Elections to the United States Congress and to the various state legislatures are very simple. The states are divided into contiguous geographic districts, voters within each district cast their ballots for the one candidate they support, and whichever candidate gets the most votes wins. While simple, the winner-take-all system is also very undemocratic.
The idea behind a representative republic is that the men and women sent to represent the people in the legislative bodies are chosen by the people. But the winner-take-all system doesn't achieve this, for it only ensures that the representatives are chosen by at least half of the people; those who voted against the winner, in effect, do not get a representative and are therefore denied effective representation in the legislature.
Take, for example, the 2006 election in the 2nd Congressional District of Connecticut, where Democrat Joe Courtney faced off against Republican Rob Simmons. There were a total of 242,410 votes cast in the election, with Courtney getting 121,252 and Simmons getting 121,158. The margin of Courtney's victory was a mere 81 votes, yet his supporters got 100% of the representation. The almost equally large number of people who voted for Simmons were out of luck. Indeed, it was effectively as if they hadn't voted at all.
However, there is an alternative to the winner-take-all system: proportional representation.
Under proportional representation, voters cast their ballots in large, multi-member districts rather than small, single-member districts. Political parties draw up lists up preferred candidates, equal to the number of representatives the district is allowed to elect. As near as is possible, each party wins as many representatives as their share of the vote percentage indicates. In most systems, provisions also exist to allow independent candidates to run as well.
As a thought experiment, imagine a district which elects ten representatives. Then imagine that the vote in the district emerges as follows: 60% Republican, 30% Democratic, 10% Libertarian, and 10% Green. In such a case, the district would elect 6 Republicans, 3 Democrats, 1 Libertarian, and 1 Green. It would ensure that almost everyone earns some measure of representation, while keeping the majority rule intact.
Such systems of proportional representation are already operating successfully in many other Western countries, including Finland, the Netherlands, and Sweden. Some other countries use a modified form of proportional representation called a mixed-member system, with overlapping single-member and multi-member districts. This kind of system is used in Germany and New Zealand, as well as the devolved parliaments of Scotland and Wales. Whilenot without inevitable hiccups, the use of proportional representation in these countries has generally been a great success.
Implementing proportional representation for congressional and state legislative elections would give the stagnant American electoral system a much-needed shakeup and help ensure true representation for all citizens. In addition, proportional representation would help break the stranglehold of the two party system and give those with alternative views a more level playing field.
The powers-that-bewill oppose any effort to move towards proportional representation, because the current winner-take-all system is extremely useful to them in maintaining their political power, especially when it is combined with partisan redistricting of legislative districts. But we won't have a true representative democracy until we have proportional representative. Let's roll up our sleeves and get started.