Third Party & Independents Archives

Securing Democracy in America

In a democracy, those elected to government should ideally embody the views of a representative cross-section of society. The role of government should be premised on the concept that when elected officials make decisions on pertinent issues, those decisions reflect the will of the people. This can only occur if elected officials stay true to the values they supported during their campaigns and voters have a wide range of candidates to choose from.

In the United States, our Winner-Take-All (WTA) election system ensures that democratic representation is little more than a myth. By design, WTA voting systems produce two dominant political parties that oscillate in and out of power, with the party losing the election forming a "government-in-waiting" [1]. It also rewards mudslinging and partisan obstructionism (i.e. gridlock), because the best way for one party to win elections is to drive up the "negatives" on the other party.

Our election system has also exacerbated a number of problems associated with two-party control including corporate financed campaigns, gerrymandered party districts, low voter turnout, and under representation of women and minorities in elective office. However, these are symptoms of a dysfunctional system and not the cause of the limited choices we are confronted with every time we enter the voting booth.

When thinking about election reform it is important to consider whether it is possible to create a more representative democracy by trying to "fix" a system that is as arcane as the abacus. Will term limits, so called campaign finance reform, redistricting, electronic voting machines, etc. really usher in an era of multi-party democracy?

In reality, such band aid solutions are unlikely to be more than just cosmetic. The only way to create meaningful democratic reform is to dismantle our outmoded election laws and move to a system of proportional representation (PR).

The superiority of PR

Today only three of the 36 countries with populations over 2 million people -- the United States, Jamaica, and Canada – do not use some form of PR to elect an important representative body of government [2]. Even Brittan uses PR to elect its representatives to the European parliament, and is currently reviewing whether to implement a similar system for its own parliamentary elections. Scotland and Wales, however, already have a jump on the Brits as they started using PR in 1999.

We now have many years of experience in which a large majority of democratic countries have used PR to assess the superiority of this system of voting to plurality and winner-take-all systems. In general PR systems elicit higher voter turnouts, result in greater representation by minorities and women, and are usually more effective at creating governments that are efficient and likely to follow through on campaign promises [3].

This is no accident. By guaranteeing that the number of seats a party is accorded reflects its popular support, PR provides incentives for politicians to cooperate with other parties in order to govern. Part of that cooperation involves providing undistorted information on issues, in order to build coalitions for enacting new policies. This is quite different from WTA systems where incentives to remain in power lead to obfuscation and negative rhetoric.

More importantly, PR promotes better communication on issues by political leaders to the electorate by reducing the cost to their party of providing alternative positions on salient policies. Once voters understand the broader implications of a policy decision, political parties can gain coalition support by pointing out how their view is likely to improve society if enacted.

In contrast, under WTA systems the ruling party is expected to implement its programs as if supported by the majority of the people, rather than build broad-based support for needed, but controversial, reform [3]. They know that the minority party has nothing to gain by co-operating and in fact their political interest lies in denouncing unpopular policies (typically by exaggerating their effects). Overall, this leads to a misinformed and increasingly alienated electorate, which is evident by the fact that the U.S. has one of the lowest voter turnouts of any modern democracy.

Is Canada next?

To stem the tide of voter apathy and complaints from the public over the lack of political representation, the Canadian government in 2004 authorized the Law Commission of Canada (LCC) to study the problem and make electoral reform recommendations. The LCC, which advises Parliament on issues of law and governance, concluded that Canada should adopt a mixed member PR electoral system (see below) [4]. Their conclusions have sent shock waves through the Canadian political establishment.

According to Nathalie Des Rosiers, president of the LCC, a change in Canada’s electoral system is badly needed. “It is necessary because the country's system no longer responds well to a society that wants more consultation, that wants to participate more in decisions, that is not as interested in an authoritarian form of government as much as seeing Parliament express the diversity of ideas in Canada," she stated after the release of the LCC report.

Larry Gordon, executive director for Fair Vote Canada, said he was stunned and very heartened upon hearing the repot to see a no-holds-barred statement that the current election system has to go. "When you have every vote count -- and that's what proportional representation does -- it changes everything," he stated. "It changes politics, it changes parties, it changes the nature of government, all for the better" [4].

While the next move is up to the Canadian federal government, many provinces are not waiting for Ottawa to make up its mind. Instead they are preparing their own referendums on PR for the 2005 general election [5]. Should Canada go to a PR system, the United States and Jamaica would be the last bastions of plurality voting among the larger “democratic” counties.

Can activism act as a surrogate for represnetation?

Government formed under a winner-take-all system can be correctly assessed as inaccessible to the masses, unaccountable, and as having too great a degree of power concentrated in the hands of a few elites. Consequently, the majority of Americans who feel disenfranchised have no other option but to turn to some form of political activism if they want to influence policy decisions.

In the U.S., there is a long history of activist movements, from the Boston Tea Party to the recent anti-Iraq war protests, each having varying degrees of success in influencing political policy. However, as power has become more centralized in recent times (through corporate financing and media control of information), the government has become less and less concerned with these movements. Since activist rarely focus on the unfairness of the election system that has driven them into the streets in the first place, one must wonder at what point people will begin to see this exercise as a futile.

There are several problems with relying solely on activism to change government policies. First, activist are easily marginalized (or ignored) except when their cause can be co-opted to further the agenda of one of the major parities. Second, activism actually helps legitimize the two-party system by giving the appearance of democracy even though activist themselves have almost no power to effect change. Third, activism requires a lot of energy, free time, and patients, as the government is only likely to react to citizen's concerns once there is a large critical mass of support (which can take a long time to build). Finally, activism (by necessity) is generally reactionary in nature, concerned mostly with stopping the latest perceived evil perpetuated by the government, instead of working proactively to create new policy directives.

Most studies on political activism show that the primary motivating factor for such actions (especially in the U.S.) is the desire to advert political threats – whether they are threats to one’s self-interest, one’s well being, or one’s political interests [6]. Thus, Libertarians, small business owners, Greens and anti-war activist are motivated to take action by the same self-preservating force.

Recognizing there is a command psychology that motivates many of us to take political action, we must begin to unite forces (regardless of our political beliefs) to bring about change in our electoral system. By working together to educate the public about PR and by pressuring the government to democratize our voting system, the hope that one day we can become proactive voices for change, rather than loss voices out in the streets, may one day become a reality.

A Strategy for America -- Mixed Member PR

The simplest way to establish a representative voting system in the United States would be to implement a “Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMPR) system. Such countries as Germany, Scotland, and New Zealand favor this system of voting, and it is currently the method recommended by the LCC in Canada. The concept of MMPR is simple and could be applied to any office in which representatives are elected from districts proportioned by population size (which rules out the Senate, but that’s a topic for another article).

To picture how MMPR works, imagine a statewide race in which there are 50 legislative districts represented by 100 legislators. Citizens cast two votes when the go to the polls, an electorate vote and a party vote. The electorate vote is for the candidate they want to represent them in the district, while the party vote is for the political party that they believe represents their values in the legislature. Thus, 50 of the legislators gain office using a winner-take-all system while the other 50 are chosen according to the proportion of votes each party receives statewide.

For example assume in the electorate vote the Donkey Party wins 30 district seats and the Elephant Party wins the other 20, while the party vote shows the Donkey Party is supported by 45% of the voters, the Elephant party by 30%, the Watermelon Party by 20% and the Free-For-All party by 5%. Since the Donkey Party won 30 district races, they are allowed to add 15 more candidates from their “party list” (which is published in advance), giving them 45% of the seats in the legislature. The Elephant party is allowed to add 10 candidates from its list (giving them 30% of the seats), the Watermelon gets to add 20 candidates and the Free-for-All Party gets to add 5 candidates (for a pictorial example see New Zealand’s MMPR system).

While there are several other types of PR voting, instituting a MMPR electoral system has several advantages:

1. It is relatively easy for voters to switch from a WTA to a MMPR system. They simply vote for the local candidate of their choice (as they do now), and then vote for a party they support.

2. MMPR still allows voters to elect representatives from their district who are accountable to the people in that district.

3. Voters who live in gerrymandered districts (i.e. most of us) would know that their ballot makes a difference to the final results, regardless of who wins in their district. Votes for third party candidates would no longer be seen as “wasted votes” as they would count towards electing at-large candidates.

Making it happen

By changing to a proportional representation system, government accountability would be greatly enhanced, as would the opportunity for greater representation of all U.S. citizens.

With voter turnout continuing to fall and the two major parties morphing more and more into a single entity, now is the time for disenfranchised citizens from all across the political spectrum to unite. If we are to change our outmoded voting system we are going to have to educate the public and put pressure on the government through lobbying efforts and ballot initiatives.

Our government will not act to change our electoral system until there is enough outcry from the citizenry they are suppose to represent. In New Zealand, reform was fueled by a decade of popular dissent that culminated in a national referendum in 1993. Fifty-four per cent of the voting public supported a switch from a WTA type system to Mixed-Member PR. It is unlikely that the New Zealand government would have acquiesced without this kind of pressure and we can expect the same here.

Fortunately, there is already a large number of organizations in the United states working towards implementing PR voting including The Center for Voting and Democracy, Citizens in Charge, and The PR Library. Third parties that are involved in election reform include American Reform, Green, Libertarian, New, Natural Law, and Reform (among others). There are also numerous state organizations trying to educate the public on PR.

Without changing our voting system, we are condemned to support a system that only allows the majority of voters to choose between the lesser of two evils. Now is the time for us to unite under one banner (regardless of political belief) to create a voting system that is in step with the 21st century.


[1] Voting Counts: electoral reform in Canada. Published by the Law Commission of Canada.

[2] Robert Richie and Steven Hill. 1998. The Case for Proportional Representation. Boston Review

[3] Miller, H. 1997. The case for proportional representation. Policy Options, November, pages 6-9.

[4] Panel to recommend proportional voting, by John Ibbitson. Globe and Mail, Feb. 2 2004.

[5] The Citizen’s Assembly on Election Reform in British Columbia, by Chris Mackenzie. Published in Informed, issue No. 5

[6] Brader, Ted. 2002. “Rallies or Retreats, Brainwash or Backlash? The Political Psychology of Threat and Fear.” Manuscript presented at the 98th Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Boston, MA.

Posted by Forrest Hill at April 14, 2004 1:20 AM