Third Party & Independents Archives

Democratizing the Legislature – Proportional Representation

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 important 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, winner-take-all voting produces two dominant political parties that oscillate in and out of power, with the party losing the election forming a "government-in-waiting".

It also rewards mudslinging and partisan obstructionism (i.e. gridlock), because the best way for one party to win the election 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 office.

It is important to realize, however, that these problems 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.

The superiority of Proportional Representation

For Legislative bodies, like the U.S. Congress, State Senate, and the Assembly, Proportional Representation (PR) is clearly superior to our single-district winner-take all voting system. Under a PR voting system, if a party gets 10% of the vote for a legislative body, they would get 10% of the seats. Currently, 107 nations use some form of PR to elect their government officials, making it by far the preferred method of voting throughout the world..

The success of PR voting systems in democratic counties over the past century clearly shows this voting method is superior to our winner-take-all systems. In general PR systems elicit higher voter turnouts (about 10 percent greater), 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.

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 the issues, in order to build coalitions for enacting new policies. This is quite different from our two party system, where incentives to remain in power lead to obfuscation and negative campaigning.

Today only three of the 41 countries with a high Freedom House human rights rating and a population 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. 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.

Canada is already taking the first steps towards implementing a system of PR for regional and national elections. It looks like the U.S. is about to become the only developed nation in the world committed to denying full representation to its citizens.

Making PR a reality

With voter turnout continuing to fall to the lowest levels of any western nation 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.

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, election 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 winner-take-all system to PR. It is unlikely that the New Zealand government would have acquiesced without this kind of pressure and we can expect the same here.

A similar revolution is underway in Canada where the government recently authorized the Law Commission of Canada (LCC) to study the problem of voter apathy and complaints from the public over the lack of political representation. The LCC, which advises Parliament on issues of law and governance, concluded that Canada should adopt a PR electoral system. Since that time a referendum on PR in British Columbia received 57% of the vote and a similar referendum is schedule for the Ontario elections in 2006.

The recent events in New Zealand and Canada should give us hope that American citizens can democratize our government. 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 IRV and PR and pressuring the government to democratize our voting system, we may yet create a democratic society.

Until we change our voting system, we are condemned to a system that forces the majority of citizens to vote against their conscience and choose between the lesser of two evils. Now is the time for us to unite under one banner to create a voting system that ensures rule by the majority and representation for all.

For more information visit the Center for Voting and Democracy

Posted by Forrest Hill at August 26, 2006 2:55 PM
Comments
Comment #177629

Forrest I’d have to disagree with you on PR overall while agreeing with you that it is better than our own system of winner take all.

What I mean is PR would be seriously devestating to the rights of small states in Congress. How would small states that only have one or two seats in the House implement PR? Let’s say a state has one seat in the House, and there are four parties running for that seat and the results are 40 percent, 30 percent, 20 percent, 10 percent, who gets that one seat under PR? The only way to possibly implement PR is to virtually strip away the rights of small states.

Furthermore another flaw in PR is that, mostly, PR systems operate where a party gets a percentage of seats based on the percentage of votes that party recieved. This causes a system where the party has extreme control over its candidates, and strips many rights away from candidates. Thus this creates a system where in order to be successful you must be a ‘Yes’ man of the party. In the USA the last thing we need is to give more power to political parties, instead of allowing candidates to run rather independent campaigns that may differ from the strict party line.

Instant Runoff Voting is a far superior system to our winner take all system or PR.
Info on IRV can be found at: http://www.instantrunoff.com/
http://www.fairvote.org/irv/

Posted by: Richard Rhodes at August 26, 2006 3:35 PM
Comment #177637

Hi Richard,

In the U.S., the best way to implement a proportional voting system would be to use Rank Choice Voting and multi-member districts (this is the system that Canada is leaning towards). Under this system there is much less party control and independents can win seats.

In general, choice voting works by allowing voters to rank according to the preference, with their top choice receiving a 1, their second a 2, and so on. If you have a 5 seat district then a candidate needs to get approx 1/6 of the voters to rank then as one of their top 5 choices to win a seat.

As I am a candidate for Sec. of State in CA, my focus is to get us to implement a PR system for our state legislature (other states should follow). There is definitely more of a challenge for Congress, since it would be difficult to have a multi-seat district in a state with only one or two congressmen. It could be argue that our congressional districts are way too big (I believe we have not increased the size of congress since 1910). Madison would have abhorred the size of our congressional districts today. If we could increase them so that at a minimum every state had at least 4 or 5, we could use choice voting for congressional races - however, those kinds of changes are a long way off.

I think, though, that we must keep our eye on the prize. We are one of the least democratic societies, in terms of voting, in the western world. Just because real democratic reform seems alien to us, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to achieve it.

Posted by: Forrst Hill at August 26, 2006 4:29 PM
Comment #177671

Forrest. good post.
The PR system seems to be a more accurate reflection of the voters. I take it the electoral college would be done away with, which suits me fine. Can we still have a “none of the above” column added to the ballots, just in case.
How would the change to a PR type system happen on a national level, one state at a time?

Posted by: j2t2 at August 26, 2006 9:33 PM
Comment #177677

I think what is lacking here is analysis of wherever PR systems actually do produce more effective governments. I’m not opposed to the idea in general.

Posted by: Trent at August 26, 2006 10:36 PM
Comment #177709

Forrest, you say PR provides incentives for politicians to cooperate with other parties in order to govern.

While this is true, I wonder to what end they will cooperate. Is this not a vehicle to increase government spending?

I have always felt that PR would be more just than our current system, especially by eliminating gerrymandering while representing minorities (racial, cultural, ideological, whatever). But the wording of the phrase above put a chill down my libertarian spine. I have been wishing for gridlock for 6+ years now. Doesn’t a PR system decrease the gridlock and primarily benefit Progressive causes? A quick glance at the nations using PR supports this. Can a limited-government philosophy hope to benefit in any way from PR?

Thoughts, anyone?

Posted by: Wulf at August 27, 2006 9:45 AM
Comment #177710

Another improvement may be the Approval Voting System.

But, BEFORE anything else is done, we need to get the influence peddling out of government.

As long as government is FOR-SALE (like now), we’re screwed and things will simple get worse.

Posted by: d.a.n at August 27, 2006 9:54 AM
Comment #177713

Wulf, I think your observation about the progressive nature of PR governments is more a statement of the relative conservatism of the US in comparison to the rest of the world. Also, why do you want gridlock? Can you really say that, for example, what happened in 1994 was a good thing? Not that the current state of our government pleases me any more than you.

That aside, there is no way that any kind of electoral reform will happen with the GOP in power. Our current structure favors rural states over urban, and at least at this time, Conservatives rule the rural. The GOP will not willingly give up their advantage, and no grassroots initiative will be able to gain the necessary momentum to pass a Amendment to the Constitution. Perhaps changes may begin at the state level, as Forrst suggests, but will this ever take enough hold to change the federal level? I doubt is.

L

Posted by: leatherankh at August 27, 2006 10:26 AM
Comment #177728

PR systems do not promote more effective government at all. Instead, the nature of PR is to promote coalition governments, which are inherently vastly less stable than 2-party systems.

This may or may not be a good thing, but it is a thing.

Also, having a nationally-elected president (even using something like the electoral college) would still drive toward a 2-party system - that’s a derivation of Duverger’s law.

Posted by: Arr-squared at August 27, 2006 12:46 PM
Comment #177739

Mr Hill I am so excited to see a post that is the exact replica of my mindset. I have recently made some comments on the liberal side on watch blog because of my disgust in the polarization that they are promoting.

I have had enough of our country and its divided polarized state that it is in. I have always been a firm believer in the words of George Washington in his farewell speech when he stated that he was a strong opponent of overwhelming political party power and warned the country to not go that way. But we did and look at our country today, every single issued is divided on party lines and political agendas.

Our electoral system today of winner take all is absolute nonsense because of the sheer fact of the immense diversity that our country has. How can we have a TWO party system with the diversity of cultures, ethnicities, beliefs and ideas that our country has today???

Thank you again Mr Hill…as a young man about to go into law school after I graduate from Penn State University I am looking for my political orientation, I have found it with the independents. I am sick of the polarization that I see everyday in the media that has been created by the political agendas of Republicans and Democrats. One day I want to go into politics and spread the message that you have posted here today and to educate the people of America of PR and IRV elections and why our two party system is extremely out of date.

Posted by: Matt Quirin at August 27, 2006 1:25 PM
Comment #177751

I believe proportional representation is preferred to our winner take all system, but there is one thing majorly lacking in my opinion to make PR work. The United States has no major third party. I think a major third party would have to emerge unde the winner take all system before we would move to a proportional representation system.

Posted by: D.P. Roy at August 27, 2006 2:31 PM
Comment #177758

D.P.Roy,
Perhaps the time is right for both issues, a serious debate between the existing system, or switch to PR, Instant runoff,or approval voting, and a cenrist 3rd party. I think any of the above will take a generation to accomplish.

Posted by: j2t2 at August 27, 2006 3:31 PM
Comment #177775
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.

This is, in my opinion, the biggest flaw of PR. Seats shouldn’t be guaranteed to a “party” — they should go to “candidates”, particularly the candidates that win their elections. We should vote for people, not parties. The party lever is the tool of the lazy voter.

And as for the need for a strong third party… well, when you’re up to your neck in bullshit and horseshit, the solution isn’t to add dogshit. The solution is a shovel.

George Washington’s farewell address warned against the evils of political parties for a very good reason. Too bad we didn’t listen to him.

Posted by: Rob Cottrell at August 27, 2006 7:36 PM
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