Sunday, July 09, 2006

Wish Week Day 2: Proportional Representation

This is Day 2 of “Wish Week.” I am devoting this week to presenting far-out crazy ideas that just might make the world better than it would otherwise be. Yesterday, I proposed creating local clubs that I called “Logic Circles” for the purpose of promoting critical thinking in one’s community.

Today’s wish is for an experiment in proportional representation

I am a scientific-minded person. This means that I do not think in terms of creating wonderful ideas that I then insist must work and then try to get everybody adopt. Instead, I can form a hypothesis that I think might work and suggest that it might be worthwhile to experiment to see if the hypothesis is correct.

Today’s hypothesis is to replace the “one representative/one vote” model of the legislature that is used throughout the world with one in which each representative has as many votes in the legislature as he had votes in the last election.

Let us assume that a state government decides to conduct this experiment with one of its legislative chambers. Furthermore, let us assume that the chamber in question holds 100 representatives – simply because it is a nice round number. The experiment would look like this:

• Legislative districts would be abolished. The legislative election would be a state-wide election without districts.

• All candidates run for the legislature on the same ballot. All names appear on one list.

• Each voter picks one legislator to represent him or her.

• The top 100 vote-getters in the election each get a seat on the legislature.

• Each legislator gets one vote in the legislature for each person who voted for him or her in the election.

To illustrate this, imagine a legislative body with 10 legislators. There is a statewide election. The official tally for all of the votes turns out to be:

Candidate01: 145,456 votes

Candidate02: 128,600 votes

Candidate03: 99,161 votes

Candidate04: 87,254 votes

Candidate05: 86,517 votes

Candidate06: 55,857 votes

Candidate07: 42,982 votes

Candidate08: 40,221 votes

Candidate09: 26,951 votes

Candidate10: 25,821 votes

Candidate11: 24,412 votes

In this election, Candidate01 through Candidate10 have each won a seat in the state legislature. Each candidate enters with the number of votes equal to the number of people who voted for him. Thus, on any measure that Candidate01 votes for, he will cast his full 145,456 votes. If Candidate06 votes against a bill, his vote counts for 55,847 votes.

What Will This Accomplish?

The End of Gerrymandering

First, it will do away with the art of gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is a process whereby legislators lock up their seats in the legislature and guarantee their re-election by selecting those who get to vote in his campaigns. In an exaggerated form, through gerrymandering, a politician says, “The only people who can vote in my district are those who would vote for me. If you would vote against me, I am going to push you into some other district.”

More importantly, gerrymandering is a procedure whereby a political party can hold on to a majority of the seats in the legislature even though a majority of the population supports the other party. They do this by concentrating the voters for the majority party into a few districts, while designing the rest so that their candidate will win. Ideally, a political party can use gerrymandering to control the government even though as little as 26% of the population supports their position, and the remaining 74% support their opponent.

In this system, there is no gerrymandering. There is one legislative district. Consequently, there is no way for a candidate to manipulate the borders to include only those who support him and squeeze out those who oppose him.

With this system, every vote cast for a candidate does, in fact, count. If I like Candidate 08, and I decide that I am too lazy to go to the polls and cast my vote for Candidate08, this means that Candidate08 has one fewer vote to cast on the floor of the legislature. He is that much weaker as a result of my decision not to vote.

Every Vote Counts

In our current political system, much of what we believe about democracy is a myth. We tell ourselves a long list of lies because we do not wish to see the truth.

I was forced to see the truth a few years ago in Maryland. I went to vote, and my name was not on the roster of registered voters. I was not the only one. I was asked to wait around until they found out what the problem was, but I could not wait. I never got to the polls.

I read what happened in the paper. The Clerk and Recorder’s Office did not select all registered voters when they printed off the list. If I remember correctly, over 200 of us in Prince George’s County might have lost our opportunity to vote because of this mistake. However, the local judge decided that the mistake did not matter, because no ballot initiative failed by less than 200 votes.

In other words, the judge said that those 200 votes did not matter.

The fact is, he was right.

At the start of the day there was a small chance that those 200 votes would matter. However, at the end of the day, we discovered that those 200 votes were irrelevant – the election is as good without them as it would have been with them.

This is a fact about the current system that our culture forces us to suppress. We moan and complain about the fact that voter turnout is low because we refuse to admit to ourselves that those votes really do not matter.

Under this system, each vote does, indeed, count. Those 200 voters would have had a right to pick which legislators would carry their vote, and that would affect how much leverage those legislators had in the legislative body.

Because “every vote counts” would no longer be a myth, but would be fact, I suspect that voter turnout would soar. There would be no argument for staying home because the voter who stayed home would have actually and unmistakably cost the legislator he or she would have voted for some strength in the legislature.

Restructuring of Political Parties

We have two political parties in this country largely because we have a “winner take all” political system. In our system, 51% of the voters get 100% of the political power. Because of this, our society has organized itself into two factions – two Great Alliances – each of which control about 40% of the votes. They fight each other for the 20% of the voters who remain unaligned.

In such a system, it is foolish to have a third party. A third party is a dream come true for the major political party that is furthest away from its political views. The third party will drain votes from the major party that is closest to it. This means that the nearest major party must make a choice. It must move closer to the extreme, abandon the moderate voters, and lose the election; or it must move closer to the opposite party to try to capture more of the middle. Either way, the third party will end up doing more harm than good for the principles they believe in.

We saw represented in the 2000 election where the Green Party gave the election to the candidate that produced the greatest corporate advantage and the greatest environmental destruction of any President in history. Many of them still refuse to admit that their actions helped to produce the current result, and the world would have been a better place on their own terms if they had worked within the Democratic Party in the year 2000 instead of weakening it by pulling out of its Great Alliance.

Now, let us assume instead that a situation like that of the 2000 election were to occur in a statewide race for legislative seats. Al Gore would have become a legislator with the most number of votes. George Bush would have also gotten a seat on the legislature with fewer votes. Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan would have become legislators with their relatively fewer votes. The power structure in the legislature would have actually been a power structure that represented the people.

Also, because every vote counts, we could well have expected that those who voted for Nader or Buchanan, who selected a majority party President only as a “second best option”, would have been able to give their support instead to who they truly thought was the best candidate, without running the risk of handing the government over to who (from their perspective) would have been the worst candidate.

In such a system, there will be third parties, fourth parties, fifth parties, and so on. Voters would actually have the opportunity to vote their convictions, and there will be far less of a need to vote for “the lesser of two evils.”

Of course, this is a benefit only to the degree that one actually thinks that voters can cast intelligent votes when faced with a situation where their votes really do count.

The Case of Legislative Districts

The concept of the Legislative District was popular 200 years ago because of difficulties in communication. The only way that a perspective legislator could talk to the people would be to visit them in person. They would travel on horseback or by carriage.

Later, they would travel by train. However, railroad conductors were reluctant to travel to regions that did not have any railroad tracks.

Now, we have television, radio, telephone, automobiles with roads that go anywhere, and airplanes for long hops. We now live in an age where any candidate can run a state-wide campaign. The old arguments for legislative districts do not apply any more. They provide no objection to having one statewide district.


There would be other programs to work out in such a system. How would a legislature organize itself and make appointments if it could not do so on the basis of political parties? What is the risk of a single charismatic individual gaining a majority of all votes and, thus, gaining the power to dictate the passage of all legislative bills? Do we really want a system where Muslims, Communists, and Atheists each might find representation in the legislature? If not, how can we rig the system so that we can continue to call ourselves a “Democracy” while denying these minority groups any substantive political voice? (Trick question.)


Anonymous said...

PR is easier if each party puts forth an ordered slate of candidates and you vote for parties.

Also, you forgot to throw in IRV (Instant Runoff Voting), where you pick a second and maybe third party/candidate. That way when you get ties and such for those last few seats they're broken immediately by preference.

It's just us here in the U.S. for whom these are novel ideas, countries like Canada have been using them for years.

I don't know what it's like in Colorado, but I find that despite people's general perspective on my home state of Massachusetts as being pretty liberal, they're actually hopelessly stuck on doing things the traditional way. PR would also allow those of my friends who are Republicans to have their presidential votes counted for a change.

When I was growing up in Worcester, MA they used PR+IRV for City Council elections, but they laid the ballot out in a pretty weird way and people got confused so they stopped.

PR+IRV ballots, done right, have the same vertical list 2 or 3 times, and the top of each column says, respectively, "First Preference", "Second Preference" and "Third Preference". The last item on each list is a blank line for write-in candidates.

That way it's easier for me to put "Spider Jerusalem", "Bugs Bunny" and "The Undead Corpse of Ben Franklin" in there and be done with it for another 4 years.

Anonymous said...

Sorry I just reread your 'candidate gets x number of votes' thing, and that doesn't work very well practically. Since I suggested party votes, the number of seats divided by the number of votes cast is what percent of the vote you need to get one person on your slate into the legislature. The IRV stuff is for when you're dividing those last few seats and there's inevitable ties.

Chris said...

To the above commenter: You seem to be dismissing the central feature of Alonzo's proposed system (legislators with different numbers of votes to vote on bills) without really examining it. Isn't that a little unfair?

This looks like an interesting idea. I don't think that the election of a "dictator" (one representative with over 50% of the vote) is really that likely because of the third-party effect that would show up almost immediately. However, you could still allow certain acts of the legislature to require supermajorities; if one candidate gets over 2/3 of the total votes cast *even with the third-party effect*, it would probably be because of some overwhelming national emergency. As long as the constitution is such that the dictator can't prevent the next election from removing him or reducing his power if the people choose to do so, he would be more like the ancient Roman dictators than the present sense of the term.

It *is* possible that a majority of the votes would end up in the hands of a relatively small number, perhaps fewer than a dozen, of the most visible candidates; but they would be the most visible candidates on each different part of the political spectrum, and therefore would be unlikely to agree on much of anything. In practice, you would probably need a coalition of big legislators with small legislators to get anything done, since the big guys mostly disagree with the other big guys.

You make a good case for eliminating legislative districts, too. Regional factors are largely irrelevant to a society where lightspeed communications are ubiquitous, aside from a local government which will exclusively decide local issues such as zoning and road building.

Every vote still does not count though: all the votes for Candidate 11 in your example are wasted. Instant runoff voting might fix this problem; if anyone who voted for Candidate 11 also picked a second choice and their second choice candidate received their vote in the legislature, their vote would not be wasted even though they failed to elect Candidate 11. Alternatively, Candidate 11 herself could pick which of the winners to donate her votes to. This might allow her to solicit promises to pursue a certain agenda in exchange for her votes. (In both cases, I think it would be preferable to eliminate losers one at a time, starting from the bottom, until you reach the number of seats, because the ranks near the cutoff point may rearrange as votes from losers get reassigned.)

However, I'm not sure this system will work for presidential elections: there really are good reasons to have one head of the Executive Branch (although that branch should certainly be limited in its authority). Triumvirates and similar arrangements really don't work that well and are often subverted in practice. But if you have only one seat, then some of the original problems come back, and the idea of getting more votes doesn't apply. I don't see any way to avoid the 51% winner problem in a one-seat executive.

It's possible that this system could be applied to *electors*, but I see no good reason to retain the Electoral College at all, if we're talking about this kind of structural reform in the first place. Electors are no longer delegated the power to choose a president, but rather, committed to their choice in advance and chosen on that basis; this makes them essentially obsolete.

Therefore, I would favor a straight instant-runoff popular vote ballot for the presidency. This allows people to express support for third parties and dark horse candidates without hurting their political interests by doing so.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


You are correct that votes for those who do not make the "top 100" (or however many legislators there are) are lost. However, I found no good way to avoid this.

We could not allow those who vote for losing candidates to vote again without knowing who people vote for -- which would be a bad idea.

If we allow losing candidates to donate their votes to the winner, we create a system where we run the risk of having thousands of individuals on the ballot. At least some inefficiency in terms of lost votes for those who cast votes for the 101st candidate would serve to prevent keep the number of candidates reasonable.

You are correct; there is still a need for a chief executive and this method will not work for its election. However, it would be interesting to discover the effect that such a system for electing legislators would have on partisan politics.

Anonymous said...

Me again, the guy from above. (My name is Jason Powers, if you didn't require registration I'd post as me, as it is I posted most of the anonymous comments on this blog).

The representative system is always going to demand one-man-one-vote at the legislative level, assigning one guy more votes than another hasn't worked yet. I point you to Wikipedia (and more valuably, its collection of links) to pick up more on the tested variants of PR and IRV.

The chief executive is generally considered best chosen by the newly elected legislature, and best removed by an act of the legislature. It's generally agreed that he shouldn't have a veto, and that America is the only system with an independent executive which hasn't devolved into a dictatorship.