"Left" Out in the Cold, Without Proportional Representation

by Steven Hill

This article was published in the Portland Alliance, December 1994
The roller coaster ride of another Election Tuesday has come and gone, and many voters cringed as we engaged in the familiar routine of choosing between the "lesser of two evils." Democrat or Republican, pick your poison. Nearly two thirds of eligible vo ters, weary of this routine, didn't even bother to vote (36% voter turnout nationwide), and evidence suggests that many of these "no-shows" were of the liberal/progressive persuasion: of the 54 House seats that swung to Republicans, 36 of these were won by Republicans with fewer votes than losing Republicans had in 1992. Voters apparently were not enthusiastic about the "new type of Democrat" foisted upon them by Bill Clinton's Democratic Leadership Council. For many progressives, it seems that the "in side/outside" strategy vis a vis the Democratic Party is at an end.

But what other game is there? If not the lesser of two evils, then what? Term limits? None of the above (NOTA) voting? The Great Third Party in the sky?

This year there was the usual clamor for a third party, whether Green, Labor, or New. Despite wishful thinking and some valiant efforts, Election Tuesday produced little electable on the leftist front. Out of the thousands of state legislature seats in the 50 states, only two seats in Vermont were won by progressive third party candidates. New Mexico Green Party gubernatorial candidate Roberto Mondragon made an impressive showing -- for a third party candidate, the inevitable qualifier -- but unfortuna tely his 10% of the popular vote allowed Republican Gary Johnson to defeat Democrat incumbent Bruce King. Voters' fear of the "spoiler" role is a millstone that third party efforts will always wear around their necks in the U.S.-style winner take all vot ing system.

Meanwhile, in Germany, which held its national elections on October 16, the Green Party emerged as the third largest political party in the German Bundestag. They increased their legislative seats by six times, from 8 to 49. The Party for Democratic Soc ialism, a party of former Communists -- ironically running as a pacifist party -- won 30 seats. Women increased their legislative numbers to 176, now comprising 26% of the German legislature, and the voter turnout was over double that of the U.S. Why ca n't progressives and women have similar successes in the United States, one might wonder? Could it be that the United States is just too darn conservative?

"It's the Voting System, Stupid!"

Many factors -- cultural, social, economic, and religious -- determine voter priorities. But increasingly many activists and pundits are recognizing that the most critical factor that keeps progressives from being elected is the "winner take all" voting system. A voting system is to a democracy like an engine is to a car. You can have a gorgeous exterior, with shiny gold chrome and a crushed velvet interior, but if your engine is a clunker your car won't go very far and won't be worth much. Unfortunate ly, the winner take all voting system, by any objective standards of democratic fairness and representation, is a clunker. It offers voters the least choices, has the lowest voter turnout and wastes the most votes. No wonder that it has been rejected by nearly every major democracy in the world. Great Britain still uses it, and a handful of her former colonies, including the U.S., Canada, and India, as well as France, Zimbabwe, Ukraine, and a few former Soviet republics.

The U.S.-style winner take all system primarily uses single seat district races, where the candidate with the most votes wins. Votes going to a losing candidate are wasted, even if that candidate garners 49.99% of the popular vote in a two-person race. V oters sense this, and so they often do not vote for a candidate they like, but rather the one who realistically stands the best chance of winning -- "the lesser of two evils." Or mostly, they don't vote at all.

Well-meaning intentions and efforts aside -- by Rainbow Democrats, the New Party, the USA Greens, Labor Party Advocates, Ron Daniels and the Campaign for a New Tomorrow, scattered socialists and 21st Century Party feminists, and a handful of other local leftist electoral ventures -- present and past results illustrate the rule about winner take all voting systems: it is nearly impossible for third party or minority candidates to win a seat. By virtue of being a minority, such candidates simply cannot a ttract a majority of votes. A majority of votes is a heck of a lot of votes to win, requiring a large campaign war chest as well as "mainstreaming" of the candidate. Thus was born the "inside/outside" relationship with the Democratic Party.

Except that, increasingly, the strategy in winner take all elections is to try and attract a narrow band of "swing" voters, necessitating campaigns that are run on conservative issues like law and order, crime, deficits, reduction of taxes and government spending -- not exactly standard progressive fare. Lost are the voices of homeless advocates, jobs for inner-city youth, critics of environmental racism, labor advocates, class-based candidates, and more.

So what's a progressive to do? Caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of a Democratic Party that takes its left-wing constituency for granted -- since in a winner take all system there's nowhere else for lefties to go -- and the marginalized political l ife of a third party devotee without a prayer of ever electing someone, many progressive sympathizers apparently just stay home. And not just this year, but year after year as the U.S. -- indeed, most winner take all democracies -- rank among the lowest in terms of voter turnout.

There have been over a thousand third parties in the two hundred year history of the United States, but few were successful or endured. Winner-take-all is notoriously hostile to the success of third parties or independent candidacies, and U.S. voters hav e wandered in the "lesser of two evils" wilderness for two centuries.

The "Other" Game in Town

There is another voting system, used by most of the democracies in the world today, called proportional representation (PR). Under PR, legislators and political parties are elected from larger, multi-member districts in proportion to the number of votes r eceived. For example, with one type of PR (there are several, partisan and non-partisan), if there are ten legislative seats, thirty percent of the vote wins thirty percent -- three -- of the seats (whereas in a "winner take all" election that same thir ty percent wins zero seats). One need not come in first to win a seat. Generally, the number of votes needed to win under PR are less, and the geographic area from which a candidate or party can draw those votes is larger.

In PR democracies there are a number of predictable results: 1) more political choice for voters, including electable third, fourth, and fifth parties, independent candidates and more; 2) since there are more choices for the voter, engendering greater v oter enthusiasm rather than "the lesser of two evils" blues, eligible voter turn-outs are typically 70-90%; 3) because less votes per square area are needed to win, the amount of money a candidate needs to spend is correspondingly decreased; 4) PR gives w ider representation to class-based perspectives, racial and political minorities and women. In most PR countries women compose 25-40% of the national legislature, whereas in 1992 the U.S. broke out into great huzzahs of democratic fawning -- even boldly declaring it the "Year of the Women" -- when representation jumped to 6% women in the U.S. Senate and 11% in the House.

In short, PR ensures that the legislative body, whether federal, state or local, reflects the different perspectives present in the electorate. PR allows minority representation but majority rule. More than any single factor, PR elections in Germany have allowed the Greens to be a potent political force. The recent German elections gave its voters a range of credible choices and drew 79% eligible voter turnout. Six different parties won seats, even as over 80% of participating voters voted for one of t he two major parties. The Greens won about 8% of the popular vote, which was enough to expand their seats to 49 in the Bundestag. In U.S.-style winner take all elections, that same eight percent of the popular vote would have won the Greens a giant goos e egg.

By being represented in the Bundestag, the German Greens will have a national forum for their views, as well as a fighting chance to motivate and inspire their grass-roots constituency, and to expand their take of seats in subsequent elections. What's mo re, their constant presence in the Bundestag acts as a check against any rightward drift of the largest left party, the Social Democrats. If the Social Democrats ever adopt a course as conservative as Bill Clinton and the DLC, disenchanted voters have th e Greens and other left parties to turn to. The Greens have never won more than 10% of the national vote, yet they have exerted a powerful influence on German politics that is virtually unknown to leftists in this country. As a result of the Greens -- a s a result of proportional representation -- the German political center, indeed that of most of Europe, is enviably to the left of the U.S. political center.

PR Stirrings in the Tall Grass

Leading progressives like Lani Guinier, Jesse Jackson, Dolores Huerta, Ellie Smeal, Manning Marable and Joel Rogers have joined more centrist thinkers like John Anderson, Kevin Phillips and Hendrik Hertzberg in advocating consideration of proportional sys tems. The U.S. Greens, as well as the New Party and others, are on record as supporting a conversion to PR, though none have as yet begun organizing to make this happen. There is much untapped potential in grass-roots electoral campaigns for PR, since PR could be implemented in the U.S. without any constitutional amendments. All that is required is a change in the applicable laws, either by voter initiative or by act of the legislature, to elect each state's U.S. House delegation, state legislatures, cit y councils, and even the electors for the Electoral College, by PR.

Citizens for Proportional Representation (CPR), an organization in the state of Washington that advocates for alternatives to the winner take all voting system, has begun collecting signatures on a voters' initiative to change winner take all city council elections in Seattle to a form of PR used in Cambridge MA since 1941, known as preference voting. A citizen campaign in Cincinnati launched a similar effort in 1991, and not only got on the ballot but won 45% of the vote. There are other grass roots eff orts in various embryonic stages in the states of California, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Arizona, Minnesota and Wisconsin. At the core of much of this activity is The Center for Voting and Democracy, a Washington DC-based non-profit organization that educates about alternatives to the winner take all system. The Center, along with law professor Lani Guinier, has been promoting proportional systems as an effective and empowering means to enforce the Voting Rights Act in those places where race-conscio us districts have been challenged or thrown out by Federal courts.

U.S. progressives would do well to further investigate the possibilities presented by conversion from the winner take all voting system to PR. Sure, progressives and racial minorities can continue bailing water for the Democrats, and even sneak out a win ner-take-all victory here and there as a result of gerrymandered districts. But that kind of footing is not the solid foundation of a truly representative system. Not only would PR end the two party duopoly, but there is significant evidence that, given a level playing field, the political center would shift left. As Professor Douglas Amy points out in Real Choices, New Voices, his invaluable book on PR, studies have consistently shown that the 62% "no show" voters are those with lowest income and leas t education -- in other words, those with least reasons to be satisfied with the status quo. Given this, it is foolhardy for progressives to accept the present rules of the game.

The process of converting to PR may seem daunting, but not nearly so much as laboring forever in the increasingly barren wasteland of two party winner take all politics.

To find out more information about proportional representation voting systems, call or write The Center for Voting and Democracy, 6905 Fifth St. NW, Washington DC 20012, 202-882-7378.

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