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Proportional Representation and the End of Winner-Takes-All Elections - BCB #74
Plus: how to talk to cynical people about systemic reform
Proportional representation is a different way of electing representatives that might be a way out of our polarizing politics. This is not as unlikely as it might sound — Americans are sick of politics, the most commonly cited reason is polarization, and there seems to be some appetite for electoral reform. The Democracy Journal devoted their most recent issue to the idea, and today we’re highlighting four of the most interesting pieces.
Proportional representation and polarization
Proportional representation (PR) awards legislative seats to political parties according to the percentage of votes they receive. This is different to our current first-past-the-post system, where parties automatically win all of the seats in each district or state by securing a majority.
Jennifer McCoy argues that our current electoral system has created a dividing line of partisanship–the root cause of unhealthy polarization. In this winner-takes-all system, voters who choose a losing party don’t feel represented, and are forced to pick one of two sides.
In a PR system, it's less about a race to win the majority first because every vote results in a proportional number of seats. Any party that wins a majority of votes still wins the most seats, but no votes are “lost” when a party fails to get a majority in a district. This would allow moderate and independent parties to rise, mitigate protest votes (“if Bernie can’t win, I’ll vote for Trump”), and perhaps break the binary Red vs Blue paradigm.
Daniel Stid wrote about how PR could create space for coalitions of centrist and moderates. This would allow them to take a balanced and bespoke approach to policy making, instead of being in lockstep with their party’s ideological position — a position that is often arbitrarily defined to oppose the other party.
For example, immigration policy in a coalition doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing: it’s possible to combine tighter border control with improved access to citizenship. To balance the budget, spending cuts can be combined with revenue enhancing measures. PR might defuse ideological decision making, and make more room for pragmatic and case-by-case interventions.
Guy-Uriel Charles and Luis Fuentes-Rohwer explain how a proportional system could even help to strengthen minority representation.
A proportional system would ensure that voters of color gain seats in proportion to their electoral strength. For example, in a proportional system, if Black voters constitute 40 percent of the electorate and they vote cohesively, the Black community is likely to receive 40 percent of seats. At the very least, a proportional system will be able to deal with the problem of racial gerrymandering and the dilution of Black voting power.
The not-so-great parts of PR
While this sounds promising, Ruth Bloch Rubin and Gregory Elinson write about the drawbacks and risks. Practically, there’s a lot that could make PR unrealistic. Having a multi-party system would probably compound Congress’ existing problem of making a decision with any effective consensus.
For example, how does a House speaker get chosen? How would any deals be struck without majorities when party alliances don’t form? With PR systems in parliamentary governments, there’s more room to negotiate power between coalitions to create a majority voting bloc. But since the U.S. has an executive branch, a divided multi-party Congress might free the President to act unilaterally, for better or worse, as was the case in Brazil. The current two-party system at least helps with efficiency; legislators cannot afford to spend more time navigating multi-party majorities.
PR also won’t necessarily make everyone less ideologically driven:
However difficult it is for lawmakers to act collectively today—and we think there is strong evidence that it is quite difficult—doing so in a system with multiple parties and proportional representation is, at minimum, unlikely to be any easier. [...] To the extent that parties are in it for themselves—that is, that lawmakers are interested in the fate of their party team and not just the ideas it promotes—we should not expect a multiparty Congress to be any better at resolving its collective action and coordination dilemmas.
How to communicate about systemic reform
Whether you think proportional representation is worth trying or not, we still think it’s important to bring electoral reform into the conversation – there are other potentially depolarizing proposals such as ranked choice voting.
With this in mine, the Frameworks Institute recently suggested some conversational approaches to reduce cynicism and open up space for systemic reform. The idea is to meet people’s frustration with proposals for positive change. For example, many people feel “the system is rigged,” but “how the system is rigged, and what can be done to unrig it … is not well understood.” Similarly, the focus on individual politicians can be met with a discussion of the importance of elections, and rather than seeing politics as “the people” vs.“the government” we can encourage people to get involved in building the government they wish they had.
Quote of the Week
Compared to the world’s other mature democracies, [the U.S. is] among the most diverse. We are also attempting an unprecedented large-scale experiment in representative self-government. Facilitating self-government among a group of people with different and sometimes antagonistic histories—some of whom are descendants of enslaved people or of enslavers, some of whom were denied the privilege of American citizenship because of their race, ethnicity, or country of origin, some of whom arrived recently while others predated the founding—requires electoral structures that are suited to the task.