What is "proportional representation" and why do we need this reform?

Douglas J. Amy
Mount Holyoke College

Americans continue to be disillusioned with politics. Cynicism about candidates and parties runs high and voter turnout is abysmally low. A number of proposals designed to revitalize American elections have been made, including term limits and campaign finance reform. But a new reform is also beginning to get some attention: replacing our present single-member district, winner-take-all election system with proportional representation (PR) elections. Political commentators writing in The Washington Post, The New Republic, The New YorkerThe Christian Science Monitor and USA Today have endorsed this reform. Grassroots groups in several states are now organizing to bring proportional representation to local elections. Leaders of most alternative parties, including the Libertarians, the Greens, and the New Party, are also pushing for a change to PR. And many in the voting rights community, including Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier, have concluded that proportional representation would be the best way to give minority voters fair representation.

So why all this sudden interest in proportional representation? What exactly is PR, how does it work, and what are its advantages over our present system? Describing how it works is simple. Proportional representation systems come in several varieties, but they all share two basic characteristics. First, they use multi-member districts. Instead of electing one member of the legislature in each small district, PR uses much larger districts that elect several members at once, say five or ten. Second, which candidates win the seats in these multi-member districts is determined by the proportion of votes a party receives. If we have a ten-member PR district in which the Democratic candidates win 50% of the vote, they would receive five of those ten seats. With 30% of the vote, the Republicans would get three seats. And if a third party received the other 20% of the votes, it would get the remaining two seats. (For more information on the various types of PR systems, see How Does PR Work?.)

At first glance, this voting process might seem a bit strange to many Americans. We are used to our single-member district system, in which we elect one candidate in each legislative district, with the winner being the candidate with the most votes. But while we view this winner-take-all system as "normal," in reality our approach to elections is increasingly at odds with the rest of the world. The vast majority of Western democracies see American-style elections as outmoded and unfair and have rejected them in favor of proportional representation. Most of Western Europe uses PR and a large majority of the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have chosen PR over our form of elections. The United States, Canada, and Great Britain are the only Western democracies that continue to cling to winner-take-all arrangements.

The Problem with Single-Member District Elections

The single-member district voting system has been on the wane worldwide because it has a number of serious drawbacks. It routinely denies representation to large numbers of voters, produces legislatures that fail to accurately reflect the views of the public, discriminates against third parties, and discourages voter turnout. All of these problems can be traced to a fundamental flaw in our system: only those who vote for the winning candidate get any representation. Everyone else -- who may make up 49% of the electorate in a district -- gets no representation.

We are all familiar with this problem. If you are a Democrat in a predominately Republican district, or a Republican in a Democratic one, or an African-American in a white district, then you are shut out by our current election system. You might cast your vote, but it will be wasted on a candidate that can not win. In the 1994 elections for the U.S. House of Representatives, more than 26 million Americans wasted their votes on losing candidates, and so came away from the voting booth with no representation. Under single-member district rules we may have the right to vote, but we don't have the equally important right to be represented.

To make matters worse, this denial of representation on the district level often produces distortions in representation in Congress and our state and local legislatures. Parties often receive far more (or far fewer) seats than they deserve. For example, in the 1996 elections for the U.S. House of Representatives, the Democrats won 66 percent of votes in Massachusetts, but received 100% of the states ten seats. The Republicans cast 33% of the vote, but they were all wasted and they received no representation. That same year in Oklahoma, Republican won 61% of the vote and won all six seats.  The distortion of representation was even worse in Washington State, where the Republicans took second place with 47% of the vote, but won 67% (six out of nine) of the House seats. Americans have become used to this kind of political injustice, but citizens in most other democracies are not willing to put up with it.

Proportional representation has been widely adopted because it avoids an outcome in which some people win representation and the rest are left out. Under proportional representation rules, no significant groups are denied representation. Even political minorities, who may constitute only 10-20 per cent of the voters, are able to win some seats in these multi-member districts. In PR systems, nearly everyone's vote counts, with 80-90 per cent of the voters actually electing someone, compared to 50-60 per cent in most U.S. elections. Under PR, we can also be sure that our legislatures will accurately reflect the voting strength of the various parties. If a party receives 40 per cent of the vote, it will get 40 per cent of the seats, not 20 percent or 60 percent as can happen now with our system.

More Choices for Voters

The unfairness of winner-take-all elections and the advantages of proportional representation are particularly obvious when we consider the situation of third parties in the U.S. Voters are increasingly dissatisfied with the offerings of the two-major parties and recent surveys indicate that over 60 per cent of Americans would now like to see other parties emerge to challenge the Democrats and Republicans.

Voters are showing increasing interest in alternatives such as the Reform party, the Libertarian party, the Greens, and the New Party.. But under our current rules, none of these parties stands a realistic chance of electing their candidates. Winner-take-all elections require candidates to receive a majority or plurality of the vote to win, and minor party candidates can rarely overcome that formidable barrier. This plurality barrier explains why even though we have had over a thousand minor parties started in the U.S. during the last two hundred years, virtually all have died out relatively quickly.

Adopting PR would finally allow for free and fair competition between all political parties. Supporters of minor parties are forced to either waste their vote on a candidate who cannot win; vote for the lesser-of-two-evils among the major party candidates; or not vote at all. In short, single-member district elections are rigged against minor parties and serve to unfairly protect the major parties from competition.

This problem would end under proportional representation, which is designed to ensure that all political groups, including minor party supporters, get their fair share of representation. Minor parties would need only 10 or 20 per cent of the vote to elect a candidate. Under PR, many minor parties would quickly become viable and we would have a truly competitive multi-party system. This would give American voters what they say they want: a much greater variety of choices at the polls.

Offering voters more choices would also encourage higher levels of voting. People would have more reason to vote because they could more easily find a candidate or party they could support enthusiastically. Voters would also know that their vote would not be wasted, but would count to elect the candidate of their choice. Because of such inducements, voters in PR countries typically turnout at rates of 70-80 per cent, compared to 50 per cent or less in the U.S.  Voting systems are not the only factor that affects turnout, but it can be a significant one. Voting systems scholars estimate that adopting PR in the U.S. would increase voter participation by 10-12%, which would translate into millions of more voters at the polls.

A multi-party system would also ensure that our city, state, and federal legislatures represented the variety of political perspectives that exist in the electorate. Our society is becoming more politically heterogeneous, and yet our legislatures are made up of the same old Republican and Democratic politicians. Some of our widespread political malaise might disappear is we had policy-making bodies that reflected the diverse perspectives in the electorate. More representative legislatures would foster more exciting and wide-ranging political debate and inject new ideas into decision making.

Solving our Voting Rights Problems

Another major advantage of proportional representation is in the area of voting rights. Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier and others have argued that PR would be the best solution to the continuing problem of how to ensure fair representation for racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S. Currently, supporters of voting rights are facing a difficult dilemma. The Supreme Court has cast doubt on the constitutionality of creating special minority-dominated districts. These districts have been the main avenue by which minorities have increased their representation in Congress over the past few decades. But if we abandon this approach, how do we avoid going back to the old white-dominated districts, in which minority candidates have little or no chance of being elected?

The way out of this situation is to realize that it exists only if we must use winner-take-all districts, where how the district lines are drawn determines whether whites or minorities will be represented in a particular district. The solution is to abandon single-member districts and use proportional representation. Then it wouldn't matter if minorities were submerged in majority white districts, they could still elect their own representatives. Assume, for example, that whites made up 80 percent of the voters in a five-seat PR district and blacks made up the remaining 20 percent. Even if everyone voted along racial lines, the African Americans would still be able to elect one representative. Studies have shown that in Cincinnati and other places where proportional representation have been used in the United States, they have produced fairer representation for racial and ethnic minorities. Proportional representation would ensure fair representation for both whites and minorities, and do so without creating special districts. (For more on this issue, see "Fair Representation for Racial Minorities: Is Proportional Representation the Answer?")

Better Representation of Women

Proportional representation also carries other significant political advantages.  For example, PR can result in  fairer representation for women. The United States continues to lag far behind many other Western democracies in the number of women elected to our national legislature. The percentage of women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives continues to hover around 13% while in many other countries that figure for their lower houses is 20%, 30% and even 40%. Many factors affect the number of women elected in a country, including such things as cultural attitudes toward the role of women in society and politics. But there is widespread agreement among scholars that voting methods are another key factor that affects the level of female representation in a political system. 

Experts note that the clearest demonstration of the effect of voting systems on women’s representation can be seen in countries like Germany and New Zealand that use the mixed-member form of proportional representation. Under this system, half of the members of the parliament are elected in single-member plurality districts and the other half chosen by party list proportional representation. (See How Does PR Work? for more details on this system.) In the 1994 German election, the percentage of women elected in the single-member districts was 13%--about the same as in the United States--while the number elected from the party list PR contests was 39%. In New Zealand in 1996, those numbers were 15% for single-member district contests and 45% for party list PR.

What explains this effect? Scholars have found that many more women tend to be nominated in countries using PR voting; and the more women are nominated, the more they win office. Instead of nominating one person per district, a slate of candidates is nominated in these multi-member PR districts. In a five-member district, for example, each party nominates five candidates. If a party includes two women on their slate, and the party wins three seats, there is a good chance of at least one woman being elected. If a party were to put only men on their slate, that would immediately be noticed. The party would be inviting charges of sexism and would risk alienating the feminist vote. So with PR voting there is some inherent pressure on the parties to nominate more women for office. The adoption of PR in the U.S. would be one of the most effective ways to quickly increase the number of women in elected office.

Eliminates Gerrymandering

Another advantage of proportional representation is that it would greatly reduce or eliminate the problem of partisan gerrymandering -- one of the scourges of the single-member district system. Currently, districts lines are usually drawn to create district majorities that favor certain parties or incumbents -- a cynical exercise designed to cheat some parties out of their fair share of seats. However, as mentioned earlier, how district lines are drawn in PR systems usually has no significant impact on representation. If the multi-member PR districts are sufficiently large (five or more seats), it doesn't matter whether a party is a majority or a minority -- all parties receive their fair share of seats. So, under PR rules, the drawing of districts lines would no longer be a way of determining who gets represented or which party controls the legislature.

PR Has a Proven Track Record

But can we be sure that proportional representation would really result in all of these positive changes? The actual impacts of new political innovations are notoriously difficult to predict. However, PR is not a new and untried idea; it has a long track record in other Western democracies. Political scientists studying these countries have found that virtually all of them have enjoyed high voter turnout rates, vigorous multi-party competition, fair representation for political, ethnic and racial minorities, and practically no gerrymandering. And no serious movement exists in any of these countries to trade in PR for American-style elections.

Proportional representation's record in other countries also serves to dispel the myth that adopting such a system would result in legislatures racked by conflict and plagued by deadlock. Most legislatures in countries using proportional representation are ruled by a coalition of parties, and some fear that these coalitions are liable to be unstable and to lead to weak and unproductive government. In reality, however, almost all PR countries have enjoyed stable coalition governments. In Scandinavia, for instance, some of these multi- party coalitions have lasted for decades. And these large coalitions have commonly passed legislation far more efficiently than our Congress does.

A few countries, notably Italy and Israel, have had trouble with unstable coalitions. But both of these countries have used extreme forms of proportional representation. Israel, for example, allows any party that gets more than about 1 per cent of the vote to win seats in their parliament. At times this low threshold has resulted in over a dozen parties in the Knesset, which has complicated the task of governing. However, most other PR countries use more moderate forms of PR that have a higher threshold and fewer parties. Germany has a five per cent threshold that results in a workable legislature of 3-5 parties. This moderate PR is what proponents are advocating for the U.S.

Worldwide Interest in Voting System Reform

Given the many advantages of PR, it is not surprising that the general worldwide trend during the last 100 years has been away from winner-take-all voting systems and toward various forms of PR.  That trend continues even today.  As mentioned earlier, a vast majority of the emerging democracies in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and Africa have ended up rejecting American-style plurality voting in favor of various forms of proportional or semi-proportional voting systems.

In addition, in the last few years a number of established democracies have debated voting system change and adopted PR systems. During the 1990s New Zealand abandoned single-member plurality elections for mixed-member proportional representation, and Japan changed from its unique single non-transferable vote system to a mixed system. Even Great Britain, the original home of our single-member district system, has seen an intense political discussion of voting system options. In 1998, a commission appointed by Prime Minister Tony Blair completed a study of voting systems, and recommended that a national referendum be held to choose between their traditional plurality voting system and a new system that included aspects of proportional representation. In fact, PR systems have already been introduced in some elections there. In 1999, when Scotland and Wales had elections for their newly created parliaments, they both chose to use forms of proportional representation instead of the traditional single-member plurality system. And in the most recent round of elections for representatives to the European Community, Great Britain switched to a PR voting system there as well.  Given this general trend in voting system reform, it is not surprising that the issue of proportional representation is finally being raised in the United States.

Implementing PR in the United States

Here in the U.S., proportional representation would be easiest to acquire on the local level, where modifying a city charter is usually all that is necessary.  For that reason, much of the grassroots political activity promoting PR has taken place on the local level.  For example, in the 1990s, two large cities -- Cincinnati and San Francisco -- voted on referendums to adopt PR.  Both efforts were narrowly defeated, with PR garnering the support of almost 45% of the voters in both cases. 

Proportional representation also is feasible for Congressional elections. The Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington, D.C. has developed plans for Georgia and North Carolina that demonstrate how easy it would be to create multi- member PR districts for U.S. House elections. Importantly, such plans would not require a constitutional amendment. All that would be needed is to repeal a 1967 federal law requiring single-member district elections for the House, and several bills have been introduced in Congress that would do just that. In fact, with the approval of the Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act, some states already are using PR in local elections, and minorities are using this system to elect their fair share of representatives.

The debate over proportional representation is just beginning in this country; but it is an idea whose time has come. If we want our elections to be fairer and more democratic, and if we want voting to become a more powerful and meaningful political act, then we should take a long and careful look at this reform.

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