Proportional representation

The most powerful single reform we could pass to make our elections more genuinely democratic!

With proportional representation the proportion of the seats each political parties holds in a legislative body is equal to the percentage of the total number of votes cast received by that political party.  If a party gets 50% of the votes, that party should get 50% of the seats.  If a party gets 10% of the vote, that party should get 10% of the seats.

Proportional Representation Described

Advantages of Proportional Representation

As an added benefit, proportional representation makes it easier for independent candidates to win election.  With over 40% of the electorate describing themselves as independent voters, this is an important consideration.

The combination of winner-take-all elections and single-member districts is the root cause of the most serious problems with our elections.  Gerrymandering, the corrupting effects of money, the prevalence of “attack ads” combined with a lack of any serious discussion of issues, and the media focus on polls and campaign finance reports make matters worse.

Congress has an approval rating of somewhere between 9% and 14% (according to various surveys) and yet most incumbents who run for re-election, win.  Studies have demonstrated that what voters want Congress to do has no statistically significant effect on the legislation actually passed by Congress and that there is a strong correlation between what large donors want Congress to do and the legislation that is passed by Congress.  This is a broken system.

Proportional representation is the solution.  It is a more genuinely democratic means of electing representatives to Congress and state legislatures.

The benefits of proportional representation are not theoretical, they are based on observed experience.  Although most voters in the United States are unfamiliar with this alternative means of electing a legislative body, it is not a new or untested system.  Over ninety countries around the world have some form of proportional representation.  More than eighty of those countries use some form of the “ordered list” method incorporated in our ballot initiatives.

There are a lot of advantages to a proportional system of representation:

  • It is more genuinely democratic.  Each party gets a proportion of the seats in a legislative body based on the percentage of voters who favor that party’s platform and ideas.  All voters are represented, not just those who voted for the winning candidate in a single-member district.
  • It ends gerrymandering (the drawing of district lines in a manner designed to favor incumbents and/or one political party over another – see footnote below).
  • Voters have a much broader choice of candidates in primary elections.
  • Since voters choose between ordered lists of candidates for each party in the general election, instead of voting for individual candidates, the focus is shifted to party platforms and the ideas and issues expressed there.
  • This focus on issues (and party platforms) makes “attack ads” essentially pointless.
  • Proportional representation makes it possible for third party and independent candidates to win seats in a legislature.  Giving voters a much broader range of choices with regard to which political party bests represents each voters’ views, values, and interests.
  • A broader range of candidates to choose from in primary elections, coupled with more third party and independent candidate participation, leads to a much broader range of ideas and viewpoints to a legislative body.
  • It breaks the stranglehold of the two major parties.  History has proven that a “winner-take-all” system invariably leads to a two-party system (or a one-party system).  Countries with some form of proportional representation invariably have more than two parties represented in the legislature.
  • The need to form coalitions, often on an issue-by-issue basis in legislative bodies with multiple parties favors parties that are willing to compromise, which requires cooperation and communication between members of different parties.  This, in turn, favors moderation over extremism within political parties.

A “winner-take-all” electoral system invariably leads to two major parties and the views of voters casting votes for a losing candidates are essentially unrepresented.  In many districts one of the two major parties will be dominant.  This is especially true if district lines have been drawn to favor one party over the other (gerrymandered).  Furthermore, this tendency of single party dominance in a district also tends to be more pronounced in smaller districts.  In general elections, voters from the smaller major party, independent voters, and voters who belong to, or support, third parties, are effectively disenfranchised.  This severely depresses voter turn-out.

Gerrymandering involves the manipulation of the boundaries of an electoral district or constituency so as to favor one political party over another.  The net result is “safe” districts for the candidates (usually incumbents) of one party or the other.  This often leads to only token opposition for candidates from the opposing party.  It is difficult for candidates with little chance of winning to raise the money needed to run an effective campaign.  It effectively disenfranchises independent voters and voters who support the party that has little chance of winning.

Although gerrymandering in the U. S. at this time typically favors the Republican Party, this is not always the case.  Republicans in Massachusetts consistently get about 40 percent of the votes cast in congressional elections, yet all nine of the representatives from Massachusetts in the U. S. House are Democrats.

While various methods of drawing legislative district lines can minimize the effects of gerrymandering, constructing districts that do not favor one major party over the other can be extremely difficult.  Even a truly impartial method for drawing district lines is not likely to resolve the problems created by the winner-take-all system.  And we do need to resolve those problems.  With Democratic voters typically concentrated in urban areas and the Republican Party showing more strength in suburban and rural areas, drawing legislative district boundaries that would result in a legislature that accurately reflects the overall partisan make-up of a state would require just as many twists and turns and strangely drawn districts as is created with gerrymandering.

Proportional representation within multi-member districts puts an end to the negative effects of gerrymandering, resulting in legislative bodies that more accurately reflect the political values and beliefs of the entire population of a state.

Proportional representation would give voters throughout a state a much broader range of choices for who will represent them in the government.  Each party would put together an ordered list of candidates based on the results of a primary election, caucus, convention, or some combination thereof.  In the general election, voters would vote for a political party (and its ordered list of of up to eight potential representatives) or for a single independent candidate (who would be placed on the ballot if the required number of signatures is gathered by, or on behalf of, the candidate).

Political scientists overwhelmingly agree that proportional representation is more genuinely democratic than a winner-take-all system – resulting in legislative bodies that more accurately represent the will and the interests of all of the people.  Everyone is represented.  Not just the voters who support the majority party.  The resulting legislative body is more reflective of (and thus more truly representative of) the electorate as a whole.

Proportional representation shifts the focus of the discussion during an election to party platforms and thereby shifts the focus to issues.  This makes it more difficult for media to focus on poll results and money raised and minimizes the effectiveness of attack ads. 

With proportional representation, voters have a much broader range of choices with regard to which candidates or political party will represent them.

Ranked-choice voting makes it somewhat easier for independent candidates and third parties to win election to state-wide offices.

A limited number of choices is one of numerous problems created by “gerrymandering.”  When legislative district lines are drawn to protect, or favor, one party over all others, it is hard for other parties to recruit good candidates.  Any candidates who do decide to run have great difficulty raising the money needed to run a viable campaign or get volunteers to work for them, since they have no realistic chance of winning.  As a result, voters are often left with no meaningful choice with regard to who will “represent” them.

According to a poll conducted by the New York Times, 85% of voters would prefer to have more than two parties to choose from.  In a poll conducted by GBA Strategies, 73% of respondents favored ending “gerrymandering” – with only 13% opposed (and 14% neutral or no response).  That included 81% of Democratic voters, 70% of independents, and 67% of Republican voters.