The Case for a Better Election System

Proportional Representation: The Case for a Better Election System

By Douglas J. Amy

Crescent Street Press
Price: $2.95
ISBN: 0-9659456-3-4

This easy-to-read 43 page pamphlet explains how many of our current election problems are due to flaws in our single-member district, winner-take-all system, and how our elections could be revitalized by adopting a proportional representation system. Proportional Representation (PR) is the most popular election system in the western world. It ensures that all voters are represented and that both major and minor parties receive legislative seats in proportion to their share of the vote. Most election experts consider this system to be fairer and more democratic than winner-take-all elections. Switching to PR would produce city, state, and federal legislatures that are more representative and more responsive to the American people.

This pamphlet is particularly useful as a short introduction to the case for PR. In it readers learn:

Table of Contents

About the author

Ordering Information

Excerpt from the pamphlet

Return of PR Library


Table of Contents


1. The Need for Reform

2. Fair Representation for All

3. More Choices for Voters

4. How PR Helps Republicans and Democrats

5. Concerns about Multi-Party Systems

6. Increasing Voter Turnout

7. Fair Representation for Minorities

8. Fairness for Female Candidates

9. PR -- The Time is Now

10. What You Can Do

Appendix 1: Types of PR and Sample Ballots

Appendix 2: Common Questions About PR

Appendix 3: Additional Sources of Information


About the Author


Douglas J. Amy is a professor in the Department of Politics at Mount Holyoke College and a nationally recognized authority on alternative election systems. He is the author of Real Choices/New Voices: The Case for Proportional Representation Elections in the United States from Columbia University Press.


Ordering Information


This pamphlet is distributed by the Center for Voting and Democracy. It may be ordered by sending a check for 2.95 to:

The Center For Voting and Democracy
6930 Carroll Ave. Suite 901, Takoma Park,  MD   20912

(301) 270-4616


Excerpt from "Proportional Representation: The Case for a Better Election System"



Voter turnout in the United States is awful. In a good election year we are lucky to get half the voters to the polls, and in non-presidential years, turnout often dips below 40%. This raises serious questions about how legitimate and representative our governing institutions really are. For example, in the 1994 elections that brought the Republicans to power in Congress, turnout was only 39%. And only 23% of the eligible voters actually cast votes for candidates who won seats in the House. How can any party claim a mandate to govern with such low levels of voter support?

Voter participation looks even worse when we compare ourselves to European Democracies. As Table 1 shows, the U.S. ranks embarrassingly low compared to most of these other countries. Several factors explain this glaring difference. Some of these other countries have compulsory voting, and others make voting easier with simple registration, voting on weekends, and other conveniences. But another major factor is the election system. As the table suggests, proportional representation countries tend to have higher turnout that countries with single-member district elections. But what exactly is it about PR that encourages voter participation?


Voter Turnout in Legislative Elections in 10 Western Democracies


Country Election System Turnout Rate (Election Year)







Great Britain


United States

Party-List PR

Mixed Member PR

Party-List PR

Party-List PR

Party-List PR

Party-List PR

Mixed Member PR

Single-Member Dist.

Single-Member Dist.

Single-Member Dist.

93% (1991)

89% (1994)

86% (1994)

86% (1994)

80% (1994)

83% (1993)

78% (1994)

72% (1997)

65% (1993)

49% (1996)


Why PR Would Help

One reason more people participate in PR elections is that a multi-party system offers more choices. When it is easier to find a candidate or party you are really excited about, you are more likely to vote. In addition, with PR, voters also have a much better chance of having their votes count — of actually electing someone. This is another strong incentive to participate.

Also, in our current system, many incumbents have "safe seats" and this discourages turnout. Why should Democrats go to the polls in districts where they are far outnumbered by Republicans (or vice versa)? Political parties usually make little effort to get out the vote in districts where they stand little chance of winning.

Safe seats have become an epidemic. There were so many of them in the 1994 U.S. House elections, that 2/3 of the incumbents were either unopposed or won by landslides of more than 20%. In Florida, almost 1/2 of the seats were uncontested and 3/4 of the incumbents won by landslides. Turnout there understandably plummeted to a pitiful 23%.

There are no "safe districts" in PR. Every district is competitive because even parties in the minority are able to elect candidates. And it makes a big difference whether a party gets 20% or 40% of the vote, because more votes means more seats. So more people have a reason to vote and parties try to mobilize their voters in all districts, not just a few.

For all of these reasons, adopting proportional representation elections would be a big help in addressing our chronically low voter turnout levels. PR won’t solve the entire problem by itself, but experts estimate that it would increase turnout in the United States by about 10%-15%. We would see millions of more voters going to the polls in every election and this would be a significant step toward addressing one of the most persistent problems in American politics.

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