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Game theory in the popular press.

New way to vote?

Proportional voting system would benefit the LP

LP News Archive
Bill Redpath
October 1995
text is a cache of http://www.lp.org/lpn/9510-proportion.html

As an LP member for 11 years, many times I have heard the claim that the two-party system is near an end. And not just by Libertarians.

Oh, how I wish that were so.

True, about 150 Libertarians currently hold public office (and that is double the number of two years ago), and 6 percent of the votes cast for the U.S. House in 1994 went to independent and third-party candidates. Polls show that over 50 percent of the American people would like to see a third major party. And a recent poll estimated that 22 percent of the American public is at least fairly libertarian.

So, is the two-party system approaching extinction? Are we about to witness the birth of a multi-party system in America, with the Libertarian Party right up there with the Republicans and Democrats?

Don't bet on it. At least not as long as we maintain our present system of voting. The U.S. is among the few democracies (all descendants of the United Kingdom) of the world that retain a Single Member Plurality (SMP) voting system. We divide legislatures into single member districts, voters have only one vote to cast, and only the person receiving the most votes wins. Under such a system, the game for candidates for public office becomes one of trying to be all things to all voters and to offend the fewest people possible. This is why candidates don't take detailed or controversial positions. If you take six positions, each of which offend 10 percent of the electorate, you're finished. De-emphasis of issues and thematic campaigns, so roundly criticized as being problems of the American political system, are nearly an inevitable result of our SMP voting system. This system is "winner take all", the most egregious form of which is our Electoral College. With "winner take all", a significant portion of the electorate, including Libertarians, end up without any true representation in legislatures.

Other results of SMP voting are voter alienation, low voter turnout, the perception (and reality) of wasted votes, district gerrymandering, candidates appealing to "the center" (translation: avoiding the issues), and the resultant two-party monopoly. District gerrymandering engineers the results of elections before they occur through the blatantly political drawing of district boundaries. And with more sophisticated population data and computer technology, gerrymandering will only get worse. Libertarians should be bothered by this both philosophically and pragmatically.

The emerging democracies of this world have taken a look at SMP voting and have unanimously chosen other forms of voting that can be classified by one phrase: proportional representation. There are many different types of proportional representation (PR) voting, but they all fall into three general types of PR voting: 1) party list voting; 2) an additional member system; and 3) preference voting (also called "single transferable voting").

With party list voting, voters vote for a party and, possibly, particular candidates. Seats within a legislature are allocated based upon the party vote, with a state treated as one large district. If the LP were to get 10 percent of the vote for a state legislature, Libertarians would get 10 percent of the seats. With a closed party list system, each party would determine which members got seats in the legislature. With an open party list system, the public would vote particular party members into office.

The additional member system is used in Germany and has aspects of both the party list vote and our SMP system. Voters would vote for both a candidate to represent their district and their favorite party. I'll use the Virginia House of Delegates to illustrate this. Instead of 100 single member districts, there would be 50 single member district elections that would fill half of the legislature based upon SMP elections. The other half of the legislature would be allocated to parties based upon the outcome of the party list vote. If Libertarians got zero elected through the district SMP elections, but got 10 percent of the party vote, then 10 percent of the House's seats would be filled by elected Libertarians (assuming the party vote would compensate for 0 seats won through the SMP vote). With a non-compensating system, only five Libertarians would be appointed to the legislature.

With preference voting (STV), multi-member districts are created (or there is only one district, say a county or city) and voters step into the voting booth and mark their preferences: This candidate is my first choice, this is my second choice, third, fourth, etc. Based upon the number of seats to be filled, a threshold number of votes is established at which point a candidate is elected to office. (With a city council of nine seats, the threshold would be a little over 10 percent of the vote). When someone is elected, that candidate's excess votes above this threshold are reallocated to those voters' second choices, then third choices, etc., until there are no more excess votes for winning candidates to be reallocated. Then the last place candidate is eliminated and his or her votes are reallocated to voters' second choices. This process of reallocating the excess votes of winners and the votes of losing candidates is repeated until the elected body has been filled. Used for voting in 20 U.S. cities earlier this century, it now survives in only Cambridge, MA, city council elections and New York City School Board elections.

In all three of these systems, a candidate can get elected to public office by appealing to only a minority of voters, and not be forced to be either "in the mainstream" or unelectable.

States and lower governmental entities can select their own ways of voting. For the U.S. House, a law passed in 1967 mandating single member districts is the only barrier to PR voting for U.S. House elections. Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA), whose badly gerrymandered district was recently declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, has introduced legislation that would allow states to use whatever method of voting they want to fill their U.S. House delegation.

It would take a constitutional amendment for PR voting to occur in U.S. Senate elections. However, majority preference voting (where losers' votes are reallocated until one candidate has a majority) could occur in U.S. Senate elections and other single winner races. This would, I think, greatly help LP vote totals, because many voters would vote Libertarian with their first choice knowing their vote could be transferred to their next favorite candidate if the Libertarian doesn't win. Under SMP voting, because votes can't be transferred, many voters don't vote for their truly favorite candidate because they fear that by doing so they will help elect the candidate they most despise.

There are several objections to proportional representation voting. (And we know who'll be doing most of the objecting: The Rs, Ds, and entities, individual and otherwise, who have a big investment in the current system.)

One is that it's too complicated. Although the calculations involved can be somewhat complicated, the mechanics of PR voting are not. One good response to this is, "Your objection implies that Americans are dumber than Europeans." That will usually end that objection.

Another objection is that it takes too long to find out who won the elections. Computer technology makes this argument false. But, after months (if not years) of campaigning, and assumption of office usually a couple of months away, why do we have to know on election night who won?

PR voting also is not about racial set-asides or racial groups winning a predetermined number of seats, but rather about more voters getting a chance to win the representation they want by having their votes much more likely count toward a candidate's election.

And one important thing! As a method of election, proportional representation is completely different than a parliamentary system, which describes the structure of governance. We can still have stable governments with PR voting.

Without a change from SMP voting to some form of PR voting, the only path for long-term electoral success, particularly at the federal level, lies in either displacing an existing "major party", or in having one of them completely co-opt our agenda. Both are historically rare events.

Until recently, I had little hope of seeing any form of PR established in the United States. However, the recent Supreme Court decision declaring racially gerrymandered districts unconstitutional and the success of term limit initiatives and referenda have opened the door to introducing PR voting into American elections.

In light of the Supreme Court ruling on the unconstitutionality of Georgia's 11th U.S. House District, African-Americans and Hispanics, who have been relying on racially gerrymandered districts, may be open to supporting PR as an alternative. PR has the added advantage of providing real representation without racial set-asides or quotas. Add to that the support of other minority groups, disenfranchised Democrats and Republicans in lopsided districts, and frustrated independents, and the possibility exists to put together a solid majority in favor of PR.

Of course, we can't expect incumbent politicians to possibly reform themselves out of a job. That's why the 25 states that allow initiatives and referenda are so important. The term limit movement demonstrated that the voters can prevail even in the face of the determined opposition of incumbent politicians. They can be successful in establishing a PR beachhead as well. In fact, proportional representation initiative campaigns are already under way that would impact municipal elections in Seattle, WA, and Eugene, OR.

The next redistricting cycle is only six years away. This offers a great target for getting states to let the people, not the mapmakers, determine who their representatives will be.

It also offers a great opportunity for Libertarian candidates. SMP voting is largely responsible for the sad state of American democracy: Ever decreasing voter turnout, and the choice between the lesser of two evils. The American people have said that they want to see more viable choices on the ballot. We need to let them know that a proportional representation system may be the only way to get these choices.

To those of you who think this sort of change is impossible, I readily admit that it will be an uphill fight. But, it is absolutely not impossible. No doubt many people thought slavery would always exist, that women would never vote, that the Berlin Wall would never fall. Change is possible, but it's not going to happen until we know what we're aiming for and why.

For us, as a party, to move forward and really succeed, we need to recognize what's holding us back. Libertarians have to recognize that a two-party monopoly is the inevitable result of our SMP voting system, and that the system must be changed. We need to become leaders in the drive toward proportional representation voting in the United States.

If you want to learn more about Proportional Representation voting, write the Center for Voting and Democracy (CVD), of which I am a board member, 6905 5th St. NW, Washington, DC 20012, or call 202-882-7378 for information. CVD is holding a conference in Cambridge, MA, on Nov. 10-12, 1995, which will include sessions on proportional voting. I also recommend the book "Real Choices, New Voices: The Case for Proportional Representation Elections in the U.S.," by Douglas J. Amy (Columbia University Press, 1993).


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