Make Voting More Fair

Latest Proportional Representation News

If you are pro-democracy, then you support some form of proportional representation. Here is a bundle of recent news about proportional representation, sent to us by the Center for Voting and Democracy.

The principle of proportional representation (PR) is that political parties and like-minded groups of voters should win seats in proportion to their support among voters: 51% of votes should win a little more than half of seats, not all seats, and 20% of votes should win one of five seats rather than none. PR can be understood as "full representation" -- most voters will win representation, in contrast to "winner-take-all" elections in which the largest group of voters can win all representation.

Two conferences on proportional representation this fall. The first conference will take place on September 12-13 in San Francisco. The second conference will take place on November 13-15 in Minneapolis.

An exciting mix of grassroots reformers, scholars, public interest leaders and civil rights activists. This year's conferences will have a regional focus, but expect to draw panelists and participants from around the country, with a particular interest in assisting reformers as we approach the year 2000 and the next reapportionment of legislative districts. For information on the San Francisco conference, please send e-mail to Caleb Kleppner ( or call Steven Hill (415-665-5044). For information on the Minneapolis conference, please send e-mail to Tony Solgard (

Several major books and magazine articles have been published in recent months with excellent information on proportional representation. Among these are:

University of Pennsylvania law professor Lani Guinier has received well-deserved attention in recent weeks for her book in a range of television and radio forums. Others talking up PR recently include documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, who has been touting his new documentary "The Big One."

Hendrik Hertzberg has woven in arguments for PR in several commentaries in the "New Yorker" magazine. An April 20 commentary included the following:

Legislation. Congress continues to debate legislation on campaign finance reform, but now has an opportunity to consider proportional representation as well. The Voters' Choice Act (HR 3068) would allow states to use PR systems to elect their Members to the U.S. House of Representatives -- this is an option that states had as recently as 1967. Thirteen House Members currently have sponsored the bill. See our web site for more information on the Voters' Choice Act and how you can help -- letters to your representatives and to organizations you would like to support the bill would be much-appreciated.

For a packet of information that includes a ready-to-use postcard for your House Member, please send your name and snailmail address to:

Redistricting. North Carolina's congressional districts may have been the subject of more litigation and controversy in the 1990's than any redistricting plan in American history. The legislature went through a laborious process in drawing its original plan for the 1992 elections. That plan became the subject of the "Shaw v. Reno" Supreme Court ruling in 1993 that raised constitutional questions about using race as a factor in drawing districts.

The plan ultimately was thrown out in a 1996 Supreme Court ruling. In 1997 the state legislature crafted a new plan with the explicitly stated purpose of protecting all of the state's incumbents. After receiving approval from one three-judge panel last fall, this plan recently was rejected by a new panel, and the state is once again back to the drawing board.

A number of states are now in the position of being sued no matter what they do in redistricting, while the Voting Rights Act has been weakened by rulings that term it legal to protect incumbents in redistricting, but illegal to seek to enforce provisions in the Voting Rights Act to facilitate political power for racial minorities. Because PR systems provide a practical alternative to single-member districts, they are drawing increasing attention. We proposed a modest, semi- PR plan for North Carolina of four, three-seat districts in which 25% of voters could elect one seat and 50% could elect two seats. The plan has drawn favorable attention from both the chief plaintiff who opposes the current districting plan and the black Member of Congress who represents the disputed district. The "Charlotte Observer," one of the state's most respected newspapers, on April 24 editorialized as follows:

Note that three-seat districts are too small a constituency size for a fully proportional system and that cumulative voting is not an ideal system. But the positive history of Illinois' use of such a plan is an important one to build upon.

"Instant Runoff Voting" Makes Headway. Instant runoff voting is not strictly a PR system, but opens winner-take-all elections to more participation while ensuring that winners can gain majority support. Instant runoff voting (IRV) legislation has now been introduced in three states -- Texas, Vermont and New Mexico -- and definitely "tested" well in 1998.

In New Mexico's short session, a constitutional amendment was proposed to create an option for localities to use IRV and to enact IRV for statewide offices such as governor. The state's Common Cause chapter endorsed the measure, as did two former governors (a Democrat and a Republican), reformers created excellent materials, several key legislative leaders signalled support and the Senate Rules Committee passed the bill. It died on a 4-4 vote in another committee, however, and the session was too short for its revival -- but prospects look hopeful for 1999.

The Vermont bill not only called for enacting IRV for statewide offices, but for federal elections, including that of president. As in New Mexico, the Common Cause state affiliate endorsed the measure. A committee held several hearings on the bill and recommended that a citizens commission be formed to study it. That commission will begin its work later this year.

The Texas bill would have allowed localities to replace traditional runoffs with IRV. It was introduced in 1997, but there was no session in 1998. The bill likely will be re- introduced in 1999, and supporters are optimistic. Legislators in at least three other states are considering IRV legislation.

PR systems Advancing Across United Kingdom. In the last year, forms of proportional representation have been enacted for new regional assemblies in Scotland, Wales, London (where the mayor will be elected by a form of instant runoff voting) and, most recently, Northern Ireland. In addition, European parliamentary elections in the UK will be held by PR in 1999, while a commission has been formed with the task of recommending a new voting system for electing the House of Commons -- its recommendation likely will be put before voters in a national referendum to be held by 2000.

It is instructive that PR systems made sense to participants in all of these different situations. The Northern Ireland agreement might be particularly pertinent in American cities where racial and ethnic differences have been sources of bitterness and division. If the peace plan is approved, as expected, the new legislature will be elected in 18 districts of six member each. The PR system will be choice voting, a candidate-based system also known as preference voting and single transferable vote. Choice voting is well-liked in the Republic of Ireland. Earlier in the century it was upheld in two national referendums, and a recent constitutional commission noted its popularity. The 1997 parliamentary elections were instructive -- particularly in how the system eases polarization. There are 41 constituencies in Ireland with three, four or five representatives. Using choice voting in such constituencies creates "winning thresholds" (the percentages of votes a candidates needs to win a seat) of between 17% (when there are 5 seats) and 25% (when there are three seats).

Each of these constituencies have representatives from at least two parties. Supporters of the largest single party (Fianna Fael) elected at least one representative in every district, while the second largest party has representation in 37 of the 41 constituencies. Smaller parties also won a fair number of seats, but choice voting hasn't mean the "breakdown" of a two-party system. Rather, it has created a competitive two-party system, both in the sense that every constituency has healthy competition and that the major parties have enough competition to ensure responsiveness to their core supporters.

Ireland certainly has done well economically in the last two decades -- its economy has been the fastest-growing in Europe, to the point that its gross domestic product is higher than that of the United Kingdom on a per capita basis. The voters have kept legislators working hard, however -- no incumbent government has won re-election in two decades. The combination of every constituency having representatives from more than one party and both parties having a recent history of governing the country has certainly created a less polarized political environment than here. In contrast to Ireland, it is very rare for a party to lose control of Congress (it has happened once in 44 years), while most districts are one-party fiefdoms.

And note -- Proportional representation systems are used in most well- established democracies. In fact, of the 36 democracies with a top rating from the human rights group Freedom House and with at least two million people, 34 use a form of PR for at least one of their national elections. In 1997, one of the largest nations in the world, the Ukraine, replaced its winner-take-all system with a "mixed member" form of PR; this system was used for the first time in March 1998.

For more information, visit the Center for Voting and Democracy website

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