Monday, March 1, 2010

Proportional Representation: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

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.


Anonymous said...
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LWBiii said...

Interesting concept. Who decides which 6 republicans and 3 democrates etc. get seated in your example? Do we still vote for individuals or do we vote for parties in this system.

icr said...

You can have either an open list (vote for individuals) or closed list (votes only for a list as a whole). Some people don't like open lists because it sometimes leads to party members running campaigns against each other.

Fredrick said...

Thank you for supporting proportional voting. At http://LocalParty.Org we're promoting proportional voting for cities and counties as the best place to start. All across the United States, this is where we find most often all seats on council or board occupied by a single party.

The US Constitution is interesting in that it describes how the Federal government needs to be elected (i.e. with senator representation per state, which is clearly not proportional representation). The States are mentioned too, but more vaguely. The only part of the US Constitution that applies to local elections is the 14th Amendment.

As we know, the 14th Amendment is about equality, and separate-but-equal was deemed unconstitutional. For local elections, covered only by the 14th Amendment and no other wording in the US Constitution, separate-but-equal is not allowed.

Yet that is exactly what is found in place. We are separated in districts first, and only then are we declared equal. For the local level (but again not for Federal level, and possibly not for the State level) that is unconstitutional.

The local level is also a good place to start, because a/ it involves smaller entities, b/ big money is often not involved (with notable exceptions), c/ the voters can learn how fair representation works before demanding it for State level.

If you want, you can join LocalParty.Org and help set up a Chapter where you live.

Fredrick said...

Here is an example of proportional voting where you can vote for a candidate as well as for a party. It explains in a simple example how it all works.