How to Fix American Government and Revive Democracy

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Proportional Representation Elections: Empowering More Voters

A final approach to revitalizing democracy in the United States is to change the voting system itself – the method that determines how we cast our votes for candidates and how the winners are decided. Our current winner-take-all voting system is one of the least representative and least democratic of all forms of elections. Adopting a better voting system could go along ways toward enhancing the political power of average citizens, and this would help to blunt the influence of private economic power.

We are so used to our current “winner-take-all” voting system that we fail to see its many problems. But most of the rest of the world consider our system to be outmoded and undemocratic, and have rejected it in favor of what are called “proportional representation” voting systems – or PR.5 In a winner-take-all system, legislators are elected one at a time in single-member districts. We cast our vote for our one favorite candidate, and the winner is the one who receives the most votes. Only those people who vote for the winning candidate receive representation. Proportional representation elections differ from this system in two-ways. First, instead of electing legislators in single-member districts, they are elected in larger, multi-member districts where several legislators are elected at once. So under PR rules, a state legislature of 100 members might be elected in 20 five-member districts, or 10 ten-member districts.

The second difference is that who wins the legislative seats in PR elections is determined by the proportion of the votes that a party receives. So if we have a ten-member PR district in which the Democrats won 50% of the vote, five Democratic candidates would win seats. With 30% of the vote, Republicans would get three seats. If minor parties like the Libertarians and the Greens were to receive 10% of the vote each, they each would get one seat.6 Thus, in PR, all voters win some representation – not just the majority – and all voters have someone to speak for their interests in the legislative process.

Adopting proportional representation elections in the United States would go a long ways toward ensuring that all citizens have their fair share of power in our legislatures. PR elections would create diverse legislatures that include both major and minor parties. This would ensure that all political groups – not just the well-off – would have a chance to influence legislation. PR would give more power and representation to groups who traditionally have lacked access to large amounts of private financial power. Currently, for instance, neither of the major parties are strong advocates for the interests of the working class and the poor – because both parties are largely beholden to wealthy contributors and PACs. But under PR rules, it is likely that something like a Labor Party or a Progressive Party would emerge in the U.S. – a party that explicitly champions the cause of the workers and the poor. And such a party would win seats in the legislature where it could work for policies that help that portion of our population. It is the presence of these kinds of parties in most Europeans countries – Labor Parties, Social Democratic Parties, etc. – that are largely the reason that those legislatures have passed more laws that help boost wages and provide more support for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.

Proportional representation elections would also encourage higher voter turnout and in this way make elections and government more democratic. The more people that participate in elections, the more representative the results will be, and the more likely that public policies will reflect the views of average Americans. One of the reasons why those who are well-off now have more political influence is that they turn out to vote in much higher numbers. Voter participation is much higher for those in the upper and middle classes than for moderate- and low-income voters. But this is understandable – given our current two-party, winner-take-all election arrangements. Those on the upper end of the economic ladder are much more likely to find candidates who support their interests. Struggling farmers and poor inner-city residents are much less likely to find a candidate or party who puts their interests first – and so they have much less reason to turn out to vote.

But as we’ve seen, under PR rules parties are likely to emerge to represent all economic interests – even those who are less well-off. This will encourage these voters to participate in larger numbers and thus give them more representation and influence in our legislatures.7 It is not a coincidence that in countries that use PR, there are not the same stark differences in turnout among the economic classes. Most people vote most of time in these countries. Turnout levels often approach 80% or more, in contrast to the 40%-50% rates typical here.

In short, adopting proportional representation elections in the United States would help to equalize the current imbalances of power in our political system. All groups – regardless of their numbers or financial resources – would have their fair share of seats in our legislatures and a better chance to influence public policy decisions. And the more accurately we represent all citizens in the governmental process, the better the chance for the passage of more broadly egalitarian policies that are in the public interest.

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