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The dominance of one-party districts should be no surprise: gerrymandering allows legislators to choose their constituents in redistricting before their constituents go to the polls to choose representatives. Even though political intentions can be removed from the redistricting process--as in Iowa's criteria-driven procedure, for example--its political effects are unavoidable. Given that some perhaps most districts will be non-competitive in winner-take-all elections, all districting ends up being a form of gerrymandering.

The ramifications of our fundamentally lopsided political landscape are often ignored in debates over term limit proposals and campaign finance reform. The real culprit for non-competitive elections is winner-take-all elections, not incumbency and inequities in campaign spending. In most districts, a clear majority of voters prefers one party's political philosophy to that of the other party.

The Backstage Crew

Consider open-seat elections, with no incumbent competing for the seat, and none of the financial advantages that come with incumbency. In , Republicans won 29 of 35 open House seats in districts where Bill Clinton ran behind his national average, despite being outspent in a third of their victories. Yet Republicans won none of the 18 districts where Clinton ran ahead of his national average, despite being financially competitive in half of those defeats. This trend is not confined to elections in presidential years. Of the districts where he ran most weakly, Republicans hold To be sure, congressional winners usually outspend their opponents.

But that is because money follows power: to gain access, most major campaign contributors invest in candidates they expect to win. The great majority of voters are consistent in their voting patterns both between and within elections. We should be relieved that voters are well-grounded in a political philosophy, but frustrated that this consistency leads to most of them experiencing no-choice elections.

The most outspoken early supporter of PR was John Stuart Mill, in his Representative Government --written less than two decades after the first works detailing possible PR systems see J. Mill on Proportional Representation. Perhaps Mill's most important contribution to the case for PR was his argument that majority rule itself is improved by full minority representation. By maximizing the number of voters who elect candidates, he pointed out, PR increases the chances that a legislative majority has support from a majority of voters; it is required for full representation, with voters having the power to elect representatives reflecting a range of opinion; and it fosters a deliberative legislative process which improves the majority view by ensuring that minority opinions are represented and heard.

As Mill observed, any particular majority is a collection of minorities, not a monolithic bloc. Once some voters are excluded from representation, policy can be passed without the support of a majority of the electorate. Suppose, for example, that all representatives win their elections with only A law passed with support from only Mill's point is no mere theoretical concern. In the "Republican revolution," in which Democrats lost their year stranglehold on the US House of Representatives, fewer than one in four eligible voters voted for a winning House candidate.

As a result, House passage of any particular bill in required the votes of representatives elected by only 13 percent of eligible voters. By contrast, legislation in democracies with PR generally requires the support of representatives elected by a far higher percentage of the electorate. In Germany's elections with PR--with a high turnout and a high percentage of effective votes typical of European PR elections--more than 3 in 4 eligible voters elected candidates. So passage of a bill required the votes of representatives elected by nearly 40 percent of eligible voters. Majority rule also is undercut by winner-take-all elections because they drive voters into two camps.

But two-choice elections obscure shades of difference and create the illusion of majority support for the winner. Mill stressed the importance of voters having a full range of choices and representation of their different communities of interest. Finally, PR is important for majority interests because, as Mill argued, it provides represented minorities with a platform to challenge conventional wisdom. An advocate of universal suffrage, Mill still was sympathetic to conservative concerns about educated minorities being outvoted by newly enfranchised, less-educated voters.

Assuring a voice to the minority eliminated his fears because of his faith in the results of a fully democratic process, with open and organized discussion among competing political ideas and projects. By allowing dissenters to win representation, PR fosters ongoing challenges to majority opinion, and thus complements our First Amendment freedoms. In conjunction with attack ads, polling, and focus groups, the system of winner-take-all elections has made it extremely difficult to have reasoned political debate on certain contentious issues.

These issues can assume great symbolic weight for swing voters--ironically, because they are among the relatively few voters with so little political grounding that they will support either party. The death penalty, for example, has come to represent "toughness" on crime. Because winner-take-all elections make nuanced positions difficult, and require that candidates win the support of politically indifferent swing voters, opponents of the death penalty find it hard to run credible campaigns for president or for most legislative offices.

As with a whole range of issues--from drug policy to abortion rights to welfare reform--debate in political campaigns tends to lock into place, making it that much more difficult to challenge public opinion. Mill's majoritarian argument for PR gains empirical support from a recent statistical comparison of 12 democracies in Europe. Bingham Powell contrast a "Proportionate Influence Vision" of democracy, in which "elections are designed to produce legislatures that reflect the preferences of all citizens," with the "Majority Control Vision," in which "democratic elections are designed to create strong, single-party majority governments that are essentially unconstrained by other parties in the policy-making process.

For Better or Worse?: How Political Consultants are Changing Elections in the United States

If voters are presented with a wide range of choices and electoral outcomes are proportional, governments tend to be closer to the median. In short, governance is more likely to take place at the center of the political spectrum with PR, since the electorate is fully represented and voters are able to express a wider range of preferences. At the same time, fair representation of the margins provides a mechanism to transform policy by shifting the political center. Opposition voices will be heard, and their ideas will be far more likely to be debated.

If those ideas win growing support, the major parties will adjust accordingly in order to hold onto their supporters. Mill's majoritarian argument is not the only case for PR. Four other claims are commonly offered in its support:. PR increases voter turnout. Voter turnout is generally estimated to be percent higher in nations with PR than in similar nations using winner-take-all elections. In the United States, as we indicated, relatively few legislative elections are competitive, and our analysis of recent House elections demonstrates a strong correlation between the degree of competition and the level of participation.


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In PR systems, winning fair representation is dependent on voter turnout. Because nearly every vote will help a party win more seats, voters have more incentive to participate, and parties have incentives to mobilize their supporters. Moreover, parties and other electoral organizations have strong incentives to keep their supporters informed, and informed citizens are more likely to vote. PR provides better representation for racial minorities. The amendments to the Voting Rights Act resulted in more districts drawn with majorities of racial and ethnic minorities.

This increase in "majority-minority districts" produced a remarkable leap in representation of people of color in the US House in Between and , the number of black and Latino House members jumped from 35 to In a series of recent rulings against so-called "racial gerrymandering," the Supreme Court has made it much harder to establish majority-minority districts; the result is almost certain to be a decrease in the number of elected black legislators. Lani Guinier, Jesse Jackson, and other civil rights leaders have argued for PR as an alternative, and already more than 75 localities have adopted semi-proportional systems to settle voting rights cases.

In addition to winning a fair share of seats, minorities would have greater opportunities to negotiate for influence because they could "swing" among parties. South Africa used PR in its first all-race elections in , and the two leading parties--the African National Congress and the National Party--ran multiracial slates with messages of inclusion. When New Zealand had its first PR election in , the first Asian citizen was elected, and Pacific Islanders and indigenous Maoris tripled their representation.

A Maori-backed party formed a coalition government with the governing party--a party whose relationship with Maoris had been analogous to Republicans' post relationship with American blacks. By improving representation, PR in turn encourages minority communities to mobilize and win access to power. From to , Cincinnati used the "choice voting" form of PR to elect a nine-seat city council.

Re-engineering politicians: How activist groups choose our candidates—long before we vote

See sidebar for an explanation of choice voting. In , when blacks were barely 10 percent of the population, a black independent candidate ran a strong campaign. In the next election, he was added to the Republican party's slate and was elected. In , when blacks were 15 percent of the population, a former president of the Cincinnati NAACP ran in large part to defend the choice voting system that was under attack from Republicans seeking to restore their old domination of the council. In an indication that any substantial group of voters cannot be ignored with PR, the other major party slate supported him in He was elected, resulting in black representatives holding two of nine seats.

PR increases the number of women in office. The percentage of women elected to office in the United States--only 11 percent of the US Congress--is scandalously low, particularly in light of the relative strength of the American women's movement compared to other nations with far higher percentages of women legislators. Studies show that women representatives make a qualitative and quantitative difference in the type of legislation introduced and passed, yet the growth of women in state legislatures and Congress has stalled since despite relatively high turnover and the historic high in women's candidacies in In state legislative elections, women win seats in significantly higher percentages in multiseat districts than in one-seat districts.

Because PR expands options, PR systems give women additional leverage to force the major parties to support more women candidates.

How to Vote

In , a threat by women supporters of the major parties in Sweden to form a new women's party led to women winning 41 percent of seats in because the major parties recruited more women candidates. New Zealand, Italy, and Germany are among a growing number of democracies that use systems with a mix of winner-take-all districts and PR seats. PR ends gerrymandering.


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  • Drawing district lines for political purposes has occurred from the first redistricting--the term "gerrymander" refers to a Massachusetts district plan drawn in But gerrymandering has become far more potent in an era of powerful computers, more detailed census information, and better techniques for measuring voter preferences. As one example, Democrats in control of the redistricting process in Texas in placed the eight Republican incumbents in districts that were packed to be among the most conservative in the nation. These incumbents were easily reelected in , but Democrats won 21 of the remaining 22 seats with only 50 percent of the statewide vote.

    Only one race was won by less than 10 percent, and the three open seats went to state legislators serving on redistricting committees. Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, the primary architect of the plan, admitted in that the redistricting process "is not one of kindness.