In January 2020, freshman Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York was asked what role she would want to play as a member of Congress should Joe Biden capture the White House. Her response was telling: “Oh God. In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America, we are.” This statement was taken (and likely intended) as something of a diss of the more centrist Biden by one of the House’s most outspoken progressives, but it also carried a good deal of truth. The United States stands out among the world’s democracies for having an unusually small number of competitive parties; and for such a large, diverse, and multiethnic society to have just two dominant parties means that those parties will be strikingly vast, complex, heterogeneous coalitions.
This is not necessarily ideal. Indeed, boiling such a diverse political landscape down to a single dimension of two-party conflict has consequences. Issues are oversimplified; Americans find their views distorted and caricatured to fit into one of just two options; and many people find themselves deeply dissatisfied with what appears to be an unrepresentative and unresponsive political system. What Jon Stewart calls the “bi-chromatic rainbow that is American political thought” is both inherently frustrating and increasingly unworkable in a polarizing political system.
Political reforms in recent decades — from changing campaign finance laws to instituting nonpartisan primaries to altering seating assignments in Congress — have often focused on stopping or reversing polarization, but such reforms can be ineffective and counterproductive or can even miss the point. In recent years, some political reformers have pushed for a new style of reform — proportional representation (PR). Under PR, a party’s share of members in a legislature would roughly match its share of the vote in the last election, even for parties that only get 10 or 20 percent of the vote. In combination with some other reforms, PR could substantially change the American political system in a number of consequential and beneficial ways. It could potentially increase the number of competitive political parties, reducing some of the downsides of party polarization and improving representation. Importantly, it could also create an opportunity for local parties that are currently influential in some regions of the country to become more powerful and bring new sets of issues into the political system. In this way, it would help localize our politics somewhat, after a long period of increasing nationalization.
The PR scenario
There is no consensus on exactly how proportional representation would be introduced to or employed in the United States. PR comes in many forms in different democracies around the world. In the United States, proponents have often focused on introducing it on the national level through the House of Representatives. Another path, however, and one that takes advantage of the American federal system, would be its introduction in various state legislatures. This isn’t a radical departure from how a number of states already conduct elections. Nine states have at least one legislative chamber with multimember districts — that is, districts represented by several legislators at the same time. Nearly 12 percent of the nation’s state legislators share a district with another member. However, those legislators are elected by a plurality of the vote, meaning that, say, the top three vote-getters in a three-legislator district win those seats, even if they’re short of a majority. This typically results in a single party sweeping all seats. Instead, under proportional representation, seats would be allocated in proportion to votes won. For instance, New Hampshire has various state legislative districts with three members each (though some districts have up to ten). Under proportional representation, a party that secures at least a quarter of the vote would likely win one of a district’s three seats. It would certainly be plausible and constitutionally permissible for several states to simultaneously adopt proportional multimember districts, perhaps containing between five and ten legislators each.
The largest change likely to result from this, and perhaps after only a few election cycles, would be the erosion of the logic of the first-past-the-post election system. This logic, generally known as “Duverger’s law” after French political scientist Maurice Duverger, suggests that in election systems with single-member districts where the candidate with the most votes takes the whole district, voters come to see only two parties as worth voting for, and votes for other parties as “wasted.” Instead of worrying about wasting a vote, voters would learn that it could make sense to support the candidates of a party that wins only 10 or 20 percent of the vote; that party would still likely have some representation in the legislature. Indeed, with a few more minor parties gaining modest representation, it’s conceivable that no single party would win majority control, requiring parties to form coalitions to govern.
And this is potentially the large payoff from a switch to proportional representation. It means a rise in multipartyism in the United States, which would give smaller parties greater ability to organize and recruit candidates while easing some of the excesses of party polarization. If this system finds acceptance in several states, it could be encouraged in federal elections as well, although this would necessitate an amendment to the federal Uniform Congressional District Act of 1967, which mandates the use of single-member districts.
The rise of minor parties
The United States isn’t strictly a two-party system — it has a long history of minor parties occasionally playing critical roles, although those parties rarely hold any substantial number of seats in state legislatures or Congress. Even today, there are numerous minor parties involved in local politics. Just to name a few:
- At the western edge of Los Angeles County, a left-leaning coalition known as Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights dominates city council elections and advocates for affordable housing and enhanced social services.
- Progressive Dane is a highly influential progressive party in the city council elections of Madison, Wisconsin.
- The Free State Project of New Hampshire seeks to bring libertarians to the Granite State to constrain state spending.
- The Maine Green Independent Party has claimed several state legislators and local elected officials among its members, and the party has often earned in excess of 5 percent of the vote in statewide elections.
- The Vermont Progressive Party helped make Bernie Sanders the mayor of Burlington in 1981 and has been a consistent presence in the statehouse for decades; eleven Vermont state legislators currently affiliate with the party, as do several state officeholders and city council members within the state.
- The Alaskan Independence Party has advocated Alaskan secession for decades while pushing for a range of conservative policies, including gun rights, home schooling, opposition to abortion, and more. Wally Hickel was elected governor in 1990 on the Independence Party ticket — one of very few minor party governors in American history.
Generally speaking, these local party movements are influential in local politics, bringing attention to issues often omitted from discussion in state or national politics, and running campaigns and influencing elections through their organization of information, funding, and campaign resources. And at this local level, they can be competitive with the major parties. At the state or federal level, however, the logic of Duverger’s law takes over, and 98 percent or more of those seats are regularly won by Democrats or Republicans. At the federal level, with so much at stake in recent years, voters don’t want to waste a vote or enable the election of a candidate they like the least, so they tend to focus their votes on just the two candidates most likely to win. What’s more, donors generally don’t wish to squander funds on parties with no chance of victory, and strong candidates and consultants recognize that if they want any hope of winning they should affiliate with a major party.
Under the sort of proportional representation system described above, however, the barriers to higher office some of these local parties face are lowered. That doesn’t mean that one of these smaller regional parties is likely to dominate national politics any time soon. But they could place candidates in state or federal offices in parts of the country, increasing the range of issues under discussion, forcing more debate and compromise onto the political system, allowing for coalitional arrangements not remotely under consideration today, and improving representation. Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, for example, currently supports candidates running for the city council, the school board, and other local offices. In a PR system, they could well influence the outcomes of state legislative and congressional races and even occasionally win those seats.
The rise of minor parties in state and national politics could potentially bring some significant improvements to the political system. In particular, it could help denationalize the system somewhat. One of the more striking trends of the past few decades in American politics is the increasing dominance of national news stories and nationalized voting behavior in which political activists in, say, Texas or Florida organize vehement opposition to a stray comment made by a city councilmember in San Francisco or Seattle. This is due, at least in part, to the media environment: Local news sources have been gutted in recent decades while a handful of national newspapers and cable news networks have come to dominate the field, and thus the vast majority of Americans learn about politics from reporters and editors working in New York City and Washington, D.C. This nationalized political system is far more rigid and easily polarized; local variations (conservative Wyoming ranchers concerned about climate change, liberal California homeowners worrying about high taxes) are often ignored. A less nationalized political system is one that’s more open to compromise and dealmaking, and one in which the political media have more incentive to focus on local and regional happenings.
Part of the reason our political system has become so polarized and paralyzed in recent decades is that we increasingly fixate on the two major parties as our identities, and those identities incorporate more and more parts of ourselves over time. As the political scientist Lilliana Mason has written, to be a Democrat or a Republican is now tied to our race, our sexual identity, our income, our educational background, where and how we live, and more — not to mention our policy beliefs — in a way that it never has been previously in American history. And this often crowds out other concerns on which we might cast a vote. Are we satisfied with the pace of an oil spill cleanup, or upset about a bridge collapse near us? Do people who live near the nation’s Northern border have the same feelings about immigration as those along its Southern border? Is housing too expensive and scarce, or are there too many homes going unfilled? With more (and more local) parties, issues like these can be addressed, and their complexity can be considered in elections and in policymaking.
Problems and promise
There is some uncertainty as to just what proportional representation would look like in the United States. Despite sometimes similar institutional rules, American political parties are dissimilar from those in other modern democracies on several important dimensions — including their age, ideological stances, number, and more — at least in part due to substantially different historical legacies. Thus, even if the United States became more favorable to the formation of multiple parties by adopting some of the institutional rules of, say, Germany or New Zealand, there is certainly no guarantee that its parties would move in that direction.
Another concern is that the kind of institutional change discussed here — such as increasing the number of members per district from one to five or so — would not be expected to yield a large number of parties even under ideal conditions. Political scientist Rein Taagepera and others have calculated a rough formula for predicting how many parties would result from districts and legislatures of given sizes. While it’s hard to know precisely what would happen, this formula suggests that going from one to five seats per district would probably only add one more major party to America’s political system. It might also simply result in two main parties still dominating the political system, but with a few minor parties winning a handful of seats, which would require occasional negotiations to form a majority coalition and pass major legislation. Maintaining winner-take-all rules for Senate elections and the Electoral College would necessarily preserve some pressure toward a two-party system.
Another problem is that even if this move toward proportional representation did produce more political parties, there is no guarantee that this would result in a less polarized political system or one less prone to extremism. Indeed, at least some evidence from European democracies finds PR systems to have more politically extreme parties, such as Sweden’s anti-immigrant and anti-multiculturalism Sweden Democrats. It’s not clear whether someone like, say, Georgia GOP Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene would exert more or less disruptive power as a leader of an extreme conservative minor party than she does as a verbose backbencher in a major one. Potentially she would be less powerful if she couldn’t control one of the major parties, but the historical record on such politicians is far from clear. And not all local parties have agendas that are strongly conducive to a healthy American democracy — some are proudly secessionist.
Finally, there would undoubtedly be some pushback to a new system, especially from elected officials who have done well under the status quo. And it might be easy to dismiss a reform like PR if people were generally happy with the current political system and if it was functioning reasonably well. Yet they aren’t, and it isn’t. Americans’ confidence in the political system remains at an all-time low, while federal institutions continue to polarize, calcify, and accomplish less and less of a growing agenda. The extremism, gridlock, and even violence we have experienced in national politics in recent years should make leaders, reformers, and observers more open to alternatives — alternatives like PR, which could not only smooth out some of American democracy’s rougher edges but actually improve representation and governance.
This piece originally appeared in For A Better Democracy: Proportional Representation, a symposium published by Democracy Journal in partnership with Protect Democracy and with support from Democracy Fund.
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