Alex Carmichael | Proportional Representation (PR) is the voting systems used to elect a legislature at any level of government, such as a state assembly or town council. PR means that the number of seats won by a party or group of candidates is proportionate to the number of votes received. For example, under a PR voting system if 30% of voters support a particular party then roughly 30% of seats will be won by that party. PR is an alternative to voting systems based on single member districts like the U.S. congressional elections. PR systems tend to produce a proliferation of political parties, while single member districts encourage a two-party system. America’s non-PR system produces disproportionate outcomes and creates extreme bias in favor of the Democrats and Republicans.
PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION IN DETAIL
There are many different forms of proportional representation. The degree of proportionality varies; it is determined by factors such as the precise formula used to allocate seats, the number of seats in each constituency or in the elected body as a whole, and the level of any minimum threshold for election. The majority of debate about voting systems is about whether to move to more proportionality because the Democrats and Republicans in US elections can, and most often do, win formal control of legislatures with support from as little as 20-25% of eligible voters, at the cost of smaller parties.
The single non-transferable vote (STV) is a voting system designed to achieve proportional representation through preferential voting which does not depend on political parties. Voters rank candidates in order of preference. Under STV, an elector’s vote is initially allocated to his or her most preferred candidate, and then, after candidates have been either elected or eliminated, any surplus or unused votes are transferred according to the voter’s stated preferences. The system minimizes “wasted” votes, provides approximately proportional representation, and enables votes to be explicitly cast for individual candidates rather than for closed party lists. By example, elections for the Australian Senate use what is referred to as above-the-line voting where candidates for each party are grouped on the ballot, allowing the voter to vote for the group or for a candidate. It is most the commonly used PR system in English speaking world (Britain, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand). City elections in Cambridge, Massachusetts and in Minneapolis, Minnesota recently used PR.
Under PR, each constituency elects two or more representatives per electorate. Consequently the constituency is equivalent in size to the sum of single member constituencies that would produce the same number of representatives. Parties tend to offer as many candidates as they optimistically could expect to win: major parties nominate more than minor parties. Voters rank some or all candidates in order of their choice. A successful candidate must achieve a quota, which is “calculated by dividing the Total Valid Poll by one more than the number of seats to be filled, ignoring any remainder and then adding 1 vote.”
Only in a few cases is this achieved at the first count. For the second count, if a candidate wins election her/his surplus vote (in excess of the quota) is transferred to the voters’ second choices; otherwise, the least popular candidate is eliminated and those votes are redistributed according to the second preference shown on them. If more than one candidate cannot get enough votes after the transfer of votes of the least popular candidate, that candidate is also eliminated (as they would be eliminated on the next round anyway.) The process repeats until all seats are filled either when the required number of candidates achieve the quota or until the number of remaining candidates matches the number of remaining seats. Although the counting process is complicated, voting is clear and most voters get at least one of their preferences elected.
HOW CAN I HELP PROMOTE PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION IN AMERICA?
In promoting PR for governmental elections, the easiest place to begin is at the local level. Usually all it takes is a change in a city or county charter in order to adopt proportional representation. City governments regularly form committees to review their charters, and these are excellent opportunities for citizens to raise the option of using PR. City officials are sometimes reluctant to lead the way in this kind of change, and they may even try to impede it. So in many areas citizens may often have to organize themselves and offer referendums in order to reform their city charter. In recent years, citizens have put PR referendums on the ballot in Cincinnati and San Francisco. Both efforts narrowly went down to defeat, garnering 45% and 43% of the vote respectively.
The state level is also ripe for change. In many states, PR could be adopted without any change in the state constitution. A reasonable approach would be to work for PR in one house, leaving the other house elected by districts. But given the difficulties in organizing a state-wide campaign, promoters of PR should not jump too quickly into a referendum process without first taking the time to lay the political groundwork for such an effort. PR proponents must form an effective state-wide organization and build coalitions with other political groups. A premature effort that leads to defeat may permanently turn some people off to PR. In order to build support, citizens might want to first work for the establishment of a state commission to examine the voting system. This could provide a valuable forum for promoting the idea of PR and familiarizing the public with this issue.
Litigation is another way to promote the use of PR. City and state suits over voting rights issues provide an opportunity to introduce PR as a possible legal remedy in these cases. Working with the litigants or filing “friend of the court” briefs could at the very least lead to its inclusion in discussions of remedies. In one case in Maryland, a judge opted for a PR remedy after an activist sent him a good article on PR.
Obviously, the adoption of PR for U.S. congressional elections is an important goal for the pro-PR movement. But change at this level will be difficult. Although there are no constitutional obstacles to using PR for U.S. House elections, there is congressional legislation that mandates single-member districts. You could join the effort to repeal this legislation and allow states to use PR. The Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington, D.C. developed plans for Georgia and North Carolina that demonstrate how easy it would be to create multi-member PR districts for U.S. House elections. Importantly, such plans would not require a constitutional amendment. All that would be needed is to repeal a 1967 federal law requiring single-member district elections for the House, and several bills have been introduced in Congress that would do just that.
Given the many advantages of PR, it is not surprising that the general worldwide trend during the last 100 years has been away from winner-take-all voting systems and toward various forms of PR. That trend continues even today. The vast majority of newer democracies in Eastern Europe ended up rejecting American-style plurality voting in favor of various forms of proportional or semi-proportional voting systems. Comparative studies of European countries have shown much higher voter turnout, and less apathy towards the process, when PR is used to elect officials at the highest levels of government.