Boston Review: Reflecting All of Us

by Rob Richie FairVote

Editors Note

The New Democracy Forum typically highlights new ideas for political reform. In this installment, we look more closely at an old one--proportional representation (PR)--which lead authors Rob Richie and Steve Hill argue is newly feasible and compelling in the United States.

The traditional case for PR grows out of an objection to "winner-take-all" elections. In such elections, citizens who vote against winning candidates simply lose, and (arguably) are left without representation. PR proponents see this as unfair, and a violation of the basic democratic idea, which is government by the people, not government by a majority. As remedy, they propose to make representation proportional to numbers of voters. The idea is to have districts with, say, ten members each, and let the party that wins 50 percent pick five of the representatives, not all ten.

Other reasons for PR reflect current deficiencies in American politics rather than abstract political fairness. According to Richie and Hill, PR would help to produce a more competitive and representative democracy in the United States by breaking the two-party monopoly and providing an attractive alternative to race-based districting as a way of increasing minority representation. And it would produce a smarter democracy by sharpening political debate and making outcomes depend less on the fluctuating sensibilities of "swing voters."

Some of the respondents express concern about "governability" under PR. Gary Cox and John Ferejohn suggest that PR might produce an excess of parties and harden current tendencies to "divided government." If it did, collective decisions would be even harder to achieve in the United States than they already are. Others worry about political hurdles to changing electoral rules: Who are the allies in this fight, and who are the enemies? What is the simple message that can carry a PR campaign to the mass electorate? And how can we increase the size of our districts without forcing up the costs of campaigns?

All good questions. Notice, however, that no one asks "why bother?" The consensus is that something in our democracy has broken down. The power of PR as remedy should, of course, be a topic of further debate. But very widespread doubt about the basic fairness and functionality of the rules of our political game is evident and demands some concerted response.

--Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers