With the federal government near default and all sense of civility lost in Congress and many state legislatures, winner-take-democracy has reached a breaking point. It's time to move to proportional voting to allow us to hold party leaders more accountable and create new incentives for cooperation.
Despite a long history of use in our elections, proportional voting is new to many Americans. The concept is simple: Like-minded voters can pool their votes together to elect representatives in proportion to their level of support. The result is multi-seat legislative districts with lawmakers who can represent the majority AND the minority of voters.
Proportional voting provides a sharp contrast to the redistricting process under way around the nation. Partisan mapmakers are re-shuffling neighborhoods as they seek to effectively gerrymander outcomes of most congressional, state and local legislative elections for the next decade. Their power of redistricting comes from winner-take-all -- 49 percent of votes can earn zero representation.
With our basic governing institutions breaking down, we cannot afford to shrug off gerrymandering as politics as usual. It's time to adopt long-standing, constitutionally protected types of ballots that gives voters the power in every election to determine their own representation -- no matter who has drawn the line.
American forms of proportional voting have been upheld by our courts and fit well with our traditions. Minneapolis' system of choice voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference and last century helped break the power of urban political machines in cities like New York and Cincinnati.
From 1870 to 1980 the Illinois House of Representatives was elected by cumulative voting. With three legislators per district, the ballot allows a voter to distribute their three votes however they wanted -- one vote each to three candidates, for example, or all votes to one candidate.
Proportional voting systems result in shared representation. In Illinois, nearly every voter had both Democrats and Republicans representing them in the same district. There were more rural Democrats, urban Republicans and more independent-minded representatives willing to reach across party lines. A 2000 report by the Illinois Assembly concluded that repealing cumulative voting led to increased partisanship and reduced voter choice.
Proportional voting is already a solution in some Voting Rights Act settlements. With proportional voting, a racial minority has the voting power to elect representatives without being geographically concentrated.
Studies show more competitive elections with higher turnout. Proportional voting will settle the controversy over race-conscious districts by giving all voters a better chance to win representation.
Proportional voting has nothing to do with parliamentary forms of government and need not be based on voting for parties. American forms of proportional voting are candidate-based, typically with geographic requirements and relatively high vote percentages needed to win. They in fact are better suited than winner-take-all elections to the consensual processes built into our federal and state constitutions and go well with American wariness of giving too much power to any one person or party. There also is no constitutional barrier to use of proportional voting for our legislatures. A century ago, most state legislators in fact were elected in multi-member districts, while many states used them for congressional elections. A 1967 law mandating use of single-member congressional districts can be repealed, and states can replace winner-take-all rules with forms of proportional voting.
We all pay taxes and are subject to the laws of government, so it's only fair that the political majority AND minority share the power to elect representatives. Proportional voting takes power away from the political cartographers and gives it to voters. It gives us a means to get outside of the zero-sum, winner-take-all game that plagues our elections and legislative processes. We vote for real change in the coming decade by replacing winner-take-all elections with proportional voting.
Krist Novoselic is chairman of FairVote. Rob Richie is its executive director. They can be reached at 6930 Carroll Avenue, Suite 610,Takoma Park, MD 20912, www.fairvote.org.