British Electoral Reforms
By ROB RICHIE and STEVEN HILL
May Reveal US Future
Americans inherited much of our political system from Great Britain. Now,
the British "grandmother of democracies" is being transformed
in what may be its greatest political make-over since the signing of the
Magna Carta. There is much to learn from this historic "civic lessons
in action," including perhaps a glimpse of our own future.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair is leading his government's efforts designed
to modernize government. He is democratizing the House of Lords and creating
regional assemblies in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland to force the
central government to share more power.
Perhaps his most significant reform over time will be replacing "winner
take all" elections -- the approach we inherited from the British --
to proportional representation. Proportional representation (PR) describes
voting systems in which groupings of voters elect seats in proportion to
their share of the popular vote rather than be shut out of representation
if less than a majority. Ten percent of the vote wins 10% of the seats,
51% wins a majority and so on. Advocates contend PR produces more representative
legislatures and more majoritarian policy.
PR was used to elect the new regional assemblies in Northern Ireland, Scotland
and Wales and will be used for upcoming elections to the European Parliament
and London city council. A blue ribbon commission has recommended PR for
Britain's national legislature.
This month's elections in Scotland and Wales provide excellent examples
of PR's impact. Whatever complaints major party diehards might be voicing
about its fairer results, it was the ordinary voter who made the most gains.
Americans would do well to pay attention to this lesson, as our voter turnout
plummets to record lows like the paltry 5% in Dallas' mayoral election this
PR gave Scottish and Welsh voters unprecedented freedom to express their
political preferences and produce a more representative legislature. Without
PR, for example, the Labor Party in Scotland would have won three out of
four seats with less than 40% of the vote. Labor candidates instead took
43% of the seats. Without PR, the Conservatives would have been shut out.
With PR, they earned the third-largest bloc of seats.
PR also made it possible for Greens, socialists and supporters of Scottish
and Welsh independence to win a fair share of seats at the table. A record
number of women were elected, earning 38% of seats in Scotland and 40% in
Wales -- double the percentage in Britain's national legislature.
Such results speak directly to some of our own political problems. A fairer
balance of representation of major parties across the United States would
be healthier both for the urban areas dominated by Democrats and the rural
areas dominated by Republicans. Giving smaller parties a chance would bring
new ideas into politics and more voters to the polls, as most recently illustrated
by Jesse Ventura's campaign in Minnesota. Women surely should have more
than their current 12% share of Congress.
Proportional systems in fact already are taking root in American soil. Just
this past month, Amarillo, Texas, became the largest city to adopt cumulative
voting, a semi-proportional system that will be used for school board elections
in May 2000. Legislation to change winner-take-all elections is on the move
in several states.
With our British political forebears now having tested the waters of "fair
representation for all," one wonders when this latest anthem will also
hitch a ride across the Atlantic. Certainly the time is ripe for us to ask
just what kind of election methods we want: antiquated ones geared to the
18th century or more modern methods able to help us face the challenges
Rob Richie is executive director of The Center for Voting and Democracy
and Steven Hill is the Center's west coast director. They are co-authors
of "Reflecting All of Us" (Beacon Press 1999). For more information,
see www.fairvote.org or write to: PO Box 60037, Washington, DC 20039.
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