Election System Reform: A series of articles

Much attention of late has been given to the issue of campaign finance reform. While important, there is a more fundamental issue, election system reform, that also deserves attention. In a series of articles I will introduce alternative ways of conducting elections that can reduce the cost of campaigning, discourage negative campaigning, elect more women and minorities, and increase voter turnout.

Most voters in this country are familiar with only three types of elections: single-member-district plurality, where the person with the most votes wins; multi-member-district plurality, where the top N vote-getters win (N is the number of seats being filled); and single-member-district runoff, where if no one gets a majority in the first election a runoff is held between the top two vote-getters.

These are all examples of plurality-majority election systems. Political scientists refer to single-member-district plurality as First Past The Post (FPTP), multi-member-district plurality as Block Vote (BV), and single-member-district runoff as a Two Round System (TRS). In all of these cases a majority (or in some cases a plurality) of the voters elects all the representatives, leaving the rest of the electorate unrepresented.

Most of the established democracies in the world, however, have long abandoned plurality-majority systems in favor of systems of proportional representation (PR). The philosophy of PR systems is very simple: majority rule with minority representation, in proportion to their voting strength in the electorate. That is, a party or like-minded block of voters with 60 percent of the vote should win 60 percent of the seats, and a party or different like-minded block of voters with 10 percent of the vote should win 10 percent of the seats.

Because fewer votes are needed to elect a candidate in PR systems than in plurality systems, there are fewer wasted votes, and voters are more likely to feel connected to the political process. This is borne out as PR countries tend to have higher voter turnouts than countries with plurality systems. Countries that use PR also tend to have more women in their legislatures, and their legislatures are also more reflective of their populations than countries that do not use PR. It also costs less to win a seat.

There are three main systems of proportional representation: List PR, Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), and Choice Voting (also known as Single Transferable Vote or STV). Both List PR and MMP require partisan elections, whereas Choice Voting is amenable to both partisan and non-partisan elections. I will explain them in my next article.


Steve Chessin is an Advisory Board member of Fairvote, and serves on the Board of Directors of Californians for Electoral Reform.