Proportional Representation Radical Bleeding Heart image

Electing Legislatures, Councils, and Other Bodies

What Is Proportional Representation? First of all, what isn't it? What we have in the United States, and many of us assume is natural and inevitable just because it is all we have known, is single-member districts, with first-past-the-post, winner-take-all elections. Let us say that a state (or other political unit) has a legislative body made up of one hundred elected citizens. So the state is then divided up into 100 individual districts and each district elects a single representative. That is what we have got.

Proportional representation differs in two ways. First, the state is divided into fewer and larger districts. Instead of 100 there may be twenty districts with five representatives each, or perhaps ten districts with ten seats in each. Second, the seats from each district are divided up in proportion to the number of votes received by each party (or other groups running candidates). All proportional representational systems have these two factors in common, but they differ in how they achieve them.

So What Is Wrong With What We've Got? You have heard people say “If it ain't broke, don't fix it!” What's wrong with single-member districts? Plenty!

  • Gerrymandering. Winner-take-all elections make gerrymandering possible. They actually make gerrymandering difficult to prevent.
  • Indeed, even when the districts are not rigged to deliberately favor an incumbent or a particular party, they favor someone. That is, unless a candidate is universally selected by everyone in the district (and when has that ever happened?) some of the citizens will not be represented. Minorities, even a minority of 49%, are effectively frozen out.
  • The present system assumes that the citizens of a particular geographical area have identical interests, needs and views. This is simply not the case. You may be a gay, vegetarian, atheistic socialist, while your next-door neighbor is a Bible-thumping, homophobic, evangelical disciple of Ayn Rand.
  • It also is responsible for the hegemony of the two-party system. People are afraid of voting for anyone other than the candidate chosen for them by either the Republicans or by the Democrats because they will be “wasting their vote.” Or worse. A vote for a third party candidate may contribute to the “spoiler ”effect, actually helping to elect the candidate you least favor. So, we are told, we must hold our noses and vote for the lesser of the evils. Or we give up in disgust and just don't vote at all.
  • By limiting choices to the two parties, it severely restricts political discourse. The two major parties are not interested in educating voters or seriously discussing problems and their possible solutions. They are only interested in seducing votes, which they do mostly by smearing their opponents or telling comforting lies. But occasionally (if rarely) someone both open-minded and knowledgeable gets into the political system. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland State Senator and constitutional lawyer, has proposed proportional representation for both state and US legislators. We need more like him.

Types of Proportional Representation. What follows here is brief summary of PR systems. The bible for understanding all the various voting systems, their history, how they work, and the pros and cons, is Douglas Amy's Behind the Ballot Box. He has provided most of this information on his website (although internet information has a way of disappearing just when you want it most).

Closed Party List Voting. The simplest system is Party List Voting, which has two types: closed and open. Closed Party List Voting is simple. Each party presents a list of candidates in rank order. The number of candidates for each party corresponds to the number of seats in the district. Each voter has one vote and votes for a party, not a candidate. The seats are distributed according to the percentage of votes each party receives.

Let us say this is a ten-member district and four parties have presented slates of candidates: Republicans, Democrats, Tea Party, and Vegetarians, plus one independent candidate (all independents are treated as if they belong to a single party). The Republicans and Democrats each get thirty percent of the vote, the Tea Party and Vegetarians twenty percent each. The top three candidates of the Republicans and of the Democrats are elected along with the top two for the Tea Party and the Vegetarians.

Open Party List Voting. Note that with Closed Lists the parties have considerable power over who gets elected. With Open List the voters have more say. Again each party offers a slate of candidates equal to the number of seats in the district, but this time they are not ranked. Citizens get only one vote each, but they vote for an individual rather than a party. Or rather they are voting both for that individual and her party. Again, each party receives a number of seats proportional to their votes gained, but the ranking is done by the voters, not the party.

Other Systems of PR. There are quite a few. Mixed-Member Proportional Voting is a kind of mixture of single-member representation and PR. That is, each district has someone to represent the district as a geographical area as well as representatives of various points of view (in practice, of course, that means representatives of different parties).

Choice Voting, sometimes called Single Transferable Vote is a bit complicated to describe, although fairly simple for the voters. They rank the candidates in order of preference. Some candidates might get enough first-place votes to win outright but other winners are chosen by eliminating those who receive the least number one rankings and transferring their votes to the second ranked choices of those voters.

Cumulative Voting is perhaps the most complicated for the voters, but it allows them not only to rank their choices but to weight those choices as well.

You can learn more about these systems here.

But What About Presidential Elections? Most of Europe has what is somewhat confusingly called “responsible government”—so-called because the executive is responsible to the legislative body. Most Americans are familiar with the fact that the British Prime Minister is chosen by Parliament. The American system is quite different. Although American presidents are technically chosen indirectly through the Electoral College, when we cast our ballots we are voting for the president, not for an elector, whose identity is almost certainly unknown to us. Proportional Representation clearly is not going to work here.

But even in this case we need not be stuck with our present dysfunctional system. There are a number of alternatives,the most popular of which is called Instant Runoff Voting.