gain Knesset seats.

What the author means to say is that the system is party-centered, not candidate-centered. That is, you vote for a party, not a person. But you are voting directly for your pick. The dichotomy is a false one. If there is any dichotomy, it's between winner-take-all and proportional systems. For an example of an indirect election, look at the one we use to pick our President. You elect someone else to elect the President on your behalf (and that someone has the power to vote against your wishes).

Even wonkier types get it wrong. Take the IFES on Italy's upcoming election, another one that gets lots of media play:

...In the Chamber of Deputies (/Camera dei Deputati/), 475 members are elected by direct vote to serve 5-year terms and 155 members are elected by proportional representation to serve 5-year terms.

IFES is describing a parallel system; some seats are elected proportionally, others in single-member plurality districts. IFES has taken "direct" as a synonym for "single-member plurality." You can have all kinds of direct elections, so using the word doesn't tell anyone anything.

At least two sources on two of the most closely watched PR elections have incorrectly set "proportionality" in opposition to "directness." Yet another reason we don't have PR - and maybe part of why we still have an indirect presidential election.

Our sister organization in Canada has issued five requests to that country's media regarding its coverage of elections:

1) Anchor your commentary and analysis on what voters have actually said with their ballots, rather than blindly reporting the number of seats won by each party...

2) Do the same for provincial and regional results...

3) Provide fair, balanced and accurate commentary on the treatment of voters supporting each party...

4) Provide an efficiency rating for the voting system...

5) Do not make inappropriate and erroneous statements about winners and losers...

It's time to make some demands of our own major media outlets. If the media don't pay attention to how our electoral system wastes votes and distorts Congressional representation - if they frame the remedy as an alien contortion - they deny the public knowledge of fairer options.