Proportional Representation Offers a Third Choice

by Steven Hill
This article was published in the Seattle Times, November 1992
It's election season again, and many voters groan as we engage in the familiar routine of selecting the lesser of two evils. Democrat or Republican, pick your poison. Not surprisingly, many begin to clamor for a third party, whether Green, Labor, United We Stand America, Democratic Socialist or NOW.

A solution is in sight, and it's called proportional representation. Surprisingly, scant little attention has been given to this tried-and-true passage out of the mud wrestling pit of our current political paralysis. Neither the mainstream press nor eve n the progressive/alternative press in the United States has given more than a passing mention, out of the reams that are printed daily, to the possibilities presented by that other type of odd electoral system that is already in use by, well, most of the world's major democracies.

The shortage of choices offered by the two parties in the United States is a by-product of our "winner take all" electoral system. Only the candidate who comes in first gets elected. In contrast, most of the world's major democracies employ a different type of electoral system called proportional representation. Under PR, legislative seats are allocated from multi-seat, at-large districts in proportion to the number of votes received by political parties or candidates. A party or candidate need not co me in first to win seats.

In contrast, under our "winner-take-all" system votes going to a losing candidate are wasted, even if that candidate garners 49.9% of the vote. This leaves significant blocs of voters unrepresented. Voters sense this, and so we often do not vote for a c andidate we like, but rather the one who realistically stands the best chance of winning. Or, all too often, we don't bother to vote at all. No wonder that, among the 21 democracies in Western Europe and North America, the United States is next to last i n voter turnout, with only 36% participating in the 1994 Congressional elections, and only 55% in the 1992 presidential election. In PR countries, voter turnout generally runs 70-90%!

Since voters in PR systems aren't so concerned about whether their candidates or party "win" the election, voters are more inclined to vote for whomever they like the most. As a result, there are more political parties and choices, from both the right an d left wings of the political spectrum; there is greater voter turnout and citizen participation; and there is greater representation of minorities and women in legislative bodies. In fact, of the 21 democracies in Western Europe and North America, the U .S. has one of the lowest representations of women in government. Only about 11% of our Congresspeople are women, compared with 41% in Sweden, 39% in Norway, and 26% in Germany.

Why settle for a two party duopoly, with both parties so beholden to Big Money that you can barely tell the difference between them? U.S. voters would never accept an economic system that allowed us to buy cars from only two companies, or to choose from o nly two airlines. Why then, should we have to settle for just two options in politics? It's no wonder such a large portion of the U.S. electorate decides not to participate. They're not buying what the two parties are selling!

Our "winner-take-all" system, which was inherited two centuries ago from Great Britain, is outdated. Most of the world's major democracies, including Germany, Spain, Sweden, Japan, Belgium, Denmark, Switzerland, Brazil, Nicaragua, Greece, Italy, Austria and many others have rejected the Great Britain/U.S. style "winner take all" system, and use some version of the more modern proportional representation system. And significantly, not one of the former Soviet Bloc countries, including Russia, have chosen to model their emerging democracies after the "winner take all" model. All have adopted some form of PR because they recognize the obvious: PR is a fairer, more flexible, more modern electoral system than the antiquated "winner take all" style.

So how does PR work? Instead of each district electing its own legislator, PR elects several legislators from larger super-districts. In each state, the various legislative districts would be combined together into one state-wide district or, for the la rger states, appropriate sub-divisions. Then, all national and state representatives within these super-districts are elected by one of several methods currently in use in various countries that ensures proportional representation. Let's say, for exampl e, there are ten legislative seats to be filled: a party or independent candidate would need ten percent of all votes to gain a seat. Thus, if a party receives 50% of the vote, they would be awarded 5 out of the 10 seats; if they receive 30% of the vote they would get 3 seats; 10% gets one seat and so on.

Proportional representation assures that each political party or organization will have the percent of legislative seats which reflects its public support. And this basic electoral change can be accomplished without any constitutional amendments. Only a change in applicable state laws is required. Using the voter initiative process, PR can be adapted to local, state and national levels, bringing the democratic promise of "one person, one vote" closer to fulfillment.

We need to replace our antiquated "winner take all" electoral system with proportional representation. There have been over one thousand third party efforts in the past two hundred years, all of which but one-- the Republican Party-- have ended in fail ure and obscurity. Without PR, third parties and candidates don't stand a chance of winning legislative seats in the United States.

The type of electoral system used is extremely important because it determines how our votes translate into actual political power. As we head into the 21st century, the United States needs a pluralistic political system that will both reflect the divers ity of our population and also allow our country to meet the complex challenges of a multicultural, multi-issue, international world.

Change is always scary, but we can take heart in the fact that much of the democratic world has already gone ahead of us.

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