The Case for Proportional Representation
by Rob Richie and Steven Hill
Social Policy magazine, Summer 1996
The United States faces an alarming decay in civic and political
involvement. Every week seems to bring some new, shocking measure
of voter apathy, citizen ignorance, campaign finance inequity
or distorted representation. The statistics would be numbing if
not for the burning realization that a continued slide will have
disastrous consequences for millions of people and the environment.
Reformers simply cannot afford to fail.
To breathe life into representative democracy we must address
two fundamental problems: that the majority of adults do not participate
regularly in electoral politics, and that, when they do participate,
they have extremely limited choices. Many proposals have been
advanced to address these problems -- from voter registration
efforts to campaign finance reform. One that has been getting
increasing attention -- and which should be a central piece in
the puzzle of reform -- is a movement to replace the American
winner-take-all electoral system with forms of proportional representation.
Although many Americans are still learning the basic language
of proportional representation, the movement is gathering impressive
support -- support that may grow rapidly, given that proportional
representation taps into three central American values: fairness,
opportunity and choice.
The principle of proportional representation (PR), in essence,
is that parties or blocs of like-minded voters should win seats
in legislative assemblies in proportion to their share of the
popular vote. In PR systems, voters in each district are represented
by several elected officials rather than just one, as in the winner-take-all,
one-seat district system used in most US elections. Winner-take-all
systems allow 51 percent of voters to win 100 percent of representation.
In contrast, PR ensures that voters in the majority will earn
a majority of seats, but that voters in the minority also will
earn their fair share of representation. In a 10 seat district
elected by PR, a party or bloc of voters that wins 10 percent
of the popular vote becomes critically significant -- not, as
in winner-take-all elections, virtually irrelevant. A party that
wins 10 percent of the votes wins 10 percent of the seats. Thirty-three
percent wins one-third of the seats. Fifty-one percent wins a
majority, and so on.
The implications of proportional representation will be clear
to those who believe more credible third parties would strengthen
our democracy. Today, third party candidates are usually ignored
because winning 10 percent of the vote makes them at best "spoilers."
Third parties are trapped in a vicious cycle of marginalization:
many potential supporters will not want to waste their votes on
sure losers because it would take votes away from their "lesser
of two evils." PR would dramatically change this calculation.
It would free people to vote their hearts, not their fears, thereby
breaking the two-party stranglehold on representation and promoting
the new voices and real choices we urgently need.
What Does PR Look Like?
There is no single blueprint for how to implement proportional
representation. Some forms of PR are based on voting for candidates,
some are based on voting for political parties. Many combine both
features. Germany's mixed- member PR system guarantees geographic
representation, as half of seats are elected from US-style one-seat
districts and half in the multi-seat districts that are necessary
for PR. Germany also sets a five percent threshold for parties
to win representation, avoiding small splinter parties. The Finns
vote for individual candidates in small multi-seat districts,
with parties winning seats in proportion to the total for each
party's slate of candidates and a party's share of seats being
filled by its most popular candidates. The Irish parliament, Australian
senate and non-partisan city council in Cambridge (MA) are elected
by preference voting, which is based on voting for candidates
rather than parties.
PR is not monolithic. Most well-established democracies use
PR -- including all but France and the United Kingdom in Europe
-- but systems vary widely. PR is criticized in Italy and Israel
as breeding confusion and division by fostering large numbers
of small political parties. Yet, PR's flexibility allows reformers
to calibrate just how far they want to open up the halls of representation.
Comparative political scientists generally rate the performance
of PR as excellent in both representing public opinion and establishing
effective government. In a 1991 Journal of Democracy article,
for example, Arend Lijphart, later president of the American Political
Science Association in 1995-96, makes a persuasive empirical argument
that PR is more likely to promote effective economic policies
than winner-take-all systems, and that PR systems are more likely
than others to promote policies supported by a broad consensus.
Perhaps the best form of PR for the United States is "mixed-member
PR" (MMPR). With half the seats elected from one-seat districts
and half by PR, MMPR neatly combines proportional results with
the geographic representation familiar to Americans.
Germany has used MMPR since it was instituted with American
and British guidance after World War II. Germany's successful
experience with the system has led to many imitations: nations
adopting variations of MMPR in recent years include Japan, Italy,
Mexico, Hungary, Russia, New Zealand, and Venezuela.
MMPR guarantees geographic representation, but also fair representation
of communities of interest not defined by geography. These communities
are defined by how voters think, choose to organize themselves,
and choose to vote. There are no quotas with MMPR: voters simply
have more freedom of association and choice because they need
fewer votes to elect representatives.
MMPR gives each citizen two votes: one for a district representative
and one for a political party. As with current American elections,
district representatives are chosen by a winner-take-all, plurality
vote from one-seat districts. The rest of the legislature is drawn
from parties' slates of candidates. A party's share of seats is
proportional to the number of votes it wins. Seats are first filled
by district election winners, then by members from party slates.
A threshold of votes necessary to win seats typically is set in
order to avoid splinter parties: it is five percent for the vote
in Germany, New Zealand and Russia.
There are different options for a party filling its fair share
of seats from its slate of candidates. In Germany and New Zealand,
the party announces the order of candidates on its slates before
the election, creating this order through internal democratic
procedures prescribed in the electoral law. One variation is to
allow voters to change the order of candidates by expressing preferences
among the party's slate of candidates in the general election.
Other options are based on ensuring that all representatives have
a base of support in a constituency. All candidates might need
to be nominated in district-based primary contests, with the top
finisher gaining both a district nomination and a place on the
list and the second-place finisher winning a place on the list.
Alternatively, parties could be required to fill their share of
PR seats with the party's candidates who received the most votes
in losing efforts in district contests.
Is It Practical?
To institute a national system of MMPR, of course, would require
a constitutional amendment. But major steps in the direction of
proportional representation would not require constitutional change.
In states with large Congressional delegations, for example, US
House elections might be determined by a system of proportional
representation simply by repealing a 1967 federal law mandating
The most immediate application of MMPR may be in state legislative
elections. Washington State, for example, currently has 98 members
in its lower house. Two are elected in each of 49 state senate
districts from party slates nominated in primary elections. With
MMPR, each district would elect one person, with the remaining
representatives elected from party slates...
Based on Germany's experience with MMPR and a five percent
threshold of representation, seven parties winning representation
would be unlikely; most voters tend to vote for the two major
parties, with no more than three small parties crossing the five
percent threshold. But our example demonstrates the range of potentially
credible options that voters would have with PR, if and when the
major parties disappointed them.
Here, the five smaller parties win 28 percent of seats due
to the use of proportional representation. The Democrats and Republicans,
rather than having sole control, now need to compete with smaller
parties and work with them in the legislature. Unlike parliamentary
democracies in Europe -- for better or worse, depending on one's
views on the benefits of party discipline -- the coalitions need
not be fixed. We easily could see shifting coalitions on different
legislation, just as we see shifting coalitions within current
American legislatures -- with "blue dog Democrats" and
liberal Republicans often choosing to cross party lines. A majority
is always a collection of minorities, whether it is individual
voters in a two-party system or groups of them in multi-party
systems. PR would allow majorities to form in a more fluid manner,
both in election campaigns and in legislatures.
Is It Good for Progressives?
Some supporters of progressive parties might argue -- and
might well be right -- that their parties would in fact do better
than we have suggested in our fictitious example. That's a question
only elections can answer.
A different kind of concern is frequently raised by progressives;
namely, is it worth having a small progressive party in the legislature
if it means also opening the door to a right-wing party such as
Our answer is the Golden Rule of Representation: "Give
unto others the representation which you would have them give
unto you." The fact is, many progressives overrate their
current degree of support in the electorate, while others leap
in equal error to desperate conclusions about the electorate's
likely conservatism. The more complicated reality is disguised
by our winner-take-all voting system, which pigeonholes voters
into two camps and leaves much progressive thought on the margins
of political dialogue and influence.
A progressive party that won five or 10 percent of legislative
seats could have a great impact on grassroots organizing and on
the conduct of the Democratic Party. Electorally, this party could
check any rightward movement of the Democrats. It would give the
majority of the Democratic Party -- labor, African Americans,
feminists, environmentalists, defenders of civil liberties --
a credible alternative to the Democrats, and thus an influence
within the party similar to that now held by the relatively few
"swing" Democrats willing to vote for Republicans. When
all voters can swing among parties, the major parties must dance
to a different tune -- that of their base, not their margins.
Equally important, perhaps, is that a progressive party would
create a vehicle for progressive activists to work together nationally
and locally, to build an infrastructure of independent politics
currently so difficult to organize in a two-party system that
pushes activists into single-issue politics. It would give progressives
greater access to media and an ongoing means to challenge conventional
wisdom. It is one thing for the media to ignore activists who
have no strong supporters in Congress; it would be another to
ignore a large contingent in Congress who consistently could demonstrate
a credible level of support around the nation.
A progressive party would force healthy, if difficult, conversations
about policy and about holding the coalition together. Winning
10 percent of the vote in a PR system is hard work. The German
Greens have never reached 10 percent nationally, yet have had
a remarkable impact on Germany policy and have made great strides
in building coalitions among their members.
The party, of course, need not replace other grassroots organizing:
a study of Germany Green Party members found that over 80 percent
were active with an organization outside the Greens. But having
the Greens as a unifying electoral presence has made their other
work more effective; American progressives desperately need a
vehicle to unify on certain issues and initiatives.
A multi-party democracy grounded in proportional representation
also could reveal unexpected allies. There is no guarantee that
progressives would outdo conservatives in winning over the majority,
as all PR provides is a more level playing field. But a two-party
system facilitates "divide and conquer" strategies in
which a pro-business party can cut into the potential economically
progressive majority with such wedge social issues as gun control,
gay rights, race and abortion. Bill Clinton has "triangulated"
his way into the Republican base, but Republicans have the usual
edge in exploiting fractures in the more complicated Democratic
In a two-party system, Republicans can create a false majority
with a set of positions that are opposed by the majority, but
bring together fervent minorities willing to accept other Republican
positions that they oppose -- social liberals seeking low taxes,
blue-collar Catholics opposing abortion, labor union members opposing
gun control and so on. With electable choices across the spectrum,
a multi-party system would allow us to find out where the American
people really stand -- and on many issues, they almost certainly
will stand to the left of where governance is today. The political
center of most of Europe -- with enviable policies on health care,
welfare, worker rights and the environment -- is where American
progressives would love to be.
Is PR Better Representation?
In the European parliaments elected by PR, most eligible voters
participate, choose among many choices, hear information about
their choices and win representation. In contrast, American legislatures
are not grounded in the reality of electoral mandates founded
on choice, information, participation and representation. In the
1994 US congressional elections, barely one in three eligible
voters participated, barely one in five eligible voters elected
someone and two-thirds of House races were "no choice"
one-party affairs won by political landslides of 20 percentage
points or more. Even presidential elections in the US have only
about 50 percent turnout -- far lower than the 75 to 95 percent
turnout rates typical in Europe.
One way to measure representativeness is to determine the
percentage of eligible voters who elect a candidate. In the 1994
elections to the US House of Representatives, 23 percent of eligible
voters elected candidates of choice. In contrast, over 75 percent
of Germany's eligible voters in their 1994 national elections
elected candidates under a PR system. At the same time, these
German voters had a far wider range of choice than the -- at best
-- two choices provided to most American voters.
In plurality voting, most elected officials come from politically
gerrymandered districts electing one person, with the seat going
to whoever gains the most votes in that district. Up to 50 percent
of votes in a race are "wasted" on losers even when
voters have only two choices; in a three-person race, a majority
can waste their votes, as is regularly true in winner-take-all
elections in Canada, India and Great Britain.
Such statistics demonstrate why PR has a more direct impact
on political power than other political reforms: Winning seats
means winning a direct share of power, and PR increases the number
of effective votes and the diversity of winners. By giving nearly
all voters realistic options and forcing the major parties to
compete with smaller parties to maintain their base of support,
PR encourages parties to organize and educate more people, with
corresponding benefits on voter turnout and voter understanding
of government policy.
The most direct route to a true multi-party democracy -- one
in which more than two parties can realistically survive and have
national influence -- is replacing our winner-take-all voting
system with proportional representation. Other efforts to boost
third parties will help in significant measure only when combined
with PR. Some energetic activists are forming parties and running
candidates in the current system but, in our view, without proportional
representation they stand no more chance than the hundreds of
parties that have come and gone before them.
Third parties by definition rarely do better than finish third,
which means no seats in winner-take-all systems. But moving to
first place has its own dangers, as displacing another major party
suddenly subjects the party to the same pressures now felt by
the Democrats. The New Democratic Party in Canada suffered a general
electoral meltdown in the 1990s -- first because of the lottery-like
nature of winner-take-all voting, but second because the NDP alienated
many of its core supporters by moving to the political center
in an attempt to build a single governing majority. Such are the
inevitable pressures of winner-take all politics.
Fortunately, most American third parties now support PR. They
will provide a key base of support for PR campaigns and, if miraculously
they gain power in a state, be committed to implementing PR.
Won't Other Reforms Do the Job?
There are many other electoral reform campaigns already in
the works -- so why add proportional representation to an already
substantial list? In short, because other reforms won't do what
PR does: open the two-party duopoly to third, fourth, and fifth
parties winning representation.
Reforms in campaign financing, for example, are urgently needed.
But their obvious benefits do not include creation of a multi-party
democracy. Third-party candidates lose because of their minority
status, not from a lack of money. After all, third parties rarely
win at local levels, where costs are not prohibitive; a majority
is a majority, no matter how small the locale.
Most voters, in fact, are remarkably consistent in general
elections. As a result, most legislative elections are decided
during the redistricting process, when Democrats and Republicans
carve up the political map to protect incumbents and create districts
"safe" from changing parties. Nearly all of the top
100 Congressional Districts where Bill Clinton ran well in 1992
are represented by Democrats who win easily; nearly all of the
100 where he ran most poorly are represented by Republicans who
win just as easily.
With computers and more detailed census data, the capacity
of legislators to choose their constituents before constituents
choose them has increased significantly. Sophisticated software
can map districts with surgical accuracy, down to the household
level. That's a major reason why even in the midst of the historic
swing toward Republicans in 1994, two-thirds of Congressional
elections were won by landslides and over 90 percent of incumbents
were re-elected. The evidence is even more stark at the state
level, where more than one-third of state legislative elections
in 1994 were uncontested by a major party; most others were barely
Campaign contributors respond to high incumbent re-election
rates more than they cause them. Contributors make donations to
likely winners in order to gain better access in the legislative
process. This is the most pressing reason for campaign finance
reform, along with opening party primaries to healthy competition.
Lowering barriers for ballot access is another good idea.
But, while these reforms will mean more parties can run, it will
do little to give smaller parties a chance to win. California
currently has eight parties with ballot status, but the small
parties don't win seats in state or federal races and are almost
completely ignored by the mainstream media.
Fusion, a strategy being pursued by many New Party advocates,
allows candidates to accept multiple nominations. Thus, the New
Party might have a ballot line in a state with New Party candidates
for local office while endorsing a Democrat or Republican for
governor or US Senate. Fusion would provide another way for voters
to show their interest in new parties, would give some third-party
supporters increased leverage over the major parties, and might
create more space for the organization of new parties. Fusion
is a smart way to avoid the destructive tag of "spoiler,"
but in the end it simply allows a proliferation of candidate labels,
not candidates. Fusion does not expand voters' choices among candidates.
New York is one of the ten states that already have fusion, but
in 1994 no third-party candidate came close to winning, and 17
of 31 US House seats were won by over 40 percent victory margins.
The third party in New York that has the most influence in its
endorsements is the Liberal Party, which is well-positioned between
the two major parties. Fusion does less for parties on the left
and right that are not seen as representing swing voters. Nationally,
fusion would help the Reform Party more than a progressive party
because progressive voters don't "swing."
Term limits have been the most successful political reform
movement in decades, but their growing implementation has resulted
in no growth in third parties in elected office. Term limits ensure
that voters have to re-think their representation at least periodically,
but do nothing to crack the duopoly and little for voters in one-party
districts. The popularity of term limits shows the vulnerability
of the winner-take-all system, however, as what voters apparently
seek is the opportunity to have meaningful choices that will come
most consistently with PR.
NOTA, a campaign promoted by Ralph Nader, would give voters
the choice of voting for "none-of-the-above"; if NOTA
wins more than the candidates running, it would require a new
election with a new choice of candidates. NOTA might be a new
measure of voter discontent with the two major parties, but it
is unlikely to create much space for a third party to win. NOTA
would act as a spoiler candidate, drawing votes from a NOTA voter's
lesser of two evils. In the unlikely event that NOTA beats actual
candidates, the two parties would simply put up new nominees;
it is not much more likely for a third party to win in second-round
elections than in the first round.
Let the Voters Decide in 2002
Many US reformers will quickly accept theoretical arguments
for proportional representation, but will nonetheless question
the viability of a PR movement. Some mistake PR for a monolith
that can be measured by how it operates in a particular nation.
Others incorrectly believe that any implementation of proportional
representation would require constitutional change or demand overly
dramatic changes in our political culture. Some even confuse PR
with parliamentary government, although it in fact involves how
one elects a legislature, not the structure of government. PR
works well in many parliamentary democracies, but there is every
reason to adopt it in presidential systems as well.
The fact is that there are forms of PR that make sense for
every kind of legislative election. Candidate-based systems like
preference voting should be used to elect the leadership of private
organizations, local governments, state legislatures and perhaps
congressional delegations within states. Party-based systems like
mixed-member PR make sense for electing state legislatures and
congressional delegations in large states.
A movement for PR had relative success in the United States
earlier this century. Citizen initiatives led to the adoption
of preference voting for city council elections in two dozen cities,
including New York City, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Worcester and
Kalamazoo. Preference voting was successful in achieving its reformers'
primary goal: undercutting the power of one-party political machines.
Unfortunately, this success led to these machines' unrelenting
hostility. Although only two of the first 26 attempts to repeal
preference voting in cities around the nation were successful,
the formerly dominant political forces eventually outlasted reformers
and -- with the help of racist and anti-leftist appeals -- repealed
preference voting in all cities where it existed except Cambridge,
Today, PR activism is on the rise again. Rep. Cynthia McKinney
and Rep. Pat Williams already have introduced separate pro-PR
bills in Congress. McKinney's bill would restore the option states
had before 1967 to elect their Congressional delegations by PR,
while Williams' bill seeks to create a commission to spark a national
conversation about issues of representation.
With city campaigns for PR, the Supreme Court's gutting of
the Voting Rights Act, the effort to elect more women to Congress
(still stalled at only 11 percent in the House), the increase
in political gerrymandering, and the generally woeful state of
American democracy, there are urgent reasons to build a pro-PR
PR's ideological neutrality works in its favor. An historic
1993 campaign for PR in New Zealand -- successful despite a 10-1
spending edge for opponents -- had impressive cross-partisan support.
PR may turn out to help progressives, but there are people from
across the political spectrum who will support PR in the belief
that their ideas will prevail on a level playing field. PR addresses
the concerns of all those who feel poorly represented in the current
system, ranging from African Americans to the Greens to the Reform
Party to frustrated members of the Christian Coalition. Opinion
polls show that having a credible third-party alternative is almost
as popular as term limits, particularly with younger voters; instructively,
over 90 percent of students voted for PR in New Zealand in 1993.
PR is the one reform that will foster such new parties.
Women should be key members of the pro-PR coalition. Our scandalously
low percentage of women in Congress -- four times lower than in
Sweden -- would improve dramatically with PR. One measure is Germany's
mixed-member system, where in 1994 women won 39 percent of seats
elected by PR, but only 13 percent of US-style district elections.
Simply having multi-seat districts makes it more obvious and more
embarrassing when parties don't nominate women. PR gives women
the opportunity to vote for smaller parties and thus more leverage,
particularly to press for changes that are popular with the electorate
like having more women in office. Sweden's surge in women's representation
in 1994 followed a threat by major women's leaders to form a new
women's party if more women weren't nominated -- a threat only
credible because of PR.
The Supreme Court's drive against integrated legislatures
by eliminating "majority minority" districts is another
urgent reason to seek PR. Lani Guinier, Jesse Jackson, and other
civil rights leaders have made eloquent arguments for PR, and
already more than 60 localities have adopted PR systems to settle
voting rights cases. PR would facilitate cross-racial electoral
coalitions among people of color and white progressives, who could
unite across a state in electing a common slate of candidates
rather than isolate voters in separate one-seat districts. Furthermore,
PR would secure minority voting rights by building from a foundation
of fundamental electoral justice. Proportional representation
is based on the principle that the right of decision should belong
to the majority, but the right of representation to all.
The controversy over the Voting Rights Act exposes our winner-take-all
system's Achilles heel: the redistricting process. Behind closed
doors, the duopoly carves up the electorate, with legislators
choosing their constituents for the next decade. The Supreme Court
has upheld states' rights to protect incumbents in redistricting,
but voters need not go along. The next re-gerrymandering is set
for 2001, providing an opening to push for PR with the rallying
cry, "This time let the voters decide." With 50 states
as potential battlegrounds and voter frustration everywhere, such
a movement could have great power.
Spreading political power, providing voters with more choices
and allowing more segments of society to earn a place at the table
of policy-making are all important steps to providing greater
long-term stability for our democracy and creating political space
for truly progressive politics. When government is not representative,
its are more likely to ignore large segments of our society, and
citizens are more likely to reject the legitimacy of its proposed
Implementing PR systems at all levels of government would
increase vitality in our democracy, ensure fairer representation
of our society's diversity in elected bodies and assist local,
state and national governments in their efforts toward solving
the complex and contentious issues facing our nation. While not
a panacea, PR is a practical reform that would provide dramatic
improvements in how we interact with our government. Progressives
and all reformers would do well to make PR a central part of their
The Center for Voting and Democracy
6930 Carroll Ave. Suite 901,Takoma Park, MD 20912
(301) 270-4616, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.fairvote.org/