Amid authoritarian and illiberal forces buffeting social democracies, it is helpful to renew appreciation for their political architectures, especially the central role developed over a century and a half for the principle of proportional representation (PR). Its absence is one factor responsible for the poor quality of American democracy documented in Billionaire Democracy.
In contrast to the PR systems widespread in Europe, the American political system is designed to render voters unequal. It also rejects the seminal principle of democracy, with majority rule occurring only randomly. In addition, it is corrupt (pay-to-play) by judicial fiat and plagued by fake news exploited by the Republican Party and Russians alike.
Adding to this dark picture is the undemocratic 18th century American electoral system – judged by political scientists with the Electoral Integrity Project to be the least responsive system among all rich democracies – of lower quality even than election systems in Barbados, Brazil, Croatia, Mongolia, Rwanda, South Africa or Tunisia.
Readers may be familiar with the slavery-era Electoral College responsible for vaulting American losers like George W. Bush and Donald Trump over popular vote winners to become president. Less familiar is the structure of America’s electoral system responsible for its gigantic number of impotent or wasted votes and the nation’s widespread erratic and only coincidental relationship with majority rule: single-member legislative districts featuring plurality (winner-take-all) elections.
The PR system common in higher quality democracies was advocated by John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville and has spread since instituted in Denmark during the 1850s to more than 20 European nations. Under PR, political parties are awarded legislative seats according to their share of all votes cast. This causes each voter’s voice to bear weight in legislative deliberations and to be reflected in policy compromises that are the hallmark of PR governance.
In contrast, the American single-member/plurality system is designed to silence voices. It results in about half of all votes cast carrying no weight when legislatures craft public policies. The preferences of losing-candidate supporters are ignored, their votes wasted. Indeed, in the common American electoral scenario where three or more candidates compete, it is not unusual for more than half the votes cast to be wasted.
For Want of a Nail… This apocryphal lament by Shakespeare’s ill-starred Richard III at Bosworth Field evokes the spectre of tiny events yielding hugely consequential outcomes. That concept is exemplified by an election in 2017 in the state of Virginia decided by one vote – dramatising how the American electoral system wastes votes. One-vote margin elections (or ties) are extremely rare, with only a handful having occurred in elections since 1839 across the globe ranging from Austria, Canada, India, UK, Philippines to the US. Of that tiny number, only a few were consequential, including a Philippine mayoral election and two (Zanzibar in 1961 and Virginia in 2017) that determined control of an entire legislature.
In Virginia, a single vote among the nearly 2.4 million cast determined control of its legislature (House of Delegates). Legislative dominance rests on the outcome of individual elections conducted in 100 geographically distinct legislative districts in that state. Under its single-member plurality electoral system, a one-vote loss in one of those districts left the Democratic Party one parliamentary seat short (49-51) statewide following the 2017 election. The 51 Republicans have consequently ignored the preferences of the 1.3 million voters supporting their opponents.
Further Attenuating Majority Rule: Gerrymandering
That election also exemplified another way in which the American political system flouts majority rule. While the Electoral College is responsible for failure of majority rule in American presidential elections, “gerrymandering” is responsible at the legislative level. For example, the 1.3 million votes for Democratic legislative candidates topped the 1.1 million votes cast for Republican candidates in the Virginia election. Democratic candidates garnered 54 percent of all votes cast but won only 49 races, while Republicans received just 45 percent of the vote but won 51 seats. This mismatch is a consequence of gerrymandering.
A boundary redesign of America’s tens of thousands of single-member legislative districts occurs across the nation every ten years (2001, 2011, 2021). Some 37 states absurdly permit legislators themselves to redraw their own legislative districts. The results are predictable, with legislative majorities drawing district boundaries to favour their political party, de facto picking their voters. That’s what Virginia Republican legislators did in 2011. While all districts have the same population, Republicans drew boundaries to spread loyal party voters broadly in a balanced fashion among a majority of districts while cramming Democratic-leaning voters into fewer districts.
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Among the most egregious recent examples of majority rule being flouted are gerrymandered districts for the US Congress. For instance, in Pennsylvania in 2012, Democrats won 50.5 percent of votes cast statewide for Congressional candidates but won only five of 18 gerrymandered Congressional seats. You read that correctly – five. Democrats won 50.6 percent of the statewide vote for Congressional candidates in North Carolina in 2012, but won only 4 of 13 seats. And in Maryland in 2016, Democratic congressional candidates won 60 percent of the vote statewide but won 7 of 8 seats.
Unfortunately, the American electoral system suffers from other pathologies beyond a gigantic 60 million wasted votes and anti-majoritarian elections. Unlike Europe, partisan state and local election officials routinely discourage opponent voting with unwarranted voter ID laws, limit opportunities to register or vote, conduct unwarranted purges of voter lists and ban non-partisan campaigns by groups like the League of Women Voters intended to expand voting.
What Can be Done?
PR is the prescription for eliminating wasted votes and finally (after 229 years) planting true majority rule at the center of American democracy; by eliminating single member districts, it eliminates gerrymandering. PR is is resisted by US political parties. In its few American applications in the 20th century, it dramatically improved the democratic process. In New York City’s election for the Board of Aldermen in 1935, for instance, Democratic candidates received 66 percent of the vote, but won 95 percent of the gerrymandered seats. After making the switch to PR in 1939, they won 65.5 percent of the vote and 66 percent of the seats. The only vestige of PR left in the US is the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
There are no constitutional barriers to eliminating the American single-member plurality electoral structure or adopting PR. Yet, it is such a profound reform that – like eliminating pay-to-play or corralling fake news – it assuredly requires affirmation by the US Supreme Court. Unfortunately, Donald Trump’s 2017 court appointee has likely put such a visionary Court at least a generation away. Indeed, his appointee was the deciding vote cast in the recent Supreme Court decision that affirmed gerrymandering.
Even so, there is significant reformist ferment at the state and local levels, mostly led by private citizens. For instance, twelve states with 32 percent of the US population have acted to de facto end the Electoral College by requiring their electors in the college to vote for the national popular vote winner for president (rather than the state winner). To reduce pay-to-play, taxpayer funding of elections has been established in 12 states (most comprehensively in Arizona, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine and Minnesota) and in numerous cities like Long Beach, California, Montgomery, Alabama, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Seattle, Washington, Tucson, Arizona and New York City. Six states have abandoned gerrymandering, with independent entities rather than legislators designing districts. Twelve states have instituted automatic voter registration whenever citizens interact with government agencies. And advocacy groups like Fairvote persist in educating voters and in urging Congress to support PR legislation like that proposed by Congressman Don Beyer.
The lesson is that steps to raise the low quality of American democracy are feasible. Citizen-led reforms are improving the American democratic experience. And that process is a dynamic one, providing valuable testing grounds and accumulating evidence to support even further reforms in the years ahead.
George Tyler is a former US deputy Treasury assistant secretary and senior official at the World Bank. He is the author of What Went Wrong: How the 1% Hijacked the American Middle Class ... And What Other Nations Got Right.