Proportional Representation - Questions and Answers
Most Americans don't vote! They are highly disenchanted with U.S. elections at all levels from
local to federal - and for good reasons. The whole process seems to be preordained and there are so few choices.
Even now, in the twenty-first century, American elections still produce
legislatures that fail to reflect the diversity of its citizens. In particular, our legislatures continue to underrepresent various political and racial minorities. African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians still do not occupy their fair share of seats in our legislatures. And in spite of the unprecedented number of women being elected to Congress, that institution continues to be only 10% female.
We need a voting system that is better able to count each vote we cast - opening the legislative arena to voices sounding of our diversity. Proportional Representation is such a voting system. It is a better alternative - a fundamental structural reform that would make American legislative elections more fair, provide voters with more meaningful choices, and produce legislatures that are more truly representative of the public. That reform will replace our present single-member district plurality elections with a system of proportional representation (PR).
What voting system is used in the U.S.?
In the United States, a plurality voting system called "winner-take-all" is almost always used to elect the legislature. In districts or at-large elections, those with the most votes win all the representation. Votes going to losing candidates are wasted, even if a candidate wins 49.9% of the vote. This leaves significant groups of voters unrepresented.
Voters sense this, and often do not vote for the candidate they like, but rather the one who stands the best chance of winning (often seen as the "lesser of two evils"). All too often people don't bother to vote at all. It's no wonder that, among the 21 democracies in Western Europe and North America, the United States stands next-to-last in eligible voter turn-out. In fact, in 1996 only 44% of U.S. voters participated in Congressional elections. 56% did NOT participate at all!
Our winner-takes-all system ensures two things:
- The "Balkanization" of the electorate into those who win representation and those who do not, particularly along lines of geographic districts that give representation based on where you live, not what you think.
- The wholesale wasting of votes on "losing" candidates - up to 49% in a two-person contest and 66% in a three-way race. This system disenfranchises literally millions of voters, and depresses voter enthusiasm and participation.
Why use the "winner-take-all" system?
This voting system was inherited from British colonial time. Since then important advances - like Proportional Representation (PR) - have been made in the theory and practice of representative democracy. Lack of information, institutional inertia, and crass self-interest on the part of the two major political parties have hindered any serious dialogue on the pros and cons of alternative voting systems such as PR.
What is Proportional Representation (PR)?
PR is a voting system that developed through discussion and debate over true democratic representation in the late eighteenth century. In nineteenth century struggles for representative government, Alexis de Tocqueville in France and John Stuart Mill in England became leading proponents of proportional representation.
Under PR, seats in a representative assembly are distributed in proportion to the votes cast, so that the right of decision belongs to the majority, but the right of representation belongs to all. PR can only be used when multiple candidates are elected.
With PR, legislatures are elected from multi-seat districts in proportion to the number of votes received: 20% of the popular votes wins 20% of the seats, 50% of votes win 50% of seats, etc. PR assures that political parties or nonpartisan voting constituencies win the percent of legislative seats that reflects their public support. A party or candidate need not come in first to win seats. Nearly everybody votes for a winner.
How does PR work?
- List System - The most widely used form of PR. The voter selects one party and its slate of candidates. Party slates can be either closed or open, allowing voters to indicate a preference for certain candidates. If a party receives 30% of the vote, they receive 30% of the seats. Thus, in a 10 seat district, they win 3 of the legislative seats. 10% of the vote, means 10 % of the seats or one seat, and so on. A minimum share of the vote - often 5%- may be required to earn representation as a way of
discouraging too many parties. This type of PR is ideal for legislatures on state and national levels.
- Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) - This German PR hybrid elects half the legislative seats from single-seat, winner-takes-all districts and the other half by the List method in a compensatory fashion so that each party has its fair proportion of seats in the assembly. MMP smoothly combines geographic, ideological, and proportional representation.
- Choice Voting (CV) - A candidate-based PR system that allows blocs of like-minded voters to win representation in proportion to their voting strength. The voter simply ranks candidates in an order of preference (1,2,3,4, etc.). Once a voter's first choice is elected or eliminated, excess votes are "transferred" to the next choice until all positions are filled. Voters can vote for theirfavorite candidate(s), knowing that if their first choice doesn't receive enough votes their vote will transfer to their next choice. With CV, every vote counts and very few votes are wasted. CV is ideal for non-partisan elections like city councils and officers or governing bodies of private organizations.
- Cumulative Voting - This is a semi-proportional system. Voters have as many votes as there are members to be elected (usually 3 in a three-member district) and can use all their votes for one candidate or spread them among two or more. The result allows minorities to get representation or influence if they all vote for a single candidate.
Has PR been used in the U.S.?
Various types of PR or semi-PR (such as cumulative voting) are used today in over 200 jurisdictions, including city councils in Cambridge MA, Peoria IL, county and city governments in Alabama and Texas, and the community school boards in NYC. PR or semi-PR is also used for the Democratic presidential nominating convention delegates, several corporate boards, and the selection of Academy Awards nominees.
PR was first used in the U.S. in the 1920's, and worked very well in 24 cities. The majority - as well as various political and racial minorities - were elected using PR in these cities. African Americans, women, Catholic and Polish immigrants, Communists, Democrats, Republicans, and others whose voices had previously gone unheard were able to achieve access to representation.
In fact, PR was so successful in giving representation to political and ethnic minorities in the 1920?s through 1950?s that it roused the ire of the dominant political establishments, who did not like having minority represenation on city councils and so resorted to racism and red-baiting to fuel repeal efforts in almost all of those original 24 communities.
Where in the world is PR used?
PR is used by most of the established democracies in the world, including Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Holland, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Spain, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, and Venezuela, to name a few.
The worldwide trend is decidedly toward PR. Recently the United Kingdom, the grandmother of all "winner take all" democracies, chose to use PR for elections to the European Parliament, and Scotland and Wales chose proportional systems. There will be a national referendum on PR in Great Britain by 1999.
In the 1998 Northern Ireland Peace Agreement, PR was used to make the new Northern Ireland Assembly reflect the diverse interests of all the people of Northern Ireland. In South Africa all parties agreed that the multi-racial government established after apartheid was abolished should be elected by proportional representation, so in 1994, South Africa became the latest nation to switch to PR.
Significantly, only a few of the former Soviet Bloc countries (including Russia) have chosen to model their emerging democracies after the winner-takes-all system. Almost all have adopted some form of PR because they recognize the obvious: PR is a fairer, more flexible, modern electoral system.
What are the advantages of PR?
- With more choices, there is greater voter turn-out (typically 70-95%).
- Third, fourth and fifth parties and independent candidates with diverse perspectives and policies run successfully and win.
- Racial minorities win representation without specially gerrymandered districts.
- Women also are successful. In Sweden, a PR country, 41% of the people elected are women. Only 12% of elected officials in the U.S. are women.
- PR allows more diverse representation, with campaigns that are run on issues. Big money takes a back seat. Mud-slinging is reduced.
- PR would change the two-party system for the better. With PR, the larger parties would have to compete for votes and address a wider range of voters' needs or lose support.
- PR can help voting rights cases. With PR, fewer votes are needed to win a seat, and votes can be gathered from a larger area. This makes it easier for racial or political minority perspectives to win seats, without having to gerrymander districts. In June 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Johnson that racially gerrymandered districts are unconstitutional.
Voting rights experts Lani Guinier, Ed Still, and Rob Richie have proposed PR as a neutral method that gives racial as well as political minorities and women a fairer chance to obtain representation without gerrymandered districts.
What about district representation?
Although we are used to a representative from our own district, with winner-takes-all there's a good chance we didn't vote for that representative, or voted for them because they were the "lesser of two evils."
Under PR, you will not have one but several representatives from a larger district. And there is a much greater likelihood that at least one of them will be some one you voted for and really liked.
In South Africa's 1994 PR elections, 86% of eligible voters helped elect someone. In the 1996 U.S.
congressional elections, only 28% of voters helped elect someone.
Also, the MMP form of PR used in Germany and New Zealand can give voters the benefits of both - a representative from your district, as well as a legislature that proportionally reflects the diversity of the electorate.
PR doesn't base representation as much on geography as on political viewpoint. When our republic was young and dotted with barely connected small communities with primitive communication and transportation, the interests of citizens were similar to those of their neighbors.
Today our society is more mobile, multi- cultural, and diverse. People living next door to one another can have completely opposite viewpoints. Yet with our winner-takes- all districts, only one of these voters will receive representation - the one who voted for the winner.
Simple geographical representation no longer ensures fair political representation for all voters and all political perspectives.
Is PR the same as a parliamentary system?
No. Parliaments are a type of governmental system, while PR is a voting or electoral system. One is about the structure of government, the other about how votes are counted. Many, but not all, of the countries using PR combine it with a parliamentary government. This isn't necessary. PR can make the legislative branch truly representative of the people.
How do we change to PR?
City councils, state legislatures, even the U.S. House could be elected using PR - without amending the U.S. Constitution. In many states it is possible to convert to PR simply by changing applicable state and local laws, either through the legislature or by voter initiative.
Individual states could allocate Electoral College votes in proportion to each presidential candidate's statewide popular vote. The Democratic Party already nominates their presidential candidate by PR, each state allocating their delegates according to the proportion of the vote won by each candidate.
As a further bonus, PR would spare states the periodic torment of legislative redistricting - an arduous, bitter, and partisan affair.
Are there any election reforms that work when a single person is being elected, such as president, mayor, or governor?
Yes. It's called Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). It is not proportional representation since PR can only be used when multiple candidates are elected. IRV is ideal when selecting a single candidate such as president, mayor, or governor who must win a majority. Like choice voting, the voter simply ranks candidates in an order of preference (e.g., 1. Perot 2. Clinton 3. Dole, etc.). Ballots are sorted by first choices. If no candidate wins a majority of first choices, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated, and those votes are transferred to their respective second choices. This process is repeated until a candidate has a majority.
About Californians for Electoral Reform
CfER is a strictly non-partisan organization dedicated to resuscitating
our democracy by educating and advocating for proportional representation. CFER has members from all ballot qualified political parties, as well as many independent voters. We seek an informed national dialogue about the impact of voting systems, the shortcomings of our current winner- take-all system, and the benefits of proportional representation (PR).
Formally launched in May of 1993, CFER, which attracts a growing membership base, has established a number of county chapters. CFER works closely with Fairvote, a tax-exempt educational and research center headquarted in Washington, DC. There is a network of state organizations affiliated with Fairvote.
CfER provides speakers and workshops upon request. We have literature that
people can use. We provide training for people on speaking about PR, running PR elections for non-governmental groups, etc.
Want More Information?
For more information about PR and to find out how you can get involved in the national and local efforts to bring proportional representation to the United States, contact the following:
Californians for Electoral Reform
P.O. Box 128
Sacramento, CA 95812
ph: (916) 455-8021 email:
6930 Carroll Ave, Suite 610
Takoma Park, MD 20912
ph: (301) 270-4616
e-mail: info [at] fairvote [dot] org
To receive a packet of information about PR - including articles, op-ed pieces, and a resource list - write, phone or e-mail the CFER Sacramento address.
PR Resource List
Fixing Elections, Steven Hill, Routledge, 2002
Real Choices, New Voices, Douglas Amy, Columbia University Press, 1993
Lift Every Voice, Lani Guinier, Simon & Schuster, 1998
Electoral Systems and Party Systems, Arend Lijphart, Oxford University Press, 1994
United States Electoral Systems: Their Impact on Women and Minorities, Wilma Rule and Joseph Zimmerman, eds., Praeger Publishers, 1992
"Reflecting All of Us," by Rob Richie and Steven Hill, Boston Review, January 1998
Monopoly Politics, 1997, Fairvote's ground-breaking analysis of 1996 U.S. House elections
Dubious Democracy: 1995 U.S. House Elections, Fairvote's statistical analysis showing reasons for low voter turnout
Voting and Democracy Report, 1995, Fairvote's survey of electoral reforms.
To join us, just clip the coupon below and mail with your check to the CFER address above.
Check one only:
Limited membership ($6) __
Regular membership ($25) __
Donor membership ($40) __
I wish to join Californians for Electoral Reform.
Your local contact is (if known):