An Introduction to Proportional Representation
Six percent of Americans in a recent Reason poll identified as Libertarian. It’s hard to know how reliable that is, but there are a collection of other polls claiming anywhere from 2% to 15%, so that seems like a reasonable middle ground. Let’s say 6% of Americans really are libertarians. Now libertarians can vary in ideology as much as Republicans and Democrats, but let’s assume that if you call yourself a libertarian you are more aligned with the platform of the Libertarian Party than the Republican or Democratic parties. If libertarians were represented in Congress according to their numbers, the Libertarian Party could have 26 members in the House of Representatives and 6 in the Senate. Instead, there are zero.
Why is this? Because every election for Congress is winner-take-all. Getting 6% of the vote in every district gives you ZERO elected candidates, so libertarian candidates don’t even get 6%. Since the top slot is all that matters, and Republicans and Democrats are currently the only ones with enough support to reach it, most libertarians end up voting Republican or Democrat to try to influence the top slot as the “lesser of two evils.” Libertarian candidates usually end up with 1% or less thanks to the few voters who are so cynical or hate the system so much that they don’t care who gets the top slot but still feel like voting. Despite record low approval levels for Congress, the two-party system is like a black hole that prevents most people from daring to leave it.
As a result, libertarians are under-represented in Congress, and that’s why people with Paul as their last name can only get there through the Republican party. But it’s not just unfair to libertarians – it’s unfair to everyone in every district who doesn’t support the winning candidate. As Charles R. Hooper explains in his short book The Next American Revolution (disclaimer: Mr. Hooper gave me a free copy), “If John Smith gets 10,000 votes and Jane Doe gets 9,999, that’s a tough break for Jane and the 9,999 people who supported her.”
A majority of votes does not mean a majority of constituents actually agree with those beliefs; some of them may have simply been playing the “lesser of two evils” game. Despite this, winners often seem to think their victory is a mandate from the people supporting all of their ideological beliefs.
When Democrats controlled the Presidency and both chambers of Congress in 2008, they interpreted that as a mandate to do things like pass a health care bill that a majority of voters did not want. Voters responded in 2010 by giving the House of Representatives – and a lot of state legislatures – back to Republicans. But some Republicans suffered from the same delusions. New Wisconsin governor Scott Walker tried to limit public unions in his state and made enough people so angry that he and many Republican legislators are now in the middle of a recall election.
Population growth has made it harder for Congress to listen to the people and easier to listen to the lobbyists and activists with the most money and connections. Hooper says our districts have grown from “70,000 at the nation’s beginning to over 700,000 today” – and still growing. Meanwhile, increases in technology and communication allow people with similar interests and goals to join forces across the country, eliminating geography as a uniter and divider.
This creates an interesting paradox. One representative can’t possibly represent one million people in his or her district with all of their different needs and desires – but there are a million libertarians across the country who could be represented by one person in a satisfactory manner.
Creating smaller districts would solve the population growth problem, but it would just divide those libertarians (and any other political philosophy shared by people all over the country) even further. Having 4,000 Congressional seats wouldn’t solve the 6% problem, and it would lead to a ten-fold increase in logistical problems as well.
But there’s a brilliant solution to all of this: proportional representation. What if, instead of twenty small (crazily gerrymandered) districts in a state each picking one representative, there were only four larger districts that each sent five based on the proportion of the results? The state would still have the same amount of representation in Congress – but 51% of the voters couldn’t disenfranchise the other 49%; maybe you would only need 20% to get a seat – a much easier hurdle to clear. Lower hurdles make it easier to convince people to vote on their true beliefs, and to convince people who are fed up with their party that it’s not a “wasted vote” to try something different.
There are limitless varieties of proportional representation, from the number of representatives per division to the manner in which the proportions are distributed (FairVote.org is one place to start learning). But as Hooper explains, the overall principle is this: “Because there will be multiple winners in nearly all congressional districts, proportional elections are created without losing regional representation. The possibility of an independent or smaller party candidate winning a seat in Congress is therefore enhanced. This increased competition will make the two major parties more accountable and competitive.”
Hooper thinks the best way to achieve this is to get states to call for a convention to amend the Constitution, and you can read more about that in his book. I recommend hanging out at /r/ProportionalRep and /r/BetterDemocracy to learn more about the various forms of proportional representation, ask questions about how they work or how they could be achieved, and join forces to support efforts to increase awareness and achieve results. (Maybe it would be easier to start creating and increasing proportional representation at the state level.)
It’s easy to be cynical that proportional representation could really reform Congress – but apparently lots of other democratic countries are already successfully doing this – and guess what, their legislatures have more than two parties represented! The “everybody-else-is-doing-it” argument doesn’t stand on its own (All the cool countries have “free” health care! All the cool countries have a centralized cell phone database!), but it makes for pretty good corroborative evidence.
Try to imagine what Congress would be like if 20 or 30 of its members were libertarians. How would that completely change the dynamic if they voted with Republicans on some measures and Democrats on others? How would that completely shatter the two-team football-match mentality that permeates the political narratives? Maybe California would manage to get a Green representative or two; maybe New York would elect an Occupying Wealth Redistributor. That’s fine with me. Our two-party system is corrupt and broken and unfair to all of us, and I fully support efforts to decrease their influence and increase the amount of Americans who are actually represented in Congress. Let’s grow proportional representation from a fringe discussion and into a real movement.