The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

5 July 2003

Proportionately speaking

In this month's The Ethical Spectacle, Jay Verkuilen has an interesting essay called Electoral Arithmetic: Why The Way We Count Votes Makes a Big Difference and Why Third Parties Won’t Go Anywhere in the USA.

It is generally accepted that our current electoral system tends to reinforce the two-party system and to push both of those parties closer to the center while marginalizing groups on the fringe. Verkuilen doesn't challenge these assumptions, but he does offer a thought experiment: What if the US went to proportional representation? His answer:

Would the religious conservatives and business interests that currently make up the cores of the Republican party stick together? Would the coalitions of labor, ethnic minorities, and upper middle class professionals that make up the Democratic party stick together? I think it is highly unlikely.

What Verkuilen sees, under these conditions, is a collection of four parties, much like the four which exist in present-day Germany. I'm not so sure. Both of our major parties are indeed marriages of convenience; but while there may be good reasons for Wall Street and social conservatives to part company, they're not likely to do so as long as they see that the Democratic coalition is united, not for what they believe, but by what they don't believe: a Democratic candidate's major selling point today is "I am not a Republican." The six or seven hundred Democrats running for President in 2004 can be reliably counted upon to issue statements that say no more than that on a regular basis.

And proportional representation, while it may get more Greens and Libertarians and whatnot into the House of Representatives, isn't some kind of panacea for all our electoral ills. (A reminder here: when a state has more than one Representative, as do most of them, a switch to proportional representation will inevitably also mean a switch to at-large voting. No more districts, no more redistricting every ten years, no more gerrymandering.) Verkuilen again:

PR tends to emphasize parties, which in turn tend to represent issues as opposed to regions. One effect is that an individual legislator has little incentive to respond to local concerns, which is, of course, both good and bad. It's good because many requests are from "special interests" who are looking for pork and handouts. It's bad because citizens have no one to hold accountable for actions besides "the party." Finally, legislators are often important interlocutors between citizens and government bureaucracies. When there are no districts, legislators have little incentive to do anything about citizen concerns.

Up to now, there has not been much of a groundswell of popular support for proportional representation, and I don't see it building any time soon, but it does have its enthusiasts. And the Constitution, it should be remembered, specifies how many Congressmen a state can have, not the means by which they are elected; an individual state is presumably free to experiment with proportional representation should its residents so desire.

I am not, however, prepared to argue that proportional representation is some sort of great leap ahead. For one thing, some of the third-party groups which are effectively marginalized by our current system, in my opinion, deserve to be marginalized; further, the prices they will want to exact for participation in a coalition government may well be too high.

And there's one further consideration: if you're persuaded, as I am, that one of the biggest problems with government is that we have too much of it, changing the way we put people in office is window-dressing at best.

Posted at 8:21 AM to Political Science Fiction


Another aspect to the thing is that prop-rep is normally accompanied by the selection of the chief executive, and his entire senior council, from the elected representatives, whether by vote of those representatives or otherwise. Thus, the party or coalition that dominates the parliament will also control the executive branch.

I'm not sure how the prop-rep system would work without that provision. I don't know of any prop-rep country that's tried it. But from here, it appears to give the smaller parties an incentive to play coalition politics, since skill in that arena could reward them with Cabinet minister portfolios.

In this country, of course, the executive is firmly separated from the legislature. And a good thing, too; at times, that's the only factor that's kept the federal government from mushrooming until it had eaten us all. There appears to be a vague consciousness of this fact among the electorate. They'd never countenance doing it the other way.

Posted by: Francis W. Porretto at 9:36 AM on 5 July 2003

For one thing, some of the third-party groups which are effectively marginalized by our current system, in my opinion, deserve to be marginalized

classic... where have we heard that before?

read this post by Rob over at Emphasis Added

Posted by: bruce at 11:42 AM on 5 July 2003

"We have made debate and participation the central feature of our form of government precisely because our founders believed fundamentally in the value of every idea, not just the exclusive claims to wisdom by one person or one class of people. Our system is meant to be open to public scrutiny and full of checks and balances to ensure a lively clash of ideas, not simply to indulge participation for its own sake, but because progress and better ideas can only emerge from this kind of process."

-Rob @ emphasis added

Posted by: bruce at 11:43 AM on 5 July 2003

Actually, I don't know where you heard it before, but repeating something doesn't detract from its truth.

And be it known, I was one of the people who signed the petition to get Ralph Nader on the ballot in Oklahoma in 2000. I can't imagine any circumstances that would lead me actually to vote for Nader — maybe if he were running against Ann Coulter — but I obviously don't have any problem with the Greens being on the ballot, especially since I don't expect them ever to be a major factor in American politics. Should some state adopt proportional representation, there might even be a Green in the House someday, but I wouldn't expect her to accomplish much: it's a safe bet she'd be every bit as ideologically intractable as the right-wing theocrats you (and occasionally I) decry.

Posted by: CGHill at 12:37 PM on 5 July 2003

well, in a free market of ideas, political in this instance, then marginal ideas will get marginal support, especially in an educated populace.

I actually ciculated the petition, but I dont have any loyalty to Ralph Nader per se, I just wanted the political experience, and it taught me alot. Lesson number one is that many people dont like the idea of people they dont like being able to run for office. I would explain that they didnt actually have to VOTE for Ralph, but that he would just be on the ballot.

"I dont even want anyone else to vote for him either!"

I thought... how odd. I didnt want anyone to be able to vote for George Bush either but money has a way of overpowering my little 'ol opinion. Besides, if they want to vote for Bush, thats fine with me, its my job to try to support the candidate I want to win. Not to short circuit the process so I get the result I want.

means justify the ends.

Posted by: bruce at 10:44 PM on 5 July 2003

So in an open primary like, say, Georgia's, it wouldn't bother you particularly to see, for instance, Republicans crossing party lines to vote for Al Sharpton?

Posted by: CGHill at 11:09 PM on 5 July 2003

"I didnt want anyone to be able to vote for George Bush either..." (Emphasis mine.)

That's a real interesting thing to say, bruce. Especially after you just finished complaining that people "dont like the idea of people they dont like being able to run for office" in reference to your efforts to get Nader on the bill.

But I am sure that you didn't mean what you actually said. I am sure that what you meant to say was that any candidate should be on the ballot regardless of how much "money" is involved. Yeah, that's it. That's the ticket.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at 1:04 AM on 6 July 2003

Yes Bruce, there's a difference between not wanting anyone else to vote for someone, and not wanting anyone else to be able to vote for him.

Jeez. No wonder people don't understand the difference between censorship and the mere failure to subsidize speech with taxpayers' money. Or the difference between having a right to do something and it being right to do it...

Posted by: McGehee at 8:12 AM on 6 July 2003

I've been planning to post on this subject for some time. I may wind up doing it soon because if you and this article, Charles.

Here's the huge gaping hole missing in the logic: first, politicians DO vote local interests in the current system. They do it all the time.

Second, and far more important: both major political parties are large coalitions of various points of view. The hugest mistake we ever make is thinking that either of them is monolithic. No, what they are is carefully balanced coalitions of viewpoints, in which the politicians wangle some way to find a bunch of compromises that all its coalition members can live with.

Which is, uh, exactly what a "proportional representation" system would do. The coalitions would just be formed inside government rather than in the parties. I see no evidence that the finished product would look much different.

We get these paranoid ideas that the "religious right" is "secretly driving the agenda" or whatever in the Republians, or that the "environmentalist extremists control the Democrats." Nope. Both are parts of the massive coalition within their respective parties. They get a voice in the party platform and in nominating the candidates. Candidates find ways to pick and choose issues that they and other coalition members can live with vs. things they cannot live with.

Six of one and half a dozen of the other--except our current system has proven stable and capable of recovering from severe blows against it over the last 225+ years.

Posted by: Dean Esmay at 1:27 PM on 9 July 2003