Proportional Representation - Part 1
From "The Trouble With Elections: Everything We Thought We Knew About Democracy is Wrong," Chapter 5.1
Single-seat winner-take-all plurality voting is a bit of a mouthful.1 It is the voting method used in the United States, and is very much the exception among developed countries of the world. This method of voting is prone to the “spoiler” problem. Voting for a minor party or candidate, which the voter prefers, may split the majority and inadvertently help elect a candidate that a majority of voters agree is the worst choice. This dynamic discourages voters from considering such candidates, and discourages third party candidacies. This method of tabulating votes generally results in domination by just two major parties within each jurisdiction. Polls show that most Americans are dissatisfied with the two major parties and would prefer more choices on the ballot, but the plurality voting rules, which generate the spoiler problem, make this problematic. I should note that I helped found or lead four different “third” parties over my political career.
Voting reforms such as ranked-choice voting (instant runoffs), approval voting, Borda count, Condorcet, score voting, and other methods have been proposed to alleviate the spoiler problem. Ranked choice voting reform is currently making significant headway in a number of US states. Such voting reforms may facilitate having more candidates on the ballot with less concern about the spoiler problem, but they do little or nothing to generate more accurate representation or facilitate real deliberation. They seek to replace plurality tabulation rules with a majority requirement for each single seat. Being single-seat majoritarian voting methods, minorities would still be under-represented in legislative bodies. This is sometimes referred to as “Duverger’s Law,” the idea that majoritarian single seat voting systems will still encourage two dominant parties (though Maurice Dverger, the political scientist who the “law” is named for, never suggested it was anything more than a tendency.) The obvious response is to instead move to some form of proportional representation (PR) voting.
Single winner, plurality voting systems never accurately represent the diversity of the electorate. An important metric used by political scientists compares the percentage of votes each party receives to the percentage of total seats won. This can be called a representativeness ratio. If a party wins 60 percent of the votes and also 60 percent of the seats, while another party gets 20 percent of the votes and 20 percent of the seats the representativeness ratio is a perfect 1:1. While most Americans accept by default the idea that elections must have only some constituents that win, and others that lose — that in a two party race, 51 percent of the people in some geographic area should get 100 percent of the representation and the other 49 percent should get none. Their votes have goner to waste. A function of proportional representation is to minimize wasted votes. With PR the goal is that nearly everybody wins some representation.
First developed in the nineteenth century, PR seeks to assure that the majority can elect a majority of a legislative chamber, but also that substantial minorities can elect a fair share of seats proportionate to their numbers. Under winner-take-all systems (whether a plurality, or a reformed majority system), everyone may have the right to a vote, but not the right to actual representation. The basic principle of PR is that the majority gets to decide, but everybody has a right to be represented at the table. This typically means having multiple parties both on the ballot and elected to the legislature.
Most developed electoral governments today use some form of proportional representation, rather than the archaic single-member winner-take-all system. According to an analysis by FairVote: The Center for voting and Democracy, there are 36 democracies that have at least two million people and a high human rights rating from the independent watchdog organization Freedom House. Of these, only three -- Canada, Jamaica and the United States -- have not used PR for at least some national elections.2 Proportional representation election systems accommodate multiple parties, rather than fostering a two-party system like that of the US. There are many different methods of PR. In some forms of PR voters select a favored party rather than specific candidates, while other systems of PR allow voters to rank individual candidates in order of preference in multi-seat districts.
Voter turnout is typically far higher in countries using PR than in the US. In a US-style winner-take-all election it is only those relatively few races that are extremely close that elicit much excitement, and thus turnout. In a PR election, however, far more voters see a choice that they can get enthusiastic about, simply because the number of viable candidates is greater. Also, in a two-candidate race, your party either will, or will not win (and this is generally obvious well ahead of time, with districts being recognized as leaning red or blue). But in a PR election, a relatively small number of additional votes may flip one of the seats from a party you disdain to one you prefer. In other words, when many seats will be filled, there are multiple break points where a vote may break a tie. It should be noted, however, that voter turnout in many countries using PR has also been declining, though not to the low levels of the US.
Most Americans know nothing about proportional representation, and if they do, for some reason, it is the negative fact that the countries of Italy and Israel use PR and have had frequent, disruptive changes of government. While PR is clearly a superior voting method to US-style winner-take-all elections, it is not a panacea.
I worked with the organization FairVote: The Center For Voting and Democracy for a couple of decades promoting proportional representation. However, the bulk of my work ended up being the promotion of non-proportional single-winner majoritarian reforms with ranked choice ballots. That reform, it was hoped, would be a stepping stone that would ease the adoption of a ranked-ballot proportional representation system in the future. I worked to get instant runoff voting adopted in places like Maine, Vermont, Colorado, Utah, and Alaska. It was while doing this work that I presented testimony to the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly in Canada and had the sortition revelation I mentioned in chapter one. My second sortition revelation came from recognizing that the election reforms I was working so hard for in the United States had already been in place in Australia since early in the twentieth century, using majoritarian single-seat ranked choice voting for their House of Representatives and proportional representation for their Senate. Yet the popular dissatisfaction and partisan failures of their reformed voting system, which I was trying to achieve in the US, had prompted Australians to lead the world in promoting the alternative reform of sortition. In part, due to the work of the NewDemocracy Foundation in Australia, sortition began to take off internationally.
It is sometimes called “first past the post,” though that horse race analogy is quite flawed, since there is no winning “post,” or the post moves depending on how multiple candidates divide up the votes. Plurality voting simply means whoever gets the most votes wins, even if a majority of voters preferred other candidates, but those votes were split up.
The UK used PR to elect representatives to the European Parliament until it withdrew from the EU following the Brexit referendum.