Proportional Representation

This entry is part 5 of 13 in the series Political Reforms

Our current political system is organized in geographical districts. That was an arrangement that made sense in 1776. It’s an arrangement that makes less sense now, considering the mobility of our population.

Originally published 2004

As you’ll see shortly, the arrangement into geographic districts is also responsible for two of the most troubling practices ever to threaten a democracy — gerrymandering and earmarking. Proportional Representation could eliminate both of those problems at a single stroke.

With proportional representation, you don’t elect a single candidate who represents your geographic district. Instead, you elect several candidates who represent your political views. The number of people you elect depends on how many people share those views, but every view winds up getting some kind of representation.

In today’s America, in contrast, a political minority could comprise 49% of the population in every geographical district, lose every single election, and wind up with no representation at all! Would that be a failure of democracy? It sure would. And it is it happening? It’s not quite that extreme, but it is definitely happening, with groups that comprise 20% and 30% being routinely underrepresented.

There are different systems for Proportional Representation. In one, the voting mechanism is very similar to the one used for Instant Runoff Voting — you choose a variety of candidates in the order you like them. So once Instant Runoff Voting is in effect, Proportional Representation of that kind is a fairly natural next step.

In another system, you vote for a party, and the party has a list of candidates. If that party’s percentage of the vote entitles them to 5 sets, then the top 5 people on their list get elected.

Opinions differ as to which system is best, and those are only two of many competing possibilities. It is a subject to be investigated and evaluated when the exercise of governance has been wrested from corporations and placed back in the hands of thoughtful people.

Whichever system we choose, it is clearly the case that some system of that kind is necessary. As John Adams wrote in Thoughts on Government, “this representative assembly…should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large”. In principle, then, the legislature should be a microcosm of the population as a whole. But it is manifestly apparent that we do not currently enjoy that arrangement.

As for why our founding fathers didn’t establish a system of true proportional representation, one issue was geography and the limits of transportation available at that time. The other issue was that this is an idea they may have known nothing about.

Since our “noble experiment” 200 years ago, dozens of experiments in democracy have been conducted around the globe, each with a slightly different take on the problem. The study and practice of political science has grown in the last 150 years as well, evolving to analyze and explain the impact of different systems of governance.

In short, we know a hell or a lot more now than we did then. Despite what our politicians would have you believe, there are better systems of democracy in the world. Sure, the politicians think this one is the best. They’re in power here. The question is, is this the best system for you — especially If you belong to one of the large minorities that is effectively unrepresented, I suspect not. And by “minority”, I don’t just mean a cultural minority, I mean minorities like the alternative energy minority or the sustainable living minority.

For more on this subject, see:

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