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 of representatives in the legislature, 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?

Party-List Systems

Party-list systems are the oldest, simplest and most widely used form of PR to elect legislatures at the national and state level. Voters vote for a party (or more accurately a “party-list”) instead of a candidate. When the votes are counted each party receives a proportion of the total seats in the district based on the proportion of the votes that party receives. For example, if a party receives 30% of the vote, they receive 30% of the seats; therefore, in a 10-seat district that party would win 3 of the legislative seats.

In “closed-list” systems the parties list their candidates in order from top to bottom – and the candidates are elected (or “seated”) in that order, from top to bottom. In our example, the party that won 30% of the vote in a 10-seat district would return the three candidates at the top of its list to the legislature. In “open-list” systems, voters still cast their votes for parties, but they can also mark their preference for individual candidates within their preferred party’s list of candidates, potentially moving their favored candidate “up” on the list.

Almost all countries that use party-list PR require that each party receive a minimum share of the vote – often 5% – in order to be included in seat distribution, which makes sense because districts would have to be very large to seat parties who receive a smaller percentage of the vote.

Proportional Ranked Choice Voting (PRCV)

P-RCV is a candidate-based PR system that allows voters to rank candidates in their order of preference (1,2,3 etc.) using Ranked Choice Voting. The only difference between proportional RCV and single-member district RCV is that translating votes into seats is a little trickier. The key difference is that in a multi-member districts, candidates are elected once they receive a minimum number of votes – or a “quota.” which means once a candidate receives the minimum number of votes needed to win one seat, their “excess” votes must be transferred to the voters’ next choice. This process continues until all positions are filled or until no candidate has met the quota – in that situation the candidate with the fewest total votes is eliminated and their votes are transferred to their voters’ “second preference” until all seats are filled. 

The advantage of Proportional RCV is that like single-member RCV,  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. Consequently, very few votes are wasted and most voters get to elect a candidate they want to represent them. P-RCV can be used for any multi-member election and is used for non-partisan elections like city councils and officers or governing bodies of private organizations in the United States.

Mixed Member Proportional (MMP)

MMP is a hybrid system that originated in Germany after WWII and has been adopted in many countries around the world. In this system voters elect half the legislative seats from single-member districts and the other half by the party-list PR method described above. Ultimate seat distribution is done in a compensatory fashion so that each party has its fair proportion of seats in the legislative assembly. MMP is popular because it combines the clear geographic representation associated with single-member district elections in combination with the ideological representation of party-list PR – and in a way that is ultimately a proportional representation of voters’ preferences.

What’s Wrong with Our Current System?

Where to start? First, approximately half of eligible American voters do not vote! That is far below other democracies. On average, approximately 40% of Americans vote in mid-term elections (when there is no presidential election) and only 60% vote in elections when we elect presidents. Even Americans who do vote report being highly disenchanted with U.S. elections at all levels – from local to federal – and for good reasons! 

Second, many Americans feel that the whole process seems to be preordained – and they’re right. In the vast majority of elections in the United States – approximately 85% in Congress, often more at the state level – we know which party is going to win before anyone votes in the general election. Hard to believe, but true. Whether because of gerrymandering or geographic-based policy differences, most voters know in advance which of the two major parties is going to win before they even vote.

Third, twenty-first century American elections still fail to produce legislatures that reflect the diversity of our 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 30% female.

If we want our representatives to reflect those that elect them we need a voting system that is better able to count each vote we cast. Proportional Representation is the voting system most likely to produce a truly representative legislature, it makes gerrymandering obsolete, and it encourages third parties to compete with the Big Two! Replacing our existing single-member district plurality elections with a system of proportional representation (PR) is a fundamental structural reform that would make American legislative elections more fair, provide voters with more meaningful choices so they have a reason to vote – and produce legislatures that are more truly representative of the public.

So why do we still use a single-member district plurality system?

This voting system was inherited from British colonial times. The United States has changed A LOT since then – and important advances – like Proportional Representation (PR) – have been made in the theory and practice of representative democracy. Voters’ lack of information, institutional inertia, and crass self-interest on the part of the two major political parties have traditionally hindered serious debate on the pros and cons of alternative voting systems such as PR….but change is coming…

What can you do?

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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