Explaining Proportional Representation
By Robert Richie
A new year is well underway and yes, the rhetoric is heating up about a
new century and a new millennium. Looking at electoral politics, here is
a short explanation of why I and many others at the Center for Voting and
Democracy believe that "proportional representation" is so important
for reviving citizen participation, building community and moving us toward
many of the other good things that President Bill Clinton called for as
he began his second term in office.
The term "proportional" is one of those words that can hit you
with a thud. But what it means is simply this: Votes count. Groups of voters
-- "groups" as defined by how they vote -- win their "fair
share" of representation because most people gain the power to elect
a representative. In a partisan election, a political party that wins 10%
of the vote wins at least 10 out of 100 seats. A political party that wins
55% of the vote wins at least 55 seats. Depending on the "threshold
of representation" -- the percentage of the vote necessary to win a
seat -- virtually all voters will have their votes count toward a representative
with the power of a voice and a vote in a legislature. And they will cast
their "effective" vote after considering viable choices from across
the political spectrum.
The principle behind proportional representation -- "PR" -- is
similar to that of a town meeting: as many voices as possible deserve to
be heard, and then a majority should decide policy. If you shut people out
of the hall before you make decisions, your debate is diminished, your "majority"
is artificial and your community is fractured.
In the concrete reality of American democracy today, you also will let those
who already hold elected positions structure your electoral "choices"
through the manner of drawing their legislative district lines -- lines
that put most would-be voters in one-party strongholds. And you turn political
debate into an all-too-often shallow charade targeted to a small group of
"swing voters" rather than the more ideologically-grounded majority.
There is no one system of proportional representation. Systems vary widely.
Concerns people might have about the use of proportional representation
in a particular nation easily can be addressed by mechanisms used in another
Most true representative democracies use PR. Of the 37 democracies in the
world with at least two million inhabitants and with a high rating ("1"
or "2") from the human rights organization Freedom House, 31 use
a form of PR for elections to their national legislature, and another two
use a form of PR for at least some national elections. The hold-outs? The
United Kingdom and former colonies Canada, Jamaica and the United States.
(Some other British colonies with lower ratings from Freedom House use U.S.-style
elections -- they include India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.)
Let's turn to two recent elections that show the distortions of the electorate's
views that usually come with winner-take-all voting systems. First, here
are the Japanese results from its October 1996 elections. Japan elected
300 legislators from U.S.-style, one-seat districts, and added 200 seats
elected from party lists allocated by proportional representation according
to the party vote. Voters cast one vote for their district representative
and one vote for party list representatives. Results were tallied separately
unlike in some "mixed member" systems.
The results show that the Liberal Democrat Party -- the party that has run
Japan for virtually the entire post-World War II period -- won less than
one in three votes cast in the party list vote. But the party won close
to three in five of the district seats and ended up with 48% of all seats,
just shy of a majority.
Even the generally-poor coverage of the Japanese elections in the U.S. media
-- any straightforward explanation of different electoral systems is beyond
the ability of most American reporters -- has supported the view that Japan
is probably better off with the LDP not winning a majority of seats -- that
it now will be more responsive. But if only U.S.-style districts had been
used, the LDP probably would have won a very comfortable majority.
Rob Richie is executive director of The Center for Voting and Democracy.
Phone 202-882-7378; email 75377.1623@CompuServe.COM>
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