Douglas Amy


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WHAT IS PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION AND WHY DO WE NEED THIS REFORM? Douglas J. Amy Mount Holyoke College Americans continue to be disillusioned with politics. Cynicism about candidates and parties runs high and voter turnout is abysmally low. A number of proposals designed to revitalize American elections have been made, including term limits and campaign finance reform. But a new reform is also beginning to get some attention: replacing our present single-member district, winner-take-all election system with proportional representation (PR) elections. Political commentators writing in The Washington Post, The New Republic, The New Yorker , The Christian Science Monitor and USA Today have endorsed this reform. Grassroots groups in several states are now organizing to bring proportional representation to local elections. Leaders of most alternative parties, including the Libertarians, the Greens, and the New Party, are also pushing for a change to PR. And many in the voting rights community, including Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier, have concluded that proportional representation would be the best way to give minority voters fair representation. So why all this sudden interest in proportional representation? What exactly is PR, how does it work, and what are its advantages over our present system? Describing how it works is simple. Proportional representation systems come in several varieties, but they all share two basic characteristics. First, they use multi-member districts. Instead of electing one member of the legislature in each small district, PR uses much larger districts that elect several members at once, say five or ten. Second, which candidates win the seats in these multi-member districts is determined by the proportion of votes a party receives. If we have a ten-member PR district in which the Democratic candidates win 50% of the vote, they would receive five of those ten seats. With 30% of the vote, the Republicans would get three seats. And if a third party received the other 20% of the votes, it would get the remaining two seats. (For more information on the various types of PR systems, see How Does PR Work? .) At first glance, this voting process might seem a bit strange to many Americans. We are used to our single-member district system, in which we elect one candidate in each legislative district, with the winner being the candidate with the most votes. But while we view this winner-take-all system as "normal," in reality our approach to elections is increasingly at odds with the rest of the world. The vast majority of Western democracies see American-style elections as outmoded and unfair and have rejected them in favor of proportional representation. Most of Western Europe uses PR and a large majority of the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have chosen PR over our form of elections. The United States, Canada, and Great Britain are the only Western democracies that continue to cling to winner-take-all arrangements. The Problem with Single-Member District Elections
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