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Nuts&Bolts: Whither and Whether Proportional Voting in the USA

A few weeks ago, I participated in a Harvard Ash Center event that lifted up the urgent need for proportional voting in the United States. The best way forward is a congressional statute to establish the Fair Representation Act to enact the proportional representation form of ranked choice voting for congressional elections. Here’s why.

I’ve wanted to replace winner-take-all elections in the United States for more than three decades. In1990, proportional voting already was the international norm among established democracies, and nearly every emerging democracy in Eastern Europe and Latin America was rejecting US-style winner-take-all elections.

I wanted a politics where our public debates were enhanced by having more voices at the table, and you could join with like-minded allies to earn a fair share of seats grounded in the power of your ideas: 51% wins a majority, but 20% wins about a fifth of the seats.

Today, far more Americans support proportional voting. More thought leaders recognize that nearly all of us lose out in today’s sectarian winner-take-all world, one in which the parties have entered a death spiral that leaves huge problems poorly addressed or completely ignored. The status quo is unsustainable.

Ordinary Americans are ready for big changes too: a U-Maryland national poll released this week found that 61% of voters favor using ranked choice voting in general federal elections, with majority support in deeply Republicans and deeply Democratic districts.

So what do we do? On April 19, I joined Harvard’s Archon Fung and Danielle Allen and former Utah state legislator Rebecca Chavez Houck for a rich conversation headlined Beyond Winner-Take-All: Possibilities for Proportional Voting in the United States. You can watch the webinar online. Archon’s first question to me was what form of proportional voting I support for the United States.

My youthful answer would have been Germany’s mixed-member proportional system. As I’d learned about the many forms of PR around the world, the German approach — one that combines American-style single-seat districts with “compensatory seats” to ensure that overall seat shares reflect voters’ party preferences — represented an elegant compromise between those seeking local representation and those wanting party fairness.

And why not? Americans had played a huge role in establishing mixed-member PR in post-war Germany, and it has taken off as a model in familiar democracies like New Zealand and Scotland.

That’s why in 1991 I excitedly mailed (no emails yet!) my first published oped on the German system to the venerable Electoral Reform Society in the United Kingdom. A few weeks later, I received a stern letter from Enid Lakeman, the legendary 87-year-old British reform champion. While appreciating my enthusiasm and connection to my great uncle George Hallett, a pioneer in proportional representation advocacy (and a good subject for a future post), she chided me for backing Germany’s model. The one form of proportional representation I should support, she wrote, was the single transferable vote, which the Society had championed since the days of one of its great backers, political philosopher John Stuart Mill. I confess to some youthful eye-rolling in response.

So what was my answer to Archon this week? Why, that the United States should adopt Enid’s favorite, the single transferable vote – that is, the proportional form of ranked choice voting, as reflected in Congressman Don Beyer’s Fair Representation Act.

What explains my change of view is not reduced appreciation for the myriad forms of party-based proportional voting systems. There is a great conversation to be had about what different countries might use, and the many models worthy of support. But there are powerful reasons for adopting the proportional form of RCV in the United States:

Proportional RCV depends on a ranked ballot we can use for all elections: Unlike parliamentary democracies, the United States has directly elected executive offices - starting with the president, but including governors, mayors, district attorneys, and so on. Ranked choice voting is a powerful improvement over single-choice systems and “delayed runoff” elections for such elections, which explains why it’s now law for presidential elections in two states and in local elections in more than 50 cities.

Proportional RCV can be used for both partisan and nonpartisan elections: Most local elections in the United States are nonpartisan. Proportional RCV works quite well in nonpartisan elections, as shown in cities like Cambridge (MA) and Minneapolis (MN). Having a uniform voting ballot regardless of office adds to ease-of-use for voters, meaning that proportional RCV will create incentives for our cities to move to proportional voting as well.

Proportional RCV enables politicians to act on their own views: In many democracies, the idea of representatives voting against their leadership is rare on anything that matters. It’s the party leaders that negotiate together to get things done. But many Americans want representatives to legislate based more on their own views and those of their constituents -- that is, as they still can today without excessive fear of party retribution. Proportional RCV would maintain this traditional balance, with representatives typically working within their party caucuses while still being able to vote their own views and find legislative partners of their own choosing.

Proportional RCV allows independent candidates and voters to participate on an equal basis: Tens of millions of American voters are proud to be unaffiliated, and many candidates run as independents. Proportional RCV gives them a level playing field to compete in general elections without needing to affiliate with a party.

Proportional RCV is still fair when winning requires a large percentage of votes: Nearly half of our states have fewer than six U.S. House seats, meaning that winning in a proportional system will require a relatively substantial share of the vote — that’s more than 20% to win one of Kansas’s four seats. It’s high time we talk about adding 100-150 House seats, but doing so won’t change the fundamentals. Ranked choice voting will allow major party nominees with new ideas, minor party candidates, and independents to put their best foot forward without splitting the vote

Proportional RCV transparently upholds the Voting Rights Act: Because proportional RCV involves voting directly for candidates, racial minority voters can elect candidates of choice directly, At the same time, RCV means they can indicate backup choices that will count if their first choice falls short, which increases the power of their vote and opportunities for inclusion. It’s a proven voting rights remedy that already had been upheld in federal and state courts.

Proportional RCV fits our political culture of “big tent” parties that encompass diverse perspectives: American parties traditionally encompass major internal differences spread across our vast national geography. Proportional RCV would allow that big tent to be filled with the range of views that truly co-exist within the major parties – especially because proportional RCV in primaries (as proposed in the Fair Representation Act) will ensure a party’s nominees fully reflect their party’s internal diversity. Illinois for more than a century showcased this kind of politics when electing its state legislature with a similar proportional system (“cumulative voting”), and accounts of its impact show it promoted better, more inclusive governance.

I’m far from alone in concluding that the proportional form of RCV would be a powerful change in the United States. As FairVote pivoted to a strategy to win change nationally, we were part of two important exercises in 2015 where proportional RCV tested well against reform alternatives.

In one major project on structural electoral reform, we had 14 leading political scientists and election law professors evaluate 37 different electoral reforms across 16 different dimensions of impact. The single most impactful change? Proportional RCV.

In a spirited “Democracy Slam,” where NBC’s Chuck Todd moderated the final panel and then-law professor Jamie Raskin hosted and convened scores of students, proportional RCV was the most highly rated reform.

Congressman Don Beyer was quick to see the logic of proportional RCV when we met to talk about its potential in the United States, and later introduced the Fair Representation Act in 2017. Backers include columnist David Brooks, the New York Times editorial board and growing numbers of Members of Congress.

So now it’s time to scale the push for change. As Danielle Allen said in the Beyond Winner-Take-All panel, that should at a minimum mean working hard to normalize the ranked choice voting ballot. It also means keeping a clear eye on the urgent need to challenge winner-take-all elections as our national politics deteriorate. It’s taken 30 years to get to where FairVote is today, with our signature reforms on the cusp of new viability. Within the coming decade, an expanded coalition can get the Fair Representation Act into law.


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