By Bob Richard
This article picks up where our analysis of Prop 14 left off, and presents a real solution to the problems Prop 14 won't solve.
Under Prop 14, in the June primary candidates for partisan office would compete in a single Top Two primary rather than running for the nomination of their political parties. Then in November voters would be limited to only two choices. The top two might be from the same party. They would almost never include an independent or a small party candidate. And write-in votes would not be counted in November.
This is the wrong solution to a problem of critical importance. It wouldn't work, even on its own terms, to reduce polarization and gridlock. What it would do is increase the influence of big business, make corporate money even more important than it is now, and possibly elect more business-friendly office holders. It would help incumbents. It would weaken all political parties and threaten the very existence of small parties.
In order to talk about solutions, we have to state the problem correctly. The problem is not what the backers of Prop 14 claim – that there are too few "moderate" (by which proponents mostly mean pro-business) office-holders and that the two major parties are too polarized. In order for these statements to contain a kernel of truth, "moderate" must be defined differently, with reference to center of the politcal spectrum. Even then, stating the problem this way limits the possible solutions to rigging the voting rules to elect "moderate" candidates.
The real problem is that in a two-party system elected officials cannot accurately represent all important political interests and perspectives. Even during periods when the Republican and Democratic parties are more polarized than usual and don't include many middle-of-the-road politicians, they are still too much the same. Both are dominated by elements within the same capitalist class.
The solution is a multi-party democracy, one that not only better represents "moderates" but also fairly represents the rest of us. We don't agree with columnist Dan Walters very often. But on this question, he is quite right: "It's simply inconceivable that the incredible cultural, economic and even geographic diversity of 38 million Californians could be stuffed into two parties" (Sacramento Bee, January 18, 2008).
The American people know this. Year after year, public opinion polls consistently show that a majority of voters want a viable third party.
If "moderate" voters are under-represented by politicians of the existing political parties, the solution is not a futile attempt to customize the voting rules in their favor. The solution is a new centrist political party. We also need healthy socialist and other parties to represent other points of view. Instead of weakening political parties, we need more of them. But Prop 14 offers voters fewer choices rather than more.
The corporate interests bankrolling Prop 14 could easily collect the signatures to put a party representing their pro-business views on the ballot, could easily recruit viable candidates, and could easily get their message out. They could start winning seats fairly quickly by careful selection of districts to run in. They could do this under the current rules, which require a plurality, not a majority, in November.
Granted, the rules of the electoral game make it hard to win as a third party, for reasons we will get to shortly. But the financial backers of Prop 14 probably have the resources to pull it off. Think for a moment about why they aren't putting their money and effort into a new party. Could it be that what they really want is a two-party system they can control, not a multi-party system that represents everybody fairly?
One of the main props holding up the two-party system is plurality voting in single-member districts. (In a plurality election, the most votes wins even if it's not a majority.) Voters know that if they vote for anyone other than one of the two front runners, they run the risk that their votes will actually help the front runner they are most opposed to. So they often vote for the lesser evil. Those who support independent and small party candidates are out of luck unless they happen to be heavily concentrated in one geographic area so they can compete for specific legislative seats.
When legislators are elected from single-member districts, they represent plots of ground rather than people. Your representative is not your representative because she necessarily shares your views on the issues or fights for your interests, but because she shares your place of residence. At least a third (and often close to a half) of you didn't vote for the politician who "represents" you in the legislature. In each legislative district, one winner takes all. Having directly elected Presidents and Governors, instead of a parliamentary government in which the legislature chooses executive branch officers, only magnifies this effect.
One result of winner-take-all plurality voting is that the number of votes cast for candidates to the left of the main liberal party usually understates popular support for socialist, radical and progressive ideas. Eventually, points of view outside the framework of the two main parties tend to disappear from the political landscape -- or, rather, from many peoples' maps of that landscape. This allows supporters of the two-party system to insist that "moderates" are the only voters who might be getting cheated. Another result is that sometimes the two main parties become more polarized than normal, so that truly centrist voters are indeed underrepresented for a while.
There's a very simple measure of the representativeness of a legislature. What percentage of voters are represented by somebody they actually voted for and wanted to vote for? In the U.S. the proportion of votes cast for the winners ranges from barely a half to as high as two-thirds. In countries like Canada and the U.K., where multi-party systems have developed in spite of the barrier of winner-take-all elections, it is usually less than half. These fractions don't reflect the fact that some people don't vote their true preferences when that won't do any good.
The ideal voting rule would give everybody representation by legislators they actually voted for. This is called proportional representation (PR). It provides majority rule combined with representation of all groups in the society roughly proportional to their size. A centrist party supported by 20% of the population should get 20% of the seats in Congress and the state legislatures. A Peace and Freedom (or Green, or Libertarian) Party that gets 5% of the vote should get 5% of the seats. And so on.
Single-member districts cannot provide proportional representation. They lock out smaller groups and systematically over-represent the largest party, sometimes giving it a majority of the seats based on less than half the votes. When there are more than two important parties, they can even give one party a majority of the seats even though it got fewer votes than another party. It all depends on how each party's support is distributed across the districts.
There are several ways to elect state legislatures and Congressional delegations that represent nearly all voters, not just those who vote for a single plurality winner. All rely on electing at least some legislators from multi-member districts. For a summary of some methods of proportional representation, see the Appendix at the end of this article.
Opponents of proportional representation say that it gives political minorities too much power, because small parties can get concessions on issues in exchange for participating in a majority coalition. They implicitly define "too much power" as any power at all. In fact, objections to proportional representation always boil down to the idea that one party should always win a majority of the seats (which can be guaranteed only in a two-party system). That party should govern without much need for compromise until the voters throw it out in favor of the only alternative presented to them. The proper role of voters is not to actively choose their representatives but to passively exercise a form of after-the-fact veto power over the politicians currently in power.
In stark contrast, governing in a legislature in which several parties are represented requires coalition-building, negotiation and compromise. These are exactly the skills and strategies that backers of Prop 14 find so sorely lacking in California's legislature. If you think that electing more than two parties to seats in the legislature might lead to paralysis because no majority group has control, just look at California's two-party legislature today.
This article began by saying that there is a real problem that needs real solutions. The problem is not just that centrist candidates don't get elected to represent the middle of the political spectrum. Winner-take-all election rules also exclude everyone else who doesn't line up behind one of two leading parties.
We need very different election rules based on proportional representation. This very simple principle is one key to a multi-party political system, one in which the number of viable political parties is determined by the voters, not by the rule for counting votes.
Replacing winner-take-all rules with proportional representation is a big change. It will take time. Are there smaller steps toward a multi-party system to be taken in the meantime?
Improving ballot access for independent and small party candidates would help. So would smaller legislative districts and more seats in the legislature. Because elections to executive branch offices are inherently winner-take-all, restoring the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches -- undoing the current concentration of power in the hands of the executive -- might be a factor. Making money less important in campaigns is definitely a factor. Prop 15 (a limited test of public financing of campaigns that would also remove the existing ban on public financing) would be a small first step in California. We endorse it even though the funding formula needs to be changed to provide a level playing field for all candidates.
Prop 14 would be a major step in the opposite direction. It would increase the role of corporate money in elections. If it were to elect candidates any different from those elected today, that would be because they are supported by and beholden to big business, not because they are politically "moderate". Far from encouraging the development of new parties, this ballot measure would threaten the existence of the small parties California now has.
In order to continue building a socialist alternative to the major political parties, we must all take action now to defeat Prop 14.
A shorter statement on proportional representation, in the context of redistricting, can be found here.
Vote NO on Proposition 14!
As mentioned in the main article above, there are a several ways to elect state legislatures and Congressional delegations that represent nearly all voters, not just those who vote for a single plurality winner. Here is a very brief description of four types of proportional representation. For more information, see the references at the bottom of this page.
In the simplest form of proportional representation, each party presents a list of candidates. The voter choses the party she prefers and parties win seats in direct proportion to the votes they receive. Candidates are elected from each list in an order determined by the party itself, which can be done in caucuses, conventions or primary elections. This is called "closed party list" and is widely used, for example in South Africa and Nicaragua.
In a related form of proportional representation, the voter chooses one candidate from the lists presented by the political parties. Each party wins seats in proportion to the votes received by all of its candidate combined. Within each list, candidates are elected based on the number of votes they get individually. This is called “open party list” and is used in dozens of countries, including Sweden and the Netherlands.
In another method, each voter chooses a candidate in a small single-member district and chooses a statewide or national party list. The winner in each district gets a seat, and enough candidates are elected from each party list to ensure overall proportionality when the district seats and list seats are added together. This is called “mixed member proportional” or sometimes the "additional member system". It is used in Germany and New Zealand among other places. The New America Foundation has made this proposal for mixed member proportional representation in California.
In a fourth method, representatives are elected from multi-member districts having from 5 to about 11 seats each. Voters rank individual candidates in order of preference. The ballot and instructions to the voter are exactly the same as instant runoff voting (IRV) for a single-winner executive office. The rankings are used to award votes to candidates to maximize the number of voters who help elect one of the winners. Typically 90 per cent or more of the voters help elect their first choice. This method is called the “single transferable vote” (STV) or sometimes “choice voting”. It is used in Ireland and Northern Ireland, and in Australia for the national Senate and a number of state governments. FairVote has made this proposal for STV in California.
STV is also used for non-partisan and local elections in several countries, because it does not require that candidates run as members of a party or slate. In an STV election, voters rank individual candidates without regard to party affilation.
All of these methods do more than ensure accurate representation of points of view. They also reduce or eliminate the possibility of gerrymandering, make elections more competitive, reduce pork barrel politics, and shift the emphasis of campaigns from personalities to positions on the issues.
The Peace and Freedom Party has not taken a position favoring one method of proportional representation over the others. Each has different strengths and weaknesses. But all are far better than the winner-take-all formula that is standard in the United States.
For more information, see these sources. They are listed in order from introductory to relatively advanced treatments.
- Douglas J. Amy, Behind the Ballot Box: A Citizen's Guide to Voting Systems (Praeger Publishers, 2000)
- Andrew Reynolds, Ben Reilly and Andrew Ellis, eds., Electoral System Design: the New International IDEA Handbook (Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2005) -- .pdf (2.9 MB)
- Josep M. Colomer, ed., Handbook of Electoral System Choice (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)
Last revised May 21, 2010