The Case for Proportional Representation
by Robert Richie and Steven Hill
Nearly all elections in the United States are based on the
winner-take-all principle: voters for the candidate who gets the
most votes win representation; voters for the other candidates
win nothing. This system is unjust and unnecessary. It is unjust
because it leaves minorities (whether racial or political) unrepresented.
As John Stuart Mill said, "It is an essential part of democracy
that minorities should be adequately represented. No real democracy,
nothing but a false show of democracy, is possible without it."
It is unnecessary because we have immediate opportunities, at
local, state, and national levels, to join the vast majority of
mature democracies that have already adopted systems of proportional
Proportional representation (PR) is based on the principle
that any group of like-minded voters should win legislative seats
in proportion to its share of the popular vote. Whereas the winner-take-all
principle awards 100 percent of the representation to a 50.1 percent
majority, PR allows voters in a minority to win their fair share
How does this work? A typical winner-take-all system of divides
voters into "one-seat districts," represented by one
person. With PR, voters in a constituency instead have several
representatives: ten one-seat districts might, for example, be
combined into a single ten-seat district. A party or group of
voters that wins 10 percent of the popular vote in this district,
then, would win one of the ten seats; a party or slate of candidates
with 30 percent of votes would win three seats, etc. Various mechanisms
work to provide proportional representation, and the details of
different systems matter. But the principle of full representation
is fundamental. Acceptance of it changes the way one sees electoral
What's the Problem?
Consider three current failures of our winner-take-all system
* Members of racial and ethnic minorities are underrepresented;
* Voters' choices are restricted to candidates within the
two-party, Republican/Democratic monopoly;
* Most legislative elections are effectively "no-choice"
contests in districts dominated by a single party.
By restricting voters' choices and underrepresenting voters
from minority groups, winner-take-all elections devalue the right
to vote, our fundamental democratic right. Correcting these failures
requires PR. No other political reform currently on the table--public
financing of elections, term limits, fusion, or universal voter
registration--will suffice to correct these deficiencies in our
Representation of Racial Minorities. At every level of government,
the proportion of black, Latino, and Asian-American elected officials
lags far behind these groups' share of the electorate. When members
of a racial or ethnic group make up a majority of the electorate
in a winner-take-all election, they tend to elect a member of
their racial or ethnic group. Every majority-black US House district
has a black representative; and in the 49 white-majority states,
144 of 147 US senators and governors are white. Most racial minorities
clearly prefer representatives of their race, but winner-take-all
elections often deny them a realistic opportunity to elect candidates
of their choice. A quarter of our population is black or Latino,
but these groups are in the minority in every state and as a consequence
hold only one of 100 US Senate seats. The fact of such underrepresentation
throughout our legislatures undercuts their legitimacy and effectiveness
in addressing issues of concern to racial and ethnic minorities.
Two Parties. Winner-take-all elections prop up our two-party
monopoly. Since 1960, new parties have formed at comparable rates
in the United States and in European democracies using PR. But
new parties in the United States are almost completely shut out
of representation, whereas half the new parties in the European
systems eventually have won seats--and the influence and organizing
ability that comes from electoral viability. Polls show most Americans
would like to see a third party electing candidates at every level
of government, but only three of our nearly eight thousand state
and congressional legislators were elected on a minor party ticket--all
of them in Burlington, Vermont.
Minor parties by definition begin with minority support, which
wins nothing in winner-take-all elections unless it is geographically
concentrated. With little chance to win, minority party candidates
cannot build or sustain support. Ross Perot's well-financed independent
candidacy in 1992 won 19 percent of the vote, but he did not finish
first in any congressional district. In 1996, his vote was reduced
by more than half, although one voter in ten still voted for minor-party
presidential candidates, and half of all eligible voters saw no
reason to participate.
No-Choice Elections. One-party dominance of most American
legislative districts provides a more subtle, but more sweeping,
indictment of our winner-take-all system. Most Americans, most
of the time, experience "no choice" elections for city
council, state legislature, and the US House of Representatives.
In the last ten House elections, for example, more than 90 percent
of incumbents were reelected. The average margin of victory in
House races is consistently over 30 percent. More than one-third
of state legislative races in the 1990s were not even nominally
contested by both major parties; fully 68 percent were not contested
in Massachusetts in 1996. So-called "swing" legislative
districts feature genuine competition and a chance for voters
to cast a meaningful vote, but they are exceptions.
The dominance of one-party districts should be no surprise:
gerrymandering allows legislators to choose their constituents
in redistricting before their constituents go to the polls to
choose representatives. Even though political intentions can be
removed from, the redistricting process--as in Iowa's criteria-driven
procedure, for example--its political effects are unavoidable.
Given that some (perhaps most) districts will be non-competitive
in winner-take-all elections, all districting ends up being a
form of gerrymandering.
The ramifications of our fundamentally lopsided political
landscape are often ignored in debates over term limit proposals
and campaign finance reform. The real culprit for non-competitive
elections is winner-take-all elections, not incumbency and inequities
in campaign spending. In most districts, a clear majority of voters
prefers one party's political philosophy to that of the other
party. Consider open-seat elections, with no incumbent competing
for the seat, and none of the financial advantages that come with
incumbency. In 1996, Republicans won 29 of 35 open House seats
in districts where Bill Clinton ran behind his national average,
despite being outspent in a third of their victories. Yet Republicans
won none of the 18 districts where Clinton ran ahead of his national
average, despite being financially competitive in half of those
defeats. This trend is not confined to elections in presidential
years. Overall, Democrats hold 99 of the 100 US House districts
where Clinton ran most strongly in 1996. Of the 150 districts
where he ran most weakly, Republicans hold 134.
To be sure, congressional winners usually outspend their opponents.
But that is because money follows power: to gain access, most
major campaign contributors invest in candidates they expect to
win. The great majority of voters are consistent in their voting
patterns both between and within elections. We should be relieved
that voters are well-grounded in a political philosophy, but frustrated
that this consistency leads to most of them experiencing no-choice
Support for PR as an alternative to winner-take-all politics
has come from a diverse and distinguished group, including Alexis
de Tocqueville, Charles Beard, Walter Lippman, Jane Addams, A.
Philip Randolph, Robert Kennedy and, quietly, Franklin Roosevelt.
The most outspoken early supporter of PR was John Stuart Mill,
in his Representative Government (1861)--written less than two
decades after the first works detailing possible PR systems.
The Majoritarian Argument
Perhaps Mill's most important contribution to the case for
PR was his argument that majority rule itself is improved by full
minority representation. By maximizing the number of voters who
elect candidates, he pointed out, PR increases the chances that
a legislative majority has support from a majority of voters;
it is required for full representation, with voters having the
power to elect representatives reflecting a range of opinion;
and it fosters a deliberative legislative process which improves
the majority view by ensuring that minority opinions are represented
As Mill observed, any particular majority is a collection
of minorities, not a monolithic bloc. Once some voters are excluded
from representation, policy can be passed without the support
of a majority of the electorate. Suppose, for example, that all
representatives win their elections with only 50.1 percent of
votes. A law passed with support from only 50.1 percent of the
legislators then would have backing from only a quarter of votes
cast. Mill's point is no mere theoretical concern. In the 1994
"Republican revolution," in which Democrats lost their
40-year stranglehold on the US House of Representatives, fewer
than one in four eligible voters voted for a winning House candidate.
As a result, House passage of any particular bill in 1995 required
the votes of representatives elected by only 13 percent of eligible
By contrast, legislation in democracies with PR generally
requires the support of representatives elected by a far higher
percentage of the electorate. In Germany's 1994 elections with
PR--with a high turnout and a high percentage of effective votes
typical of European PR elections--more than 3 in 4 eligible voters
elected candidates. (4 in 5 eligible Germans participated, and
19 in 20 voters elected a representative.) So passage of a bill
required the votes of representatives elected by nearly 40 percent
of eligible voters.
Majority rule also is undercut by winner-take-all elections
because they drive voters into two camps. But two-choice elections
obscure shades of difference and create the illusion of majority
support for the winner. Mill stressed the importance of voters
having a full range of choices and representation of their different
communities of interest. "I cannot see," he wrote, "why
the feelings and interests which arrange mankind according to
localities, should be the only ones thought worthy of being represented."
The notion that geography should be the primary basis of representation
is even more antiquated now, given the increased mobility of our
population, ease of communication across distances, and importance
of economic, social, and political associations without geographic
Finally, PR is important for majority interests because, as
Mill argued, it provides represented minorities with a platform
to challenge conventional wisdom. An advocate of universal suffrage,
Mill still was sympathetic to conservative concerns about educated
minorities being outvoted by newly enfranchised, less-educated
voters. Assuring a voice to the minority eliminated his fears
because of his faith in the results of a fully democratic process,
with open and organized discussion among competing political ideas
and projects. By allowing dissenters to win representation, PR
fosters ongoing challenges to majority opinion, and thus complements
our First Amendment freedoms.
In conjunction with attack ads, polling, and focus groups,
the system of winner-take-all elections has made it extremely
difficult to have reasoned political debate on certain contentious
issues. These issues can assume great symbolic weight for swing
voters--ironically, because they are among the relatively few
voters with so little political grounding that they will support
either party. The death penalty, for example, has come to represent
"toughness" on crime. Because winner-take-all elections
make nuanced positions difficult, and require that candidates
win the support of politically indifferent swing voters, opponents
of the death penalty find it hard to run credible campaigns for
president or for most legislative offices. As with a whole range
of issues--from drug policy to abortion rights to welfare reform--debate
in political campaigns tends to lock into place, making it that
much more difficult to challenge public opinion.
Mill's majoritarian argument for PR gains empirical support
from a recent statistical comparison of 12 democracies in Europe.
John Huber and G. Bingham Powell contrast a "Proportionate
Influence Vision" of democracy, in which "elections
are designed to produce legislatures that reflect the preferences
of all citizens," with the "Majority Control Vision,"
in which "democratic elections are designed to create strong,
single-party majority governments that are essentially unconstrained
by other parties in the policy-making process." They conclude
that "governments in the Proportionate Influence systems
are on average significantly closer to their median voter than
are governments in the Majority Control and Mixed systems. . .
. If voters are presented with a wide range of choices and electoral
outcomes are proportional, governments tend to be closer to the
In short, governance is more likely to take place at the center
of the political spectrum with PR, since the electorate is fully
represented and voters are able to express a wider range of preferences.
At the same time, fair representation of the margins provides
a mechanism to transform policy by shifting the political center.
Opposition voices will be heard, and their ideas will be far more
likely to be debated. If those ideas win growing support, the
major parties will adjust accordingly in order to hold onto their
Other Reasons for PR
Mill's majoritarian argument is not the only case for PR.
Four other claims are commonly offered in its support:
1. PR increases voter turnout. Voter turnout is generally
estimated to be 10-12 percent higher in nations with PR than in
similar nations using winner-take-all elections. This difference
is understandable. In the United States, as we indicated, relatively
few legislative elections are competitive, and our analysis of
recent House elections demonstrates a strong correlation between
the degree of competition and the level of participation.6 People
in non-competitive districts--whether supportive of the majority
or minority--might better invest their time and resources by supporting
candidates in competitive races elsewhere than by voting in their
In PR systems, winning fair representation is dependent on
voter turnout. Because nearly every vote will help a party win
more seats, voters have more incentive to participate, and parties
have incentives to mobilize their supporters. Moreover, parties
and other electoral organizations have strong incentives to keep
their supporters informed, and informed citizens are more likely
2. PR provides better representation for racial minorities.
The 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act resulted in more
districts drawn with majorities of racial and ethnic minorities.
This increase in "majority-minority districts" produced
a remarkable leap in representation of people of color in the
US House in 1992. Between 1990 and 1992, the number of black and
Latino House members jumped from 35 to 55.
In a series of recent rulings against so-called "racial
gerrymandering," the Supreme Court has made it much harder
to establish majority-minority districts; the result is almost
certain to be a decrease in the number of elected black legislators.
Lani Guinier, Jesse Jackson, and other civil rights leaders have
argued for PR as an alternative, and already more than 75 localities
have adopted semi-proportional systems to settle voting rights
cases.7 By building from a fundamental principle of political
fairness, PR could secure voting rights of racial minorities,
without specifically targeting minority voters (just as Social
Security protects low-income seniors by providing benefits for
In addition to winning a fair share of seats, minorities would
have greater opportunities to negotiate for influence because
they could "swing" among parties. South Africa used
PR in its first all-race elections in 1994, and the two leading
parties--the African National Congress and the National Party--ran
multiracial slates with messages of inclusion. When New Zealand
had its first PR election in 1996, the first Asian citizen was
elected, and Pacific Islanders and indigenous Maoris tripled their
representation. A Maori-backed party formed a coalition government
with the governing party--a party whose relationship with Maoris
had been analogous to Republicans' post-1960 relationship with
By improving representation, PR in turn encourages minority
communities to mobilize and win access to power. From 1925 to
1955, Cincinnati used the "choice voting" form of PR
to elect a nine-seat city council. (See sidebar for an explanation
of choice voting.) In 1929, when blacks were barely 10 percent
of the population, a black independent candidate ran a strong
campaign. In the next election, he was added to the Republican
party's slate and was elected. In 1947, when blacks were 15 percent
of the population, a former president of the Cincinnati NAACP
ran in large part to defend the choice voting system that was
under attack from Republicans seeking to restore their old domination
of the council. In an indication that any substantial group of
voters cannot be ignored with PR, the other major party slate
supported him in 1949. He was elected, resulting in black representatives
holding two of nine seats.
3. PR increases the number of women in office. The percentage
of women elected to office in the United States--only 11 percent
of the US Congress--is scandalously low, particularly in light
of the relative strength of the American women's movement compared
to other nations with far higher percentages of women legislators.
Studies show that women representatives make a qualitative and
quantitative difference in the type of legislation introduced
and passed, yet the growth of women in state legislatures and
Congress has stalled since 1992 despite relatively high turnover
and the historic high in women's candidacies in 1996.
In state legislative elections, women win seats in significantly
higher percentages in multiseat districts than in one-seat districts.
The major reasons for this difference are that women are more
likely to run and voters are more likely to seek gender balance
when there is more than one seat to fill. Because PR expands options,
PR systems give women additional leverage to force the major parties
to support more women candidates. In 1994, a threat by women supporters
of the major parties in Sweden to form a new women's party led
to women winning 41 percent of seats in 1994 because the major
parties recruited more women candidates. New Zealand, Italy, and
Germany are among a growing number of democracies that use systems
with a mix of winner-take-all districts and PR seats. It is instructive
that women in all three countries are three times more likely
to win seats elected by PR than to win in one-seat districts.
4. PR ends gerrymandering. Drawing district lines for political
purposes has occurred from the first redistricting--the term "gerrymander"
refers to a Massachusetts district plan drawn in 1812. But gerrymandering
has become far more potent in an era of powerful computers, more
detailed census information, and better techniques for measuring
As one example, Democrats in control of the redistricting
process in Texas in 1991 placed the eight Republican incumbents
in districts that were packed to be among the most conservative
in the nation. These incumbents were easily reelected in 1992,
but Democrats won 21 of the remaining 22 seats with only 50 percent
of the statewide vote. Only one race was won by less than 10 percent,
and the three open seats went to state legislators serving on
redistricting committees. Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson,
the primary architect of the plan, admitted in 1997 that the redistricting
process "is not one of kindness. It is not one of sharing.
It is a power grab."
PR makes gerrymandering of any sort far more difficult. The
smaller the percentage of votes that can be "wasted"
on losing candidates--49 percent in a winner-take-all race, but
less than 20 percent in a five-seat PR election and less than
10 percent in a 10-seat PR election--the harder it is for legislators
to manipulate electoral outcomes.
Progressives Need Multiparty Politics
The case for PR is fundamentally non-partisan. Voters across
the spectrum can support greater democracy or feel poorly represented
by winner-take-all elections. But American political progressives
have a particularly urgent need to support PR because of the growing
problems created by the lack of a serious electoral vehicle to
the Democrats' left. 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 winner-take-all elections,
which divide voters into two camps and leave much progressive
thought on the margins of political dialogue and influence.
A progressive party that won 5-10 percent of legislative seats
in PR elections could have a great impact on public discourse,
cross-issue organizing, and the policies of the Democratic Party.
Electorally, this party could check the Democrats' rightward drift.
It would give the base of the Democratic Party--labor, African
Americans, feminists, environmentalists, defenders of civil liberties--a
credible alternative, and thus an influence within the Democratic
Party similar to that now held by the relatively few "swing"
Democrats willing to vote for Republicans. When all voters, not
just the centrist fringe, can swing their votes, the major parties
must pay more attention to their base.
In addition, a progressive party would provide an opportunity
for progressive activists to join together to build an infrastructure
of independent politics--work that is very difficult to pursue
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 more difficult to ignore a congressional
contingent that consistently demonstrated a credible level of
A progressive party would force healthy, if difficult, policy
debates among progressives. 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 German
policy and the environmental positions of both major parties.
They are partners in governing coalitions in several German states
and may be part of the next national government. At the same time,
Greens have made great strides in building coalitions among their
members. Organizing a party need not replace other grassroots
organizing: a study of German Greens found that over 80 percent
of members were active with an organization outside the Greens.
But having the Green Party as a unifying electoral presence has
made their other work more effective. American progressives urgently
need PR to create a similar unifying electoral vehicle.
With PR, a progressive party also could find unexpected allies.
Progressives might not outdo conservatives in winning over the
majority. But a winner-take-all, two-party system facilitates
"divide and conquer" strategies in which a conservative
party can cut into the potential economically progressive majority
with such wedge social issues as gun control, gay rights, affirmative
action, and abortion.
In a two-party system, conservatives can create an electoral
majority with a set of positions that can be opposed by the majority
of voters, but bring together fervent minorities willing to accept
positions they oppose in exchange for support for their issue:
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 multiparty system
based on PR would allow us to find out where the American people
really stand--and on many issues, they arguably will stand to
the left of current policy. The political center of most of Europe,
with its policies on health care, welfare, worker rights, and
the environment, is where American progressives would love to
Many reformers will quickly accept theoretical arguments for
proportional representation, but question the viability of a PR
movement. Some mistakenly think PR would require constitutional
change or demand overly dramatic changes in our political culture.
Others confuse PR with parliamentary government, although PR directly
affects only how one elects a legislature, not governmental structure.
Forms of PR could work extremely well with simple statutory changes,
and a confluence of events in the 1990s provides a remarkable
opportunity to work for PR's adoption. These developments include:
1. Winner-take-all politics cannot be fixed. We have a particularly
realistic opportunity to promote PR because of how well it addresses
widely accepted failures in winner-take-all politics. Some of
the most egregious problems reflect irreversible changes in technology,
campaign techniques, and demographics. Without PR, no political
reform--including the best of campaign finance reforms--can prevent
most campaigns from being developed from focus groups of swing
voters rather than principled policy positions. Campaign consultants
know too much about how to win elections under winner-take-all
rules. By freeing the majority to elect candidates they want,
PR would weaken the stranglehold of the swing voters that give
campaign consultants such power in winner-take-all elections.
2. Other reforms face barriers. The most electorally successful
political reform movement of the past decade has been the effort
to put limits on the number of terms that legislators can serve.
The Supreme Court has quashed term limits for congressional elections
and may follow suit for state legislative elections. But the goals
of term limit supporters are in any case only partly achieved
by limits: most voters continue to live in one-party districts
and to be frustrated by poll-driven politicians. Moreover, for
all the voter disgust with money in politics, campaign finance
reformers now seem to be at an impasse at the federal level. The
Buckley v. Valeo ruling, independent expenditures, and wealthy
self-financed candidates bedevil reformers. Public financing supporters
are making an expensive, potentially historic effort at the state
level, and soon we will see how voters respond. But some analysts
are skeptical that public financing can win in many states in
the current climate of political depression. And even if it succeeds,
the fundamental injustice of winner-take-all elections will remain.
As Lani Guinier points out, it is not enough to take the money
out of elections; we need PR to put the people in.
In any event, PR is an attractive complement to other reforms.
And all of the reform energy that has developed in recent years
provides an infrastructure of support for PR campaigns.
3. The opportunity to build a powerful coalition. As already
discussed, women, racial minorities, advocates of term limits
and campaign finance reform, minor party supporters, and progressive
constituencies within the Democratic Party all have particular
incentives to support PR. Republicans also are facing growing
splits, particularly on social issues, and losers in those internal
Republican debates may be ready for opportunities to maintain
and build representation with PR. The Center for Voting and Democracy
is developing working relationships with representatives of most
of these constituencies, who together form a majority coalition
similar to those that developed in recent successful campaigns
for PR in New Zealand and Scotland.
Efforts to bring PR to American elections build on a rich
history. Earlier this century, two dozen cities, including Cincinnati,
Cleveland, and New York, adopted the choice voting method of PR
by initiative. Today's movement can learn much from this early
PR movement. Choice 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
choice voting in cities around the nation were successful, the
previously dominant political forces eventually outlasted reformers
and won repeals everywhere except Cambridge, Massachusetts. But
the primary vehicles of anti-PR attacks--racist and anti-communist
appeals and concerns about costly electoral administration--can
be addressed far better today.
PR activism is on the rise again. Rep. Cynthia McKinney has
introduced the Voters' Choice Act (HR 3068) to restore the option
states had before 1967 to elect their Congressional delegations
by PR. The bill is acquiring a growing number of co-sponsors,
and other pro-PR legislation likely will be introduced in Congress
in 1998. Several state groups have formed to promote PR, and recent
PR initiatives in two major cities--Cincinnati and San Francisco--won
45 and 44 percent of the vote, respectively, despite limited funding
and media exposure.
To be sure, many Americans--particularly elected officials--may
be cautious about moving away from our political traditions. Moreover,
much voter attention will continue to focus on "single-winner"
executive offices--such as president, governor, and mayor--which
do not allow for PR, since PR requires multiseat districts. Even
so, there still are immediate opportunities to reform plurality
methods that are used in most states.
For executive offices, Australian-style instant runoff voting
(IRV) would provide both better majority representation and minority
participation than plurality voting. Australia uses IRV for parliamentary
elections, Ireland uses it to elect its president, and the United
Kingdom may well adopt it within two years in a national referendum
on parliamentary elections.
With IRV, voters rank candidates in order of choice: 1, 2,
3, and so on. Each voter still has only one vote, but ranking
candidates allows the ballot-count to simulate a series of run-off
elections. If no candidate wins a majority of first-choice votes,
the last-place candidate is eliminated. Ballots cast for that
candidate are redistributed to each voter's next choice. This
process of elimination occurs until a candidate wins majority
In the many states and localities still using traditional
runoffs for primary or general elections, IRV would save money
for taxpayers and campaign cash for candidates by combining two
elections into one. Moreover, elected officials can appreciate
IRV because it eliminates the "spoiler" problem created
by minor parties--a problem for the major parties that the Reform
Party and Green Party show great interest in expanding. And for
minor parties, IRV reverses the "wasted vote" calculation.
IRV allows minor party candidates to participate fully and potentially
build their party's support. At the same time, Australia's experience
with IRV demonstrates that it gives a minor party some leverage
over major parties. A minor party candidate can call on supporters
to hold back from casting second-choices for a major party candidate
unless that candidate agrees to support some of the minor party's
States that likely will debate IRV legislation in 1998 include
Alaska, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Vermont. An IRV state
initiative may be launched in California in 1998; IRV could even
be adopted for presidential elections by state legislation or
City, state, and national efforts for instant runoff voting
would complement another modest modification of our rules that
has the potential to draw support from the current political establishment:
three-seat legislative districts with a 25 percent victory threshold.
From 1870 to 1980, Illinois used the semi-proportional system
of "cumulative voting" in three-seat districts to elect
its lower house. Illinois elections were a modest departure from
winner-take-all elections. Voters had three votes, but had the
option to put all three votes on one candidate. If 25 percent
of voters supported only one candidate, that candidate was sure
to win. That is the mathematics of PR in a three-seat district:
just over 25 percent wins one seat, just over 50 percent wins
two and over 75 percent of votes is necessary to sweep the district.
This relatively minor modification of winner-take-all rules
had a profound impact on Illinois politics. Perhaps most significantly,
nearly every constituency had two-party representation. Although
most one-seat districts now are safe for one party, both in Illinois
and around the nation, there are relatively few areas where at
least 25 percent of voters are not ready to support another party--Bill
Clinton won at least 25 percent of the vote in all U.S. House
districts in 1996. A semi-proportional system gives these minority
voters a chance to win representation.
In Illinois, most constituencies typically had two representatives
reflecting two major factions within the majority party and one
representative from the smaller party. These minority-backed legislators
played a creative role in the legislature. In 1995 the Chicago
Tribune editorialized in support of cumulative voting's return,
writing that "[M]any partisans and political independents
have looked back wistfully at the era of cumulative voting. They
acknowledge that it produced some of the best and brightest in
The Center for Voting and Democracy recently commissioned
a study of Illinois' use of a semi-proportional system. Interviews
with Illinois political leaders show strong bipartisan support
for cumulative voting, including support from the state senate's
majority leader and minority leader. A recurring theme is that
semi-PR systems in three-seat districts actually provided better
geographic representation than smaller, one-seat districts with
monopoly representation. Constituents had more options when provided
with access both to representatives in the majority party and
the minority party. And both parties had direct interests in serving
the needs of all parts of the state. The loss of cumulative voting
has meant loss of bipartisan support for policies of particular
interest to one-party strongholds; Chicago, for example, has been
a big loser in equitable funding of public schools.
Three-seat districts are particularly promising as an alternative
means to enforce the Voting Rights Act. If North Carolina adopted
a proportional system with four, three-seat districts for U.S.
House elections, it would likely result in a greater number of
competitive black candidates than the controversial redistricting
plan that triggered several rulings against race-conscious districts
around the nation. Such plans in the south also would increase
representation of women and white moderates. Of 36 House members
in the deep south (South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi
and Louisiana), only one is a woman and only four are white Democrats.
Though cumulative voting has attractions, it also suffers
from serious flaws, so we prefer either choice voting or an open
party list system in such three-seat plans. Choice voting allows
voters to rank candidates and have their votes coalesce behind
candidates with the strongest support within major constituencies.
In an open party list system, all votes for candidates from a
particular party's "team" of candidates will boost the
party's chances of winning seats.
As a first step toward change, we urge that states form commissions
on reapportionment. These commissions could address issues such
as: the number of legislators in a state; the problems deriving
from the increased ability to gerrymander lines; and the potential
of semi-PR and PR plans. An influential commission established
in the mid-1980s in New Zealand surprised most political leaders
by recommending replacement of the nation's winner-take-all system
with a fully proportional system; that system was adopted by the
voters in 1993 despite intense and well-financed opposition. Given
the power of the argument for at least some modifications of winner-take-all
elections, any commission with a degree of independence may well
generate surprises in the United States as well.
To conclude, we consider some familiar objections to PR systems.
1. Political instability. True, Israel and Italy both use
forms of PR and have faced problems of governmental instability.
We could explore the historical and political complexities of
these countries and their systems in order to exonerate the principle
of PR, but suffice it to say that most mature democracies with
PR are not plagued by falling coalitions or right-wing religious
parties.If we don't condemn winner-take-all elections by citing
Algeria, Pakistan, and India, then why condemn PR by citing Italy
and Israel? There are currently 36 nations with more than two
million people and high 1995 ratings from the human rights organization
Freedom House. Of those 36, fully 30 use PR to elect their most
powerful legislature, while only three--the United States, Canada
and Jamaica--elect all national bodies with a winner-take-all
2. Excessive gridlock. Some argue that we have enough gridlock
with two parties and that adding more to the mix will simply make
things worse. One answer to this concern again is empirical: nearly
every major democracy has more than two-party representation,
and most are not paralyzed by gridlock. In fact, many PR democracies--including
Germany, Sweden, Netherlands, and Switzerland--have developed
far more comprehensive policy than the United States on such major
issues as health care and immigration. A two party democracy rewards
constant mud-slinging and obstructionist posturing because if
one party can drive up the negatives of the other, voters have
only one place to go. "Zero sum politics" translates
into "zero sum governance."
3. Loss of district representation. The advantage of district
representation, it is said, is that all areas have someone to
hold accountable for district issues. The problem is that most
residents don't vote for their representatives and can't even
Furthermore, voters can take little comfort from being represented
by someone who is sharply opposed to their own political philosophy.
PR takes a different approach. All voters deserve an opportunity
to choose a representative who thinks like them. With PR, voters
find an ideological "home" rather than a geographic
one. Their choice of representation may be influenced by local
considerations, and systems can be designed to ensure some geographic
representation, but geographic interests are not assumed to be
These three objections to PR do not exhaust the conventional
list of concerns. But virtually every additional objection to
PR, like those addressed here, is founded on the insulting theory
that voters cannot handle the demands of making real choices.
The typical winner-take-all advocate wants to keep things simple
for the "poor bastards," who, left to their own devices,
will keep electing unworkable governments and dangerous extremists.
Empirical study and democratic principle condemn this charge.
It is as objectionable as arguments against full suffrage.
We are skeptical, too, about arguments based on American exceptionalism.
Yes, we are a continental democracy, with a unique constitution
that makes accountability difficult, and long-standing traditions
that should be modified with care. So we need to think hard about
how best to realize the moral and political imperative of full
representation. But that imperative itself retains its full and
Committed democrats should act on it, and the ideal opportunity
is quickly emerging. The redistricting process is the Achilles
heel of our winner-take-all system. Behind closed doors, once
every decade, the duopoly carves up the electorate, leaving most
of us with another decade of no-choice legislative elections.
The next gerrymandering is set for 2001. With 50 states as potential
battlegrounds and voter frustration everywhere, a movement for
PR has a perfect opening and a natural rallying cry that fits
with its own democratic impulse: "This time let the voters