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Home > Features > Vision > PR- a better democracy?

GreenSense- Proportional Representation

PR That Doesn't Deceive
by Marc Estrin

Reprinted from the Vermont Times, 3/3/1999

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 top.

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 creates.

  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 competing 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 over?

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 Rag. 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 cvdusa@aol.com.

Reprinted from the Vermont Times, 3/3/1999







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