Richie and Hill Respond
We are pleased that all respondents express willingness to try proportional representation in the United States. Considering how little time, energy, and thought have been given to PR by US activists and academics in recent decades, this consensus is encouraging. It is no doubt a measure of our broken politics and the powerful logic of PR. Our respondents are less united on where and how to use PR. This combination of support for the general principle with uncertainty over details invites our recommended strategy of blue-ribbon commissions to study how various forms of PR might address problems of declining participation and underrepresentation.
Though PR is no panacea, we think that nearly every question raised by our respondents has a compelling answer. As space constraints preclude an exhaustive response, we will focus here on two large questions: What should the politics of a PR movement look like? Would the introduction of PR cause more troubles than it's worth? In answering those questions, we premise two general points about the nature and importance of PR. First, because there are nearly as many forms of PR as there are nations using it, critics need to be careful not to extrapolate from the problems of particular forms of PR in particular circumstances. Second, PR is not a substitute for active participation by people who care about justice--rather, the point of PR is to make it easier for such people to act with greater effect.
Anthony Thigpenn is right that PR will have some fierce opponents, but he overlooks potential allies. As the comments of Cynthia McKinney and Joshua Rosenkranz indicate, PR systems may be the best way--both legally and politically--out of current battles over the Voting Rights Act. With tough-minded legislators and lawyers like McKinney and Rosenkranz ready to promote PR (and with people like Clarence Thomas, a harsh critic of traditional winner-take-all remedies, expressing openness to it), the upcoming reapportionment creates real opportunities for short-term breakthroughs, with broad support.
As Rep. McKinney points out, some incumbent legislators will appreciate how PR gives them greater control over their electoral destiny. In addition, experience from overseas suggests that some political elites may recognize that it is better for a city or state to bend towards democracy with PR than to break without it. A charter commission in Anthony Thigpenn's city of Los Angeles already is studying PR. A similar task force in San Francisco, composed of political insiders, recommended that the choice voting method of PR be placed on the ballot; the resulting campaign in 1996 received endorsements from most major political forces in the city, including Mayor Willie Brown and the Democratic Party, and garnered 44 percent of the vote. With more resources and a longer campaign (supporters had barely three months and $30,000 to reach a city of more than 600,000 adults), PR might have won.
We also agree with Thigpenn that advocating PR in the context of a broader pro-democracy movement is essential. Moreover, as he and Ross Mirkarimi suggest, the economic dislocation and environmental damage created by the global economy may provide especially powerful motivators for change. These forces certainly played a primary role in New Zealand in 1993, when voters forced a national referendum on PR and then, despite a massive spending advantage for the opposition, rejected their 140-year-old, American-style system in favor of PR. Still, we expect membership in PR coalitions to vary from place to place.
Finally, Dan Cantor and Pam Karlan correctly observe that local elections provide good opportunities to work for PR. The case for PR is strong in localities, particularly those facing political stagnation due to one-party domination, battles over how to represent increasingly complex diversity, and concerns from wary suburban and urban voters about being shut out by the other side. Local campaigns will definitely help politically: for many Americans, use of a PR system in a neighboring town will mean far more than successful tales of PR in national elections overseas.
But we should not settle for a combination of blue-ribbon commissions and local campaigns. If winner-take-all politics is as broken as we believe it to be, then we also need to reform the state and national elections that are most important to most Americans. We hope to see groups like the New Party not only work locally, but also promote instant runoff voting for presidential elections in 2000 and PR for all legislative elections in the redistricting battles of 2001-02.
Advocating PR for state and national elections--and thus a real multiparty democracy in the United States--forces us to answer the concerns raised by Gary Cox and John Ferejohn. Cox sees possibilities in our three-seat, semi-PR plan, but dangers in combining more proportional systems with a presidential system. Not all comparative political scientists are so cautious; Arend Lijphart and Matthew Shugart both support PR for congressional elections within our current constitutional structure.1 And we don't foresee legislative collapses or Latin American-style military coups resulting from multiparty politics in state legislatures.
Furthermore, a national Congress elected by an appropriate form of PR--with two broadly representative major parties and three or four smaller parties, for example--might well be less fractious than the Congress of recent decades, in which electoral incentives lead parties to undercut each other rather than conduct the nation's business. The logjams of the current process put well-organized corporate interests in the best position to quietly achieve their policy preferences. Because divided government is now the rule, the need to have broader political debate and representatives strongly articulating dissenting views is especially important for transforming public opinion and policy.
John Ferejohn raises questions about the experience of PR in Israel, Poland, and Italy. (He also adds some reflections on Weimar Germany, revealing the influence of long-refuted political science literature from the 1950s that continues to dominate intelligent American views on PR.) But Ferejohn glides by the fact that all these nations corrected problems by modifying their PR systems rather than adopting winner-take-all elections. He also ignores three key facts: that nearly every full-fledged democracy uses PR for national elections, that every new democracy in eastern Europe chose to adopt PR, and that most countries with PR have regular changes in government. Using choice voting in districts of up to five seats with a victory threshold of 17 percent, Ireland's system is responsive enough that voters have turned out their incumbent government in every election for over two decades--and experienced Europe's highest economic growth rate without a British-style slashing of social programs. Ferejohn's examples are indeed atypical, though still instructive in thinking about the kind of PR that would suit American politics.
Pam Karlan raises two concerns that are particularly important to answer in the context of US politics. First, she suggests that PR elections could compound the problems of campaign finance by increasing the geographic range over which candidates would need to compete. We argue that PR instead minimizes much of the electoral impact of campaign cash. In winner-take-all elections, most money is spent on the relatively few swing voters who don't know their own minds--the votes of the rest of us are rarely bought. As a voting-rights expert, Karlan knows that the key for black voters to elect a candidate is not money or district size, but a district where blacks are a voting majority. In European PR elections, Green parties win influential numbers of seats despite generally spending far less money than bigger parties. They can succeed because winners need far fewer votes per square area than in winner-take-all elections, and candidates can campaign as a team, sharing costs and having different candidates pursue particular communities of interest--geographic or otherwise--ready to support them.
Karlan also worries about PR empowering well-organized forces on the right. It might have that effect, but what should we conclude? We stand by the golden rule of representation: give unto others the representation you would have them give you. At the same time, experience of PR around the world suggests ways to fine-tune democracy, finding compromises between the extremes of a 1 percent threshold for representation--as in Israel and Italy before 1994--and the 50 percent threshold we have here. With party-based systems, a German-style threshold of 4 or 5 percent tends to give voters a healthy range of choices across the political spectrum, yet still promote two major parties and exclude the most feared extremists.
In the end, though, we believe that acceptance of a stacked electoral deck will backfire on supporters of political equality. Those trained in winner-take-all's politics of fear have much to gain from a politics of hope. As Dan Cantor observes, we put our confidence in ordinary citizens when fully informed and fully represented. We need those willing to support PR in principle to help make it a reality in the United States.
1 Also see Mark P. Jones's excellent Electoral Laws and the Survival of Presidential Democracies (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995).