Mass media and "PR's" PR problem

by Jack Santucci // Published December 22, 2005
Proportional voting has a PR problem. That's one reason it struggles to win support in the public. Among those with a sense about proportional voting, many find it "complex" or "foreign." Maybe this is because advocates have held up foreign countries as models.

Or maybe it's because the mass media frequently frame proportional voting as "complex" and "foreign." In reality, it's neither.

Last Thursday, Reuters missed the point about Iraq's new election system:

The election is for 275 members of parliament. Most seats are allocated on the basis of the population in Iraq's 18 provinces but under a complex proportional representation system 40 seats will be set aside for smaller parties.

The Washington Post got it wrong on Tuesday:

The final distribution of seats in the 275-member National Assembly will be decided by a complicated formula that is based on turnout and is skewed to reward small parties by giving them some representation.

Perhaps Meghan O'Sullivan of the White House (yes, that White House) can clarify:

Brad, from Milwaukee, WI writes: Does the Iraqi Parliament elections base off of proportional representation or single member districts?

Meghan O'Sullivan: The elections tomorrow will be based on proportional representation by province. In political science lingo it's a PPR (or Provincial Proportional Representation) system. The elections will select a 275-member parliament. 230 seats are allocated according to the population figures - based on food-ration card data - in each province. The province of Ninewa, for example, will have 19 seats, Baghdad 59 seats, and Basra 16 seats. 45 seats will be elected on a national basis using a process designed to give seats to parties with significant national appeal that do not muster enough votes to win seats in a province. This system is specifically designed to ensure fair representation from all areas of Iraq and include all groups in the political process.

Admirable attempt, Meghan. Maybe FairVote can help.

There are 275 members in Iraq's parliament. 230 of them represent Iraq's 18 governorates - just like 435 U.S. Reps represent our 50 states. The remaining 45 seats are elected by everyone in the country. If your party wins no seat in any province, it can still qualify for one or more of the other 45.

Reuters makes it sound like only the 45 national seats are proportonal - that we're dealing with two "complex" election systems at once. Wrong. Within a province, the election is proportional. For the 45 all-Iraq seats, the election is proportional. Both sets of seats are elected using the same method: put a check mark next to the party you want. Every party has a list of candidates. The more check marks a party gets, the more seats it wins. To know why this is good, scroll back up and read Ms. O'Sullivan's last two sentences. And the 45 seats the Post calles "skewed" actually correct a geographic skew; they let a large group win at least some seats when it's too spread out to win in any one province.

Our own system of electing U.S. Reps could be called "complex." Sure, all the voter has to do is pick one candidate. But think about the bruhaha every ten years when districts are redrawn. Think about the consultants, the geographers, the modeling software - all the work it takes to draw strange shapes around people who vote the same way. Think about the bitter debates in state legislatures, the lawsuits. Think about Tom DeLay. Life sure has gotten "complex" for him. To explain why our disproportional voting system is bad might be a bit "complex." We'd discuss swing voters, incumbent advantage, negative campaigning - all sorts of political sciency things. But to explain the virtue in our disproportional system isn't "complex" at all. It makes seats easier to win and lives easier to run by forcing people into two parties (remember: a vote for the Libertarians or Greens is wasted) whose policies have as much in common as segregationists and northern blacks, as Midwestern farmers and Wall Street moguls.

Then there's our Electoral College. What could be simpler? You vote for someone else to vote for the President. Maybe he'll vote the way you want him to; maybe he won't. Maybe the candidates will tie (despite being a million votes apart) and the House gets to choose. Or the Supreme Court. Maybe the guy with fewer votes wins the election. Maybe you live in Montana and your vote is worth more than your sister's who lives in New York. Maybe your state is so "red" or "blue" that no candidate cares enough to stop by.

Other media reports liken proportional voting to foie gras. But it's not an inherently "foreign" concept, nor does it belong in the same category.

The tragedy of the "foreign" frame is that we've forgotten our own roots. If you vote for city council members in Cambridge, MA, you use proportional voting. If you vote in local elections in Philly, Hartford or Waterbury, CT, you use proportional voting. If you vote for the school board in North Carolina, Alabama, South Dakota or Texas, chances are strong that you use proportional voting. In almost all of those states plus Illinois, if you vote for local assemblies, you use proportional voting. All told, voters in over 100 U.S. jurisdictions use proportional voting.

If you vote for the board of directors of a joint stock company, you may use proportional voting.

And had you voted for the Illinois state House between 1870 and 1980, you used proportional voting. No joke - Illinois was electing its legislature via a proportional method decades before most European countries seriously considered making the switch.

Save for corporate boards, none of these entities has a "parliamentary" system.

Take the Sacramento Bee on California's prospective citizens' assembly, where regular people would get together to discuss, among other options, proportional voting. The Bee has associated proportional voting with parliamentarism (no such association) and Europeanized it (only since we all but banished it).

Although the draft legislation does not recommend any specific changes in the electoral system, those involved say they are interested in exploring a proportional voting system along the lines of the parliamentary systems of Europe.

True, Europe has many parliamentary systems. It has many proportional voting systems. But one does not guarantee the other. Parliamentarism is about where the head of government comes from. In a parliamentary system, the executive and legislative branches are one and the same. In hypothetical terms, President Bush was elected to Congress, and Congress elected him President. He then hand-picked Cabinet members like Condolzeeza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld from the ranks of fellow Congresspeople. That is a parliamentary system, and it can exist without proportional voting. For instance, Canada.

The public learns about politics from the news. So long as the media save words by describing the alternatives as "numbers games" and Europhilic fantasies, election reform will remain a fringe issue. And America will retain a fringe system.