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Election 2010: the Dream of Proportional Representation


The US, Canada and the UK are the only western democracies that still conduct their national elections via an archaic “winner takes all” system in which voters only have the option of voting for one of the two major, corporate sponsored candidates.  The ultimate outcome of such an election is that a vote for a third minority party candidate is generally considered a wasted vote.  And voters, believing they have less and less voice in a political system they know is funded and controlled by powerful corporations, turn out in smaller and smaller numbers.

Limiting National Campaigns to 15 States

In the last off-year election, voter turn-out ranged between 22 and 45%. Which means in some districts, candidates were elected with the support of only 15% of eligible voters. Our current “winner takes all” system also leads to a situation in which the major parties only seriously campaign in 15 “swing” states, leading residents in the other 35 states to conclude that their votes don’t count.

Proportional Representation Defined

There are several different types of proportional representation.  The two features they all share in common are 1) instead of electing one representative in each small district or ward, multi-member districts (or wards) are established in which several candidates are elected at once and 2) the candidates who win seats in these multi-member districts are determined by the total proportion of votes their party receives. For example if Democrats win 50 percent of the vote, they get 50 percent of the seats; if Republicans win 30 percent and a third party ten percent, they win 30 per cent and ten percent of the seats respectively.  Though strictly speaking 30 percent is a minority, it is a sizeable minority to end up with no voice at all in how a community (or state or country) will be governed.

The May 2010 elections in the UK provide a dramatic example of how extremely unfair this winner take all system can be – and has led to strong voter support for electoral reform incorporating proportional representation. Under the current system candidates can only win a seat in Parliament by winning an election in a small local electorate. The Conservatives with a total of 36.1% of the vote won 306 seats (because they won 30 electorates), Labour with 29% of the vote won 258 seats and the Liberal Democrats with 23% of the vote only got 57.

Winning Electoral Reforms at the Local Level

There is no question that winning any electoral reform at the national level faces massive opposition from major political parties and their corporate backers. However thanks mainly to the 2000 presidential election being decided in the Supreme Court, electoral reform activists have been quite successful in enacting local electoral reforms that – while not meeting the standard for true proportional representation – endeavor to give voters more choice, by allowing them to indicate a preference for a minor candidate without feeling they waste a vote.

The method adopted by most jurisdictions is Instant Run-off Voting (IRV), adopted in a number of cities to avoid the expense of a primary election. In IRV a voter is asked to rank all the candidates on the ballot in his/her order of preference. If his/her first choice fails to meet a certain threshold, his/her vote is automatically transferred to his second choice and so on. The state to watch this fall on IRV is Minnesota, where the current Minneapolis mayor was elected by IRV and where all the major candidates for governor endorse state IRV legislation.

The Controversy over IRV

IRV in itself has been extremely controversial, as it is not very popular with the major political parties or their corporate backers and proportional representation advocates complain it fails to go far enough. In most jurisdictions voter referendums mandating IRV have faced lengthy, expensive court challenges. In most cases the federal courts have upheld IRV as constitutional, as the US Constitution fails to stipulate any specific requirements for state and local elections.

Is IRV an important first step in improving voter turn-out and bringing the US more in line with other western democracies? Or is it merely a tremendous waste of activist time and money that does nothing to bring us closer to a truly representative government?

To be continued

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