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 country.

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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