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.

Mixed-Member PR

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 one-seat districts.

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 Christian Values?

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 base.

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 competitive.

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, Massachusetts.

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 coalition.

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 policies.

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 pro-democracy agenda.



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