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).