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The Case for Proportional Representation
By Robert Richie & Steven Hill
Beacon Press, 1999, 113 pages

Reflecting All of Us is a paperback reprint of a forum published in the Boston Review on the subject of proportional representation. The volume consists of a 30-page lead essay by Robert Richie and Steven Hill, followed by responses from noted thinkers from across the political spectrum, including Cynthia McKinney, John Ferejohn, E. Joshua Rosenkrantz, Gary W. Cox, Daniel Cantor, Ross Mirkarimi, Anthony Thigpenn, and Pamela S. Karlan.

In their essay, "The Case for Proportional Representation," Richie and Hill argue that nearly all elections in the United States are based on the winner-take-all principle: voters for the candidate who gets the most votes win representation, while voters for the other candidates win nothing. This system has a number of serious shortcomings, in their view. Members of racial and ethnic minorities are systematically underrepresented. Voters' choices are, with rare exception, restricted to candidates representing the two-party Republican/Democratic establishment. And, in districts dominated by a single party, most legislative elections are, in effect, "no-choice" contests.

Richie and Hill claim that proportional representation can remedy these failures by ensuring that any group of like-minded voters win legislative seats in proportion to its share of the popular vote. A typical winner‑take‑all system divides voters into "one-seat districts," represented by one person. But with proportional representation, voters in a constituency have several representatives: ten one‑seat districts might, for example, be combined into a single ten‑seat district. A party or group of voters that wins 10 percent of the popular vote in that district would then win one of the ten seats; a party or slate of candidates with 30 percent of votes would win three seats, and so on.

Today, systems of proportional representation are in place in a handful of local districts in the United States. In other countries, however, proportional representation has become a crucial feature of the electoral process. According to Richie and Hill, there are currently 36 nations with more than two million people and high 1995 ratings from the human rights organization Freedom House. "Of those 36, fully 30 use proportional representation to elect their most powerful legislature, while only three — the United States, Canada and Jamaica — elect all national bodies with a winner-take-all system."

Proportional representation occupies an important place in the history of political ideas. Its supporters have included Alexis de Tocqueville, Charles Beard, Jane Addams, Walter Lippmann, and even Franklin Roosevelt. Perhaps its most outspoken advocate was John Stuart Mill who asserted that democracy is incomplete unless majority rule is complemented by full minority representation. He felt that any particular majority is, in effect, a collection of minorities, not a monolithic bloc. By maximizing the number of voters who elect candidates, proportional representation increases the chances that a legislative majority has support from a majority of voters.

Mill's majoritarian argument is not the only case for proportional representation, according to Richie and Hill. They outline four other advantages: 1) proportional representation increases voter turnout; 2) it provides better representation for racial minorities; 3) it increases the number of women in office; and 4) it ends gerrymandering.

In their responses to Richie and Hill's argument, the volume's other contributors express a variety of reservations. For example, John Ferejohn suggests that proportional representation produces governments that are "too stable" and therefore insufficiently responsive to the public will. Similarly, Gary Cox notes that proportional representation tends to produce a form of multipartyism that is notoriously inefficient in presidential regimes. By and large, however, each of the respondents expresses a willingness to try proportional representation in the United States, acknowledging the vital need for electoral reforms to strengthen the nation's democratic institutions.

In her foreword to "Reflecting All of Us," Lani Guinier observes that proportional representation is not a cure-all for the problems of American democracy. "We need to consider a wide range of democracy reforms to promote a more people-based vision of democracy: conducting simultaneous national and local elections; eliminating runoff elections (which contribute to voter fatigue); allowing weekend voting and extended voting periods; voting by mail; campaign finance reform; reinforcing the obligation of television broadcasters as public trustees to grant free air time to all viable candidates and political parties; and strengthening political parties and encouraging new ones through proportional representation." Still, she suggests, proportional representation holds the promise of creating a different kind of political conversation. "Right now, even active citizens hold a very weak hand. But support for reforms that draw people together in relationships can lead to real change." Proportional representation, she concludes, "is about giving citizens their due."

Copyright 2001 by Scott London. All rights reserved.