Impeachment - a devastating statement, but the mere tip of the iceberg
of political non-representation in which America is frozen.
Most other advanced democracies have rejected our winner-take-all
system, and prefer another model - one or another variety of
Proportional Representation (PR). Now, more than ever, it should be
obvious that we need to re-think our most basic democratic right, the
right to vote. The key question is this: Why should 51 percent of a
voting group entirely deprive the other 49 percent of its desires? Is
this really fair? Is this truly the best way to conduct "democracy?"
Modern democracy is a modern idea, with ancient roots perhaps, but
grounded in the Enlightenment notion that people can be wise enough to
choose their ways. The democracies of Europe and beyond have evolved
toward ever-increasing inclusiveness of voice. With the exception of
the English-speaking nations, all advanced democracies, including the
newly materialized democracies of the ex-Soviet bloc, have chosen
various systems of proportional representation as the best, most
inclusive road for democratic elections. Though there are several
forms of PR, the basic idea is that there should be no "tyranny of the
majority." In a PR system, candidates and parties are elected in
proportion to the number of votes they receive. If your party gets 40
percent of the votes, you get 40 percent of the seats in the
Legislature - not zero. In the face of almost universal rejection of
choice, the U.S. continues its outmoded commitment to a
winner-take-all system. The three other countries who still operate
this way - Britain, New Zealand and Canada - are all in the midst of
active debate about changing the system. The United States alone
avoids any debate on the issue.
One would think the need would be obvious:
• Voter turnouts in the U.S. are abysmally low, and getting lower.
The 1994 Republican "landslide" represented the will of approximately
21 percent of eligible voters, with tightly organized groups such as
the Christian Right and the NRA heavily represented. As a result of
the winner-take-all system, one-fourth to one-fifth of voters now
effectively control the government.
• With both the Republicans and the Democrats jockeying for the
"center," their overlap is huge. Neither party, for example, suggests
that our national goals might be other than world supremacy, or that
U.S. domestic needs might be addressed by reducing military spending.
This is not surprising, considering that both Democrats and
Republicans are funded by the same big money interests, who can afford
to win no matter who wins. And these parties, similar as they are,
have a lock on any political alternatives. They represent a basically
one-party duopoly, with a false fragrance of slight alterity at the
• Meanwhile, there are a lot of "wasted votes." Republicans living in
Democrat-dominated areas, or vice versa, or minorities living in
white-dominated districts effectively have no vote, since in a
winner-take-all system, they will always lose. And those who desire
something really different, like a Green point of view, inevitably
waste their votes choosing least-possible-evil candidates, and still
wind up being unrepresented. In a winner-take-all system, women (at
present) and minority candidates (always) wind up being vastly
under-represented, as voters, not wanting to "waste votes" on someone
who cannot win, switch to "more realistic" candidates. This leads to
frustration which is largely responsible for low voter turnout. Why
bother to vote? As Jay Gould once said, "I don't care who people vote
for, as long as I get to pick the candidates."
• Because a winner-take-all system requires candidates to court the
greatest number of voters rather than embrace clear, firm principles,
politicians reflexively avoid any issues that will offend anybody.
Hence the move to meaningless sound bites, and away from serious
debate, and the potential for meaningful social change such debate
Proportional representation would immediately change all this.
Minor parties would still have their opinions heard in the total
debate. In Germany, for example, the Green Party, having attained the
5 percent minimum, took 5 percent of the legislative seats, and are
now a member of the ruling coalition. Ideas that had been completely
mute before, became available to the public. The press, which might
not have taken their statements seriously, now report on "official"
government (Green) debate. In a PR system, the role of the press
changes from being a mouthpiece for the duopoly to actual reporting on
ideas and movements at large in the country.
Given a new, wide range of choices, some really representing their
points of view, and having a real possibility of winning some voice,
voters have much more interest in voting, and the turnout figures
change sharply. European rates are in the 80 percent range, as
opposed to ours which is less than 50 percent. Public debate takes on
some content, since people with principled stands and important things
to say really hope to convince, say, 15 percent of the voters, and
wind up with 15 percent of the seats not none. Sound bite
candidates are at a disadvantage in a PR system; debate rises toward
the level envisioned by the theorists of democracy.
The problem is obvious. The shape of a solution is obvious. So? How
come there is no American debate about changing our winner-take-all
system? Don't we want fairness? Don't we want to hear as many ideas
as possible so we can make the best choices? The answer, in short, is
"No." "We" may want fairness, or want a free marketplace of
ideas, but such things are not to some people's advantage. Guess who.
Major political parties do not want any competition for funds, or
for the public ear. So adamant are they in their opposition to
sharing power with minor parties, that they will vote against their
own party interests to thwart any challenges to the "two-party
system." They have constructed difficult hurdles for minority
parties in federal and state constitutions, and in municipal charters.
The "system" is stacked against change. Not only are major party
politicians unwilling to vote to share their power, but they are in a
position to block any interest in PR from developing in the first
place. With media cooperation, the major parties define the public
agenda. Items off their list are simply not legitimate for debate.
Extremist, you know.
It is not just reigning politicians who resist such change. Anyone
presently in power is threatened by the possibility of others being
taken seriously. "White male anger" is enough even now to keep women
and minorities in line. The underlying racism and sexism in America
present a serious obstacle to PR in this country. What if "they" took
Even though America always thinks of herself as "exceptional," still,
when an idea so obvious is deployed by all its allies, when even the
English-speaking holdouts may soon cease to hold out, when the
consequences of winner-take-all reach an idiotic pitch, there is
always the possibility of change. One interesting strategy, an
end-run around the loaded legislative process, is the possibility of
Court-ordered Proportional Representation. Some legal scholars feel
that the principle of one-person, one-vote, based on the equal
protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, could be seen to
require the use of PR in American elections.
It is significant that the Supreme Court's 1984 rejection of
malapportionment was based not simply on the principle of population
equality but on the broader principle that:"Each and every citizen has
an inalienable right to full and effective participation in the
political process of his State's legislative bodies. Full and
effective participation by all citizens in state government requires
... that each citizen have an equally effective voice in the election
of members of his state legislature."
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Proponents of PR find such phrases as "full and effective
participation" intriguing, since PR is the only system that comes near
to achieving that goal. Thus they are interested in the possibility
of bringing suits under the Voting Rights Act to seek a court-ordered
PR system. While the current Supreme Court, nakedly stacked to
preserve the status quo, would be unlikely to make such a move, there
is much judicial precedent. In the past, the Court has intervened in
state electoral processes with decisions requiring reapportionment,
and striking down arrangements which diluted the voting power of
racial minorities. It has not been afraid to require significant
changes to enforce the constitutional protection of voting rights.
Who knows what would happen with such a suit, especially if PR began
to spread at local levels of government where party control is not so
powerful, and rules not so forbidding.
Marc Estrin lives in Burlington and is an editor of the Old North End
If you want more information on PR, or choose to get involved in a
truly radical (to the roots) and potentially effective move toward
greater democracy, a good place to start would be with materials from:
The Center for Voting and Democracy
PO Box 60037
Washington, D.C. 20039
Phone: (202) 828-3062.
They have an excellent website at: www.igc.org/cvd.
You can email them at email@example.com.
Reprinted from the Vermont Times, 3/3/1999