What Is Proportional Representation?

What is Proportional Representation (PR)?

Proportional representation (PR) is a radically simple concept: when electing representatives to a multi-member body (e.g. the U.S. House of Representatives), instead of breaking up voters into individual (and quite possibly gerrymandered) districts that select only one winner, you switch to fewer, larger districts and let voters select multiple winners.

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 is only applicable to elections in which 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 every voter votes for a winner.

What are the common types of PR?

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.) using Ranked Choice Voting. 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 their favorite 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.

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.

What’s Wrong with Our Current System?

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 citizens. In particular, our legislatures continue to under represent 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 less than 25% 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 do we actually use then?

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 2018 less than 48% of Californian voters participated in the mid-term election — and that was a 50 year high! More than half of eligible voters in California did NOT participate at all! Our winner-takes-all system ensures two things:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 do we still use the “winner-take-all” system?

This voting system was inherited from British colonial times. 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 can you do about it?

Get involved. Join CfER, support a local campaign, or help educate more people by bringing RCV and PR to your school or organization!

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