British Electoral Reforms
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 month.

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 of today.

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 or write to: PO Box 60037, Washington, DC 20039.

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