Unrepresentative Democracy, Part 2: Proportional Representation

Subtitle: It’s not representative if it’s not proportional!

In Part 1 of our passionate ramblings about electoral systems, which you can read here, we argued strongly for the use of instant-runoff voting in all single-winner elections.

But there’s an additional problem that IRV alone doesn’t solve. When all representatives are elected in single-member districts (one person represents a certain amount of people), parties or political ideas that have significant support but aren’t popular enough to win a majority in any (or many) districts will be unrepresented or underrepresented in the legislature. For example, we can estimate that in the U.S., either the Green Party or the Libertarian Party would be the preferred choice of about 15% of voters each. Yet in our current system, both of these distinct (from each other and from the two big parties) ideologies are completely unrepresented in Congress. The Green Party (and others that might exist if the system made it possible) in Canada suffers from a similar problem.

The solution is proportional representation. If the Conservative Party gets 39.6% of the vote, it should get that portion of the seats in Parliament, not 54%. And if the Green Party (in either country, or any country) gets 12% (as it likely could if its votes weren’t disregarded by the electoral system) it should get that portion in the legislature (not the 0.4% it has in Canada and the 0.0% in the United States).

How does that work? The best way, in our humble but researched opinion, is that used to elect Germany’s Bundesdag and New Zealand’s Parliament, known as mixed-member proportional representation (MMP). When you vote in this system, you cast two votes on the same ballot. The first column or question is for your local representative (which could – should – be done with IRV). The second is for a party or other political grouping. Those parties that are underrepresented in the geographically bound (local) seats (as determined by their share of the party vote) receive extra seats until their total share is equivalent to their proportion of the vote. In this way, the system maintains the connection between voters and their single local representative (something lost in some proportional systems where a single voter is represented by a dozen or more legislators), while also ensuring that the total make-up of the legislature reflects the preferences of the voters.

German MMP ballotNew Zealand MMP sample ballot

Awesomely, with MMP even voters whose preferred candidates/parties are assured to lose locally (think Republicans and Greens in Massachusetts or Democrats or Libertarians in Alabama) still get to have an impact on the overall outcome of the election, because their opinion is reflected in the party vote which determines the overall balance of power. This is immensely different from the current first-past-the-post system where anyone who votes for a losing candidate is completely irrelevant. Also, it means it makes sense to show up and vote even if you know your candidate will win locally (Democrats in Massachusetts and Republicans in Alabama), because your party vote still helps determine the overall make-up of the legislature. This means the number of “wasted” votes goes down from at least 50% (all of the losers + the superfluous winners) in the current system to the way smaller number of the remainders chopped off during rounding in a proportional system.

And now for some general thoughts. No changes to the mechanics of the electoral system will change the fact that people’s voting preference are often influenced by the money and misinformation that characterize our political campaigns, especially in the States. But they will go a long way to ensuring that our representative bodies are much more accurate representations of the voting preferences of those who are allowed to and bother to turn out.

Note that the multi-party systems encouraged (in practice, guaranteed) by these changes also serve to break down the “with-us-or-against-us” mentality so prevalent in two-party systems. Already in Canada people have a more nuanced view of politics than we’ve seen in the US and we think it’s partially attributable to a three party system that necessitates the creation of mental categories other than just saviors and enemies. Pluralistic (multi-party) systems encourage parties to work together to form governing coalitions when no single party has a majority. Additionally, the presence of ideological minorities in legislatures and meaningfully in campaigns can help to broaden the spectrum of opinion and political discourse to which the public is exposed and that informs policy decisions. Finally, and very importantly, an electoral system whose results better reflect the breadth of opinion in the electorate tends to motivate higher participation in elections and in the political system more generally, as it’s less exclusive of those who don’t fit in the two (or three) party box or those who don’t happen to live in competitive districts/ridings.

I reiterate, because I think this is really important: better electoral systems like MMP don’t automatically reduce corruption or make for better policy outcomes. But they do make a society and its government more democratic – more representative of the opinions of its people. And they don’t so brutally ignore the basic logic of a system that purports to represent the voting public.

– Adam
Vancouver, BC, Portland, OR, and San Francisco, CA

P.S. The U.S. government shutdown wouldn’t exist without our current electoral system! The Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which has caused this shutdown because they don’t like a law passed three years ago, is only Republican-controlled because we don’t have proportional representation. In 2012, Republicans only received 46.9% of House votes (1.7 million less than the Democrats) but won 234 seats (53.8%). That’s what we get without proportional representation (and with gerrymandering): the party with fewer votes controls the House of Representatives and shuts down the government. At least we got to have the amazing experience of surreptitiously exploring Crater Lake National Park.

Crater Lake trail sign
Crater Lake lake


One thought on “Unrepresentative Democracy, Part 2: Proportional Representation

  1. Pingback: What are you looking for, Adam? | sowmanyreasons

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