New Democracy Forum
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