Proportional representation (PR) is a Congressional or Parliamentary voting system where representation is allocated proportionally across multiple candidates or parties. The most common PR system is the Party List system, where people vote for parties instead of candidates. Established western countries like Italy, Switzerland, Canada, and more use a proportional representation voting systems.
This is different from the American system, called plurality, where a Congressional candidate who receives the most votes in a district wins outright. This means that if a Congressional district votes 60% Republican and 40% Democrat, the Republican candidate wins, and 40% of that district is represented by a candidate they didn’t choose. America should consider proportional representation or continue to misrepresent its citizens and their ultimate desires.
How Proportional Representation Works
Proportional representation (PR) is a voting system used by many western countries to elect representative members of Congress or Parliament. In the Party List PR system, votes – and therefore representation – are allocated proportionally across political parties, allowing the parties themselves to appoint candidates once votes are tallied. The result of PR is a Congress or Parliament that better represents its constituents and allows for more than two parties.
To achieve this, Congressional districts are typically given a total number of seats. For example, let’s say a district uses the PR system and is given 10 Congressional seats for representation. If 40% of the district’s constituents vote Republican and 60% vote Democrat, then four seats and six seats are awarded to the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively. This ensures the minority party in a given district is still represented in Congress.
What’s more, PR even allows for the fair representation of three or more parties. Typically, PR systems have a minimum threshold for representation, usually around 5 percent. Using the example above, if there were three parties on the ballot instead of two, and voters in the same district voted 50% Democrat, 40% Republican, and 10% Independent, the seats would be allocated proportionally – five Democrat, four Republican, and one Independent.
The benefits can be extrapolated even further. For example, in a “winner-take-all” or plurality system like in the United States, a Congressional candidate in a district can win without a majority vote. This means that if a district votes 30% Republican, 25% Democrat, 25% Independent, and 20% Libertarian, the Republican candidate wins outright, even with only 30% of the total votes. This is avoided in a PR system, where all four parties would be represented.
How Proportional Representation Differs From American Politics
The United States uses the plurality or winner-take-all system of voting for members of Congress. In this system, the candidate who receives the most votes in a district wins outright and is awarded representation for the entire district. This means that if 51% of people vote for Party A and 49% of people vote for Party B, nearly half the people in that district are misrepresented by a candidate they didn’t choose.
This plurality system is also notorious for rewarding minority victors. For example, if there are three candidates on a ballot representing three separate parties, it’s possible for a candidate to win with as little as 33.4% of the total votes. This is because if votes are allocated 33.4% to Candidate A, 33.3% to Candidate B, and 33.2% to Candidate C, Candidate A would win.
The disparity becomes even more pronounced when you add more candidates or parties. For example, with four candidates to choose from, all someone needs to win outright is 25.1% of the votes. With five, that number lowers to just above 20 percent. This means that as many as 80% of a Congressional district can be represented by someone for whom they didn’t vote. While this hasn’t occurred in the U.S., it’s been seen in countries like Russia and remains a possibility.
The end result is a political system that naturally limits the number of legitimate parties and grossly misrepresents its constituents. This is different from proportional representation, where many of these issues are resolved. Further, if comparing to the Party List PR system where people vote for parties rather than candidates, plurality runs the risk of too-powerful candidates going rogue once elected, championing their own ideals over those of their constituents.
Why America Needs Proportional Representation
Hopefully, it’s clear by now why proportional representation (PR) is better than the current way America elects its Congresspeople. However, if you still need convincing, I’ve laid out the reasons why adopting proportional representation would benefit the U.S. The result would be a government that better represents its people – who wouldn’t want that?
The specific reasons why America needs PR includes the following:
1. Fair & Equitable Representation
Stated previously, the number one reason why America should adopt proportional representation is to more fairly represent its electorate. Under the current system of plurality, constituents run the risk of being represented by someone they didn’t vote for or choose. In fact, it’s possible for 80% or more of a constituency to be represented by someone they didn’t want.
With proportional representation, however, every vote “counts” in that they are proportionally allocated across multiple candidates or parties. When this happens, the entirety of a Congressional district is represented according to the way they voted, rather than being solely represented by someone they may not have wanted to elect.
2. Multiple Party Views
The way plurality and other winner-take-all systems are set up naturally favor a two-party system. This is because many people with alternative views fear “throwing away their vote” on a third-party candidate, and instead choose the lesser of two evils by voting for one of two candidates backed by the dominant political parties.
This can be mitigated with proportional representation (PR). Because every vote counts, PR encourages people to vote for third- or even fourth-party candidates, assuring them that as long as the party or candidate meets a minimum threshold of votes, they will be represented in Congress or Parliament. This causes many people to support parties that more closely align with their political views, even if they are not major parties.
3. No Minority Winners
Plurality allows for a party or candidate with a minority of the votes to win an election outright, thus causing a majority of American citizens in a given district to be represented by someone they didn’t elect. For example, if 40% of a district vote Democrat, 30% vote Republican, and 30% vote Independent, the Democratic candidate wins and 60% of that district is represented by a Congressperson who doesn’t align with their political views.
Compare that to PR, and all three parties would have representation in Congress. This means that there is no risk of someone with a minority number of the votes winning an election and representing 100% of the people in a Congressional district.
4. Avoid Political Polarization
Two-party systems like the one we have in America are susceptible to polarization. This is because two parties become dominant and opposing forces, standing opposite each other on many – if not all – of their political views. This means that the center becomes increasingly under-represented as major political parties become highly polarized in order to differentiate themselves from one another.
With PR, all political views are fairly represented, meaning that Congress is more of a mosaic of thoughts and ideologies rather than adopting an “us vs them” mentality. In reality, no issues are black and white, and many require nuance and reasonable thining. However, in a two-party system, all issues are black and white, with no nuance considered. This can be fixed with proportional representation, where views across a wide spectrum are accepted.
5. Stable Progress & Longevity
Because proportional representation is like a mosaic of political thoughts and opinions, governments become broad coalitions that progress gradually and thoughtfully over time. Compare this to plurality where there are often wild swings in political goals, actions, and policies, as incumbent parties try to undo the gains made by outgoing and opposing parties.
This means that plurality results stagnation rather than rapid change. This is because every two to four years, the majority in Congress changes or a new party’s President is elected, and the government tries to do a 180 and go the other way – but we all know how hard it is to turn around a cruise liner. Now imagine that cruise ship turning around in circles in the middle of the ocean over two-, four-, or eight-year periods, never reaching its intended destination.
6. Increase Voter Turnout
Apathy is the enemy of democracy. Unfortunately, the American political system causes people to feel disenfranchised, resulting in low voter turnout. The reason for this is that many believe that under plurality, not all votes count, and not all votes are created equal. This is avoided in PR, where all votes above a minimum threshold count, and people therefore feel more empowered to take political action, resulting in increased voter turnout.
How to Implement Proportional Representation
Changing the American Congressional voting system may seem complicated, but it’s easier than it looks. The major headwind would be resistance to change, rather than the actual legal act of changing. There are two broad ways we can implement proportional representation: at the national level or at the state and local level.
National Voting Reform
The way to implement proportional representation most widely is, unsurprisingly, via national reform. There are generally two ways we can do this. The first is through a constitutional amendment, which could get struck down by the courts, and the second is a Congressional act, which might be outvoted or struck down in the Senate or by the acting President.
Adding a National Constitutional Amendment
While this would have sweeping ramifications, adding a 28th amendment to the constitution would be tough, if not impossible. This is because there hasn’t been an amendment to the constitution in more than 45 years, and it stands to reason any amendment championing a new voting system would be struck down in the courts. Still, an amendment would be possible and could certainly reform our voting system.
Passing a Congressional Act
This might be the best chance we have of reforming our voting system on the national level. In fact, there has already been legislation championing this type of change, known as the Fair Representation Act. At the time of this writing, no significant headway has been made with this act. Further, any act that passes in Congress can still be struck down in the Senate or vetoed by the President.
State & Local Voting Reform
Perhaps the best chance we have of implementing proportional representation is through grass-root campaigns at the state and local levels. Currently, 27 states have a form of voter referendum or ballot initiatives, opening the door for state-level change. Unfortunately, this too can be struck down in the courts, if it gets that far.
Other options include passing a state constitutional amendment or act, however, this too can be struck down in the courts. For this reason, championing reform at the local level of government, which might fly under the national or even state radar, is the best place to start, working our way up the ladder until we get national reform.
How to Calculate Fair Representation Using PR
There are many ways to calculate proportional representation. However, the most common way is d’Hondt method, which is what we’ll use below. Other methods include the Saint-Lague and Modified Saint-Lague method of calculating proportional representation.
Here’s how to calculate proportional representation using the d’Hondt method:
Step 1: Tally Votes & Percentages
The first step is to tally the votes in a Congressional district and come up with the percentage breakdown. Let’s say that there are 1,000 total votes across five parties, broken down like the following – Party A (100 votes, 10% of total), Party B (150 votes, 15% of total), Party C (300 votes, 30% of total), Party D (400 votes, 40% of total), Party E (50 votes, 5% of total).
Step 2: Place Total Votes in a Row
Next, take the total votes for each of the five parties and place them in a row – five across. However, to make it more realistic, let’s say that this PR voting system has a 7% minimum threshold for representation, meaning that Party E is removed with only 5% of the votes.
Therefore, line up the total votes for each of Party A – Party D in a row. There should only be four, like this: A – 100, B – 150, C – 300, D – 400.
Step 3: Divide Each Party’s Vote by Number of Available Seats
Next, divide each of the four numbers above by the number of available seats in the district. For this example, let’s assume that there are three seats up for election. This means that we’ll have to figure out how to proportionally represent three seats with four parties.
To do this, form a chart below where each of the four party’s total votes is divided by each denominator of the total available number of seats. In this example, we’ll divide each of the four numbers above by one, two, and three – for the three total seats available.
Example Calculation for Proportional Representation
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Step 4: Choose the Highest Numbers, Based on Available Seats
Finally, choose the highest numbers, dependent on the available number of seats. For example, if there are three available seats for representation, choose the three highest numbers from the chart above. In this case, the three highest numbers are D – 400, C – 300, and D – 200. This means that two seats will go to Party D and one seat will go to Party C.
Drawbacks of Proportional Representation
While proportional representation is largely positive, it does have its drawbacks. For example, the math required sometimes doesn’t result in ultimate fairness, and a well-diversified government might result in legislative gridlock because no one can agree.
Here are the major drawbacks of proportional representation:
1. Representation Isn’t Always 100% Fair
If you look at the example above, while there are five parties that people are voting for, only two of those five receive seats. Further, one of those five doesn’t even make the cut in terms of minimum votes, and therefore isn’t considered at all. This might cause some people to feel that proportional representation misrepresents them, which is possible.
Still, while only two of the five parties in the mix are chosen, that’s still 100% more than the number of parties chosen in a winner take all system like in America. For this reason, while proportional representation isn’t perfect, it’s a better system than the current one in the U.S.
2. System Can Be Manipulated
While proportional representation (PR) sounds like the ideal, it can still be manipulated by political operatives. For example, in the Party List system, political bosses and heads of political parties choose the list of candidates, and voters only vote for a party and can’t choose the candidates themselves. This could cause corruption as political bosses choose candidates that advance their own self-interest.
Further, other components of the system can be manipulated, like the minimum threshold of voting. If someone knows that a party can get 5% of the vote, for example, they might try to make the minimum threshold of 7% or something similar. The manipulation of the many moving parts of PR – even down to the math involved – can cause it to become unfair.
3. Fair Representation Can Cause Gridlock
Sometimes, what makes proportional representation great can also be its downfall. This is because when multiple viewpoints are fairly represented, potentially with no clear majority, it can be hard to get any legislation passed in Congress. This causes a political gridlock as many different political ideologies fight for a foothold.
4. System Allows for Extremist Parties
Finally, a concern of proportional representation is that it opens the door to parties that sit on an radical end of the spectrum. For example, a racist political party might not be given much attention in a winner take all system due to its low support, but if that same party has somewhere between 5%-7% support in PR, they might gain seats, and therefore, representation of their radical viewpoints.
Top 5 Alternatives to Proportional Representation
While proportional representation (PR) might be the right system for America, it isn’t the only political voting system available for use and consideration. Some of these alternative options are simple iterations of PR, while others are completely different, with unique goals and aims.
The alternative options to PR include the following:
1. Winner Take All Voting System
Also known by names like “First Past the Post” or “Plurality”, this is the voting system currently used in the United States. In this system, constituents vote for a specific candidate, rather than a party or a list. Then, the candidate with the most total votes (even if it’s less than a 51% majority) wins the election and represents 100% of the people within that area or constituency.
2. Single Transferable Voting System
This is a variation of proportional representation where a constituent can vote for a specific candidate, rather than a party. Candidates that meet a minimum threshold are awarded a seat, allowing multiple party views to be represented. Constituents also rank candidates they didn’t vote for in order, because if they vote for a candidate that misses the minimum threshold, their vote is re-allocated (or transferred) to their next highest choice, and so on.
3. Additional Member Voting System
Also known as the mixed member voting system, proportional representation is achieved by giving each constituent two votes – one for a specific candidate and one for a specific party. Votes for specific candidates occur in smaller constituencies, while larger areas (comprised of these smaller constituencies) are given a party list vote, letting them vote for a specific party’s list of candidates. The system uses this second vote to elect additional members that allow for more fair representation of the people.
4. Alternative Voting System
This is like a winner take all system where voters rank candidates in order of preference, and counting is done in stages. If a single candidate gets more than 50% of the votes, he or she wins immediately. If no candidate receives more than 50%, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and that candidate’s votes are re-allocated to the other candidates based on the ranking of the voters. This process is repeated until one candidate receives more than 50% of votes.
5. Supplementary Voting System
This is a system to elect a single winner. Under this system, voters make a first choice as well as a second. All the first choice votes are counted, and if no candidate receives more than 50% of the votes, the top two candidates continue and the rest are eliminated. The second preference from the eliminated votes are added to the remaining first-round votes, and the candidate with the most votes out of the remaining two wins outright.
Overall, proportional representation (PR) isn’t perfect, but it’s definitely better than the current way America elects its Congresspeople. With so many variations of PR to choose from, chances are there’s a model that would work for the U.S. Rather than assuming we have the best democracy in the western world, we should consider other methods of voting that will more fairly represent the citizens of our nation.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Which Countries Use Proportional Representation?
Two of the most notable ones are Australia Canada, and the United Kingdom (UK). However, other countries include nations like Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Russia, South Africa, and more. Countries that use a modified version of proportional representation include nations like Germany, Japan, and Mexico.