Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Proportional Representation Breeds Confusion

The L.A. Times, in a lead article of the California section Monday by Nancy Vogel, seems to tout an "instant runoff" voting system that allows proportional representation in elected bodies in the few places in the U.S. which have tried it--Davis, Calif., Minneapolis and Pierce County, Washington.

This is a way of giving voting minorities some representation. Ultimately, let's say, 51% vote for a majority candidate. A second-choice candidate who got 49% could under some circumstances still be elected.

But in countries where proportional representation, rather than winner-take-all, systems have been tried, like Fourth Republic France or Israel, the result has been to destroy the two-party system and allow both a plethora of political parties and, often, only poorly focused coalition government.

That system ultimately destroyed the Fourth Republic and has impeded Israel from adopting definite policies, possibly compounding Middle Eastern problems.

The founding fathers in America, it is true, did not contemplate the development of political parties. But such parties seem to be inevitable in democracies, and then the question becomes whether the system of voting facilitates a clear decision at election time.

Great Britain, like the U.S., has a winner-take-all system in separate districts which tends to magnify the disparities in results. So, say, the Labor party in Britain may get only 43% of the total vote, the Tories 38% and the Liberals 19%. But that may leave the Labor party with a solid majority of the elected seats in parliament, and the Liberals with very few.

It's said by some theorists that this is unfair to third parties such as the Liberals. But it does have the effect of electing definite majority governments, able to act.

The Times article probably should have put the issue in more context. Then this might not have seemed such a fruitful reform, although Vogel did make it clear she was mainly talking about at-large elections for city councils and so forth, not single contests such as for mayor or district attorney.

The essential thing to realize is that the American system of winner-take-all has worked fairly well for more than two centuries. The only exception is the electoral vote system in presidential elections, which sometimes has produced a winner with fewer popular votes than the loser, as in the 2000 election, when George W. Bush defeated Albert Gore. This, however, is somewhat of a separate issue.

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2 Comments:

Blogger DemocracyUSA said...

This is a depressing post because it shows the depths of poor civics education in the United States. Here a clearly relatively informed person can be unaware that almost every modern democracy uses some form of proportional voting, that there are forms of it (like the system used in Illinois from 1870 to 1980 that is referenced directly in the LA Times article) that generally promote two-party representation, and that the instant runoff voting (discussed in the article at some length) in fact is a system for single-winner elections.

Time to do some reading, however belatedly. Check out the FairVote website or the Proportional Representation Library before shooting from the lip on this subject. Given California's extreme stasis in legislative races and the limited impact any gerrymandering reform would have, it's worth more serious consideration than you give it here.

12/26/2006 12:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The writer of this post does not seem to understand the difference between a parlimentary system and our system with separate executive and legislative branches. Israel has a parlimentary system where the Prime Minister is elected by the legislative branch, not by the voters. In the US, we elect our legislative and executive branches separately.

We have had times when the legislative branch has been split evenly and the world did not come to an end. The executive branch continues on.

Having more than two parties in the legislative branch will result in a more representative democracy and will not prevent the executive branch from doing its job.

12/26/2006 11:06 PM  

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