Would America benefit from proportional representation?


Before I get into the positives and negatives that come with using such a system, an explanation of our current system is in order.  Currently, the United States uses a system called Single Member District Plurality (SMDP).  The system is pretty self-explanatory: an election for one member of a legislature or local council is decided by whoever has the most votes, regardless of whether the top finisher gets 50 percent of the vote.  The only states where this is not the case is in Louisiana and Washington, where the top two vote getters in all elections proceed to a runoff election if no one gets above 50 percent of the vote (with the passing of Proposition 14, California will also be added to this list).  The SMDP system is also used in the United Kingdom, Canada, and South Korea.

There are obvious negatives with the current system, and the case that best describes this to me is the case in Minnesota.  In Minnesota, there has not been an election where a gubernatorial candidate has garnered over 50 percent of the vote in sixteen years, with no guarantee that it will happen this year, either.  This is because of the presence of a moderately strong third party, the Independence Party of Minnesota.  This is the party that former Gov. Jesse Ventura switched to after the Reform Party was taken over by people loyal to Pat Buchanan at the national level.  Speaking of Ventura, in 1998, he won election as Minnesota Governor with only 37 percent of the vote.  In 2002, its candidate, former U.S. Rep. Tim Penny (DFL-MN), pulled in 16 percent of the vote as State Rep. Tim Pawlenty (R-Eagan) was elected Governor with 44 percent of the vote.  In 2006, the Independence Party’s candidate was Peter Hutchinson, a former Finance Commissioner and superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools.  Like Penny, Hutchinson was a moderate liberal who favored some cuts in spending and some raised taxes in order to stabilize the state’s revenue flow.  He garnered six percent in the general election, but in an election decided by 20,000 votes, his entry in the race kept the winning total for Gov. Pawlenty under 50 percent (46.7 percent).  With the presence of a third party candidate this year, there is no guarantee that the DFL candidate for Governor, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, or the Republican candidate for Governor, State Rep. Tom Emmer, will get above 50 percent of the vote this go-around either, barring some unforeseen landslide.  That would mean that three consecutive governors will not be able to claim a majority mandate from Minnesotans, which can hamper the ability to garner support on public policy initiatives.

While you may see this scenario play out on occasion in America, the United Kingdom sees this every national election.  The winners of the past six national elections have won 42.4 (1987; Thatcher’s final victory), 41.9 (1992; Major’s surprise come-from-behind victory), 43.2 (1997; Blair’s landslide for Labour), 40.7 (2001; Blair’s re-election), 35.2 (2005; Blair and Labour hang on), and 36.1 (2010; the hung election).  In fact, no party has won the general election with more than 50 percent of the vote in the United Kingdom since the 1931 general election, where Stanley Baldwin won a majority with 55 percent of the vote after Labour and the left completely collapsed in the wake of the Great Depression.  While this is due to the strong position of third parties (Liberal, Social Democrats, Liberal Democrats), can someone like current Prime Minister David Cameron claim a mandate from the British people?

A move to proportional representation would fix this.  There are three types of proportional representation:

1. Party list system

  • In a party list system, you vote for either a party (closed list) or for people within a party as to determine who will represent that party in your constituency if it wins the general election (open list).  In this system, there is typically a threshold that a party must reach in order to enter the legislature (usually around 5-10 percent).

2. Mixed-member

  • This method of proportional representation combines aspects of both PR and SMDP in various ways.  Say, the lower legislative body elected through PR and the upper body elected through SMDP.

3. Single Transferable Vote

  • Under this system, there is a quota of votes that must be met in order to win election.  If there is only one winner in Round 1, but you need three, the second preference votes are then counted for each candidate.  This continues until three winners are certified for the election.

By choosing either one of these systems, the United States can gain incalculable benefits:

1. Political Culture

  • Currently, the political culture in America is dominated by hyperpartisanship.  There is no sense of coalition building and coming together for a common purpose.  Because we only have two parties that have never been forced to compete with other parties for votes, the political market has become stagnant and stale.  Under a PR system, the two parties may be forced to contend with multiple parties on the left, center, and right.  By having to form coalitions and work with parties that may not necessarily be line with the dominant party orthodoxy, you may begin to see……compromise?  No way.

2. Fewer disaffected voters

  • How many times have we been bombarded by the adages, “I held my nose as I voted” or “I voted for the lesser of two evils”?  This can develop into a real problem, as people may begin to drop out of the electoral system wholesale because they feel like no party truly fits them.  If these voters start to feel like a Socialist Party, a Conservative Party, or a Independence Party has a chance of forming the balance of real power in a legislature (and not just fulfilling a spoiler role), they may start voting in greater numbers, and we may see our democracy flourish on the level that we see in nations such as Italy and France.

3. A more collaborative legislative process

  • This would come from the coalitions that would have to be formed in order for the various parties to maintain majority control.  If the Democratic Party and to form a coalition with an American Socialist Party or a Labor Party, would we still be middling around in our regulation of banks or protections for workers after two years of economic collapse?  If the Republican Party had to join with an Independence Party, would they actually moderate their stance on immigration and get a plan done?  These scenarios have never happened, so we do not know.  But to say that the legislative process would remain the same after an infusion of competition in the marketplace of ideas is a little naïve.

While there are some negatives as well (the possibility of unstable government or the possibility of parties on the extremes managing to cobble together a majority), the potential for positives outweigh these.  Also, our culture of political stability relative centrism would not allow for extremists to manage a government.  However, if we can provide the framework for a proliferation of political ideologies and bring more people into the democratic process, then perhaps we can finally lay a rightful claim to having a government that is truly representative of all its citizens.


3 Responses to Would America benefit from proportional representation?

  1. Troy says:

    In addition to other commonly cited downsides, one issue I have is that (as we have seen repeatedly) it is important to vote for the individual rather than party. People’s decisions often depend on the specific individual and whatever unique mix of issues they bring to the table.

  2. Michael says:

    How does a PR system correct the problem you led off with? The PM in the UK was only decided after the third-place party sided with the Conservatives, giving the least-popular party and candidate enormous power to essentially decide the outcome and earn the second most powerful seat. And how about Israel’s most recent elections, where Tzipi Livni’s party won a plurality, but couldn’t put together a coalition and therefore left the PM to Netanyahu, even though his party came in second? Remember how much sand people got in their lady parts because Gore won the popular vote in 2000, but lost under the current system? That same thing can easily occur in a PR system.

    And shouldn’t this post have been called “Proportional Representation, Considered”? Or did you finally realize what a dumb gimmick that was?

    • Douglas says:


      “In a period of polarization, respectful discussion of the issues is difficult to find. The goal of The Political Panorama is to bring together contributors of differing perspectives to provide a well-rounded respectful discourse.”

      That is on our blog’s Facebook page. It is an ideal that we try to uphold here on our blog. Your comment was completely fine (flawed argumentation perhaps, but fine nevertheless) until those last two lines, which were wholly unnecessary. My blogging style is what it is and I will not change that for you or anybody else. So if you do not like it, might I suggest three options:

      1. Do not comment on/read our blog.
      2. Start your own blog with a writing style that you feel is more becoming.
      3. Read our posts and express your opinions in a respectful manner.

      I hope that this is the last time that I have to post this, since I think that you are old enough and capable enough to show someone with a differing opinion some measure of respect.

      Good day to you.

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