Proportional Representation

The Winner-Take-All Problem

“Winner-take-all” is a term used to describe single member district and at large election systems that award seats to the highest vote getters without ensuring fair representation for minority groups. In the United States, these are typically single-member district schemes or at-large, block-voting systems. Under winner-take-all rules, a slim majority of voters can control 100% of seats, leaving everyone else effectively without representation. Problems this leads to include:

  • Severe under-representation of women, communities of color, third parties, young people, and major party backers stuck in areas where another party dominates. Winner-take-all election systems do nothing to provide representation to any group making up less than half of the population in a given voting district, and the high percentage of the vote needed to win election can be a severe barrier to minority candidates.
  • Since many areas are dominated by a single political viewpoint, winner-take-all voting systems will often result in no-choice elections where one party has a permanent monopoly on power, and the winner is effectively predetermined. In the United States, two in five state legislative races go uncontested as a result, and nearly 99% of congressional incumbents win reelection by large margins.
  • High percentages of “wasted votes” (that is, votes cast for candidates who do not win). Winner-take-all elections frequently result in more than 50% of votes being wasted. More voters will be represented by someone who they did not help to elect than under any other system.
  • Undervoting. Under at-large systems in particular, voters who feel strongly about a single candidate will be likely to “bullet vote” (that is, use only one of their votes) to help their preferred choice win election. In this way, winner-take-all discourages voters from expressing their full range of political preferences.
  • Decreased voter turnout. With limited choice, and little chance of influencing the outcome of an election under winner-take-all rules, many people will unsurprisingly choose not to participate.
  • Divisive campaigns that fail to address challenging issues and ignore entire constituencies. Under winner-take-all, there is no incentive to reach out to opponents or build cross-party support. Negative campaigning is often a sensible and effective strategy.

Winner-take-all systems are an anachronism in the modern world, as nearly every emerging democracy has rejected their use. They were introduced to America by the British during the colonial era, and are virtually unknown in other developed countries. Their failings lie at the root of many of our current political problems.

The Proportional Voting Solution

Through proportional representation electoral systems, like-minded groupings of voters win legislative seats in better proportion to their share of the population. Whereas winner-take-all elections award 100% of power to a 50.1% majority, proportional representation allows voters in a minority to win a fair share of representation. Proportional representation describes a broad range of methods that require at least some legislators to be elected in districts with more than one seat.

Proportional representation voting systems used in the United States include choice voting (voters rank candidates, and seats are allocated by efficiently distributing voters preferences using a proportional formula), cumulative voting (voters cast as many votes as seats and can give multiple votes to one candidate), and limited voting (voters have fewer votes than seats). Internationally, some proportional representation systems are based on voting for political parties, others for candidates. Some allow very small groupings of voters to win seats; others require higher thresholds of support to win representation. The common thread that defines proportional representation is promoting more accurate, balanced representation of the spectrum of political opinion. More than 100 communities in the United States use proportional representation, the Democrats require states to nominate presidential convention delegates by proportional representation, and almost all emerging democracies have chosen proportional representation. This family of electoral systems is becoming the international norm, with Iraq, Afghanistan, and the entire Eastern Bloc being recent welcome additions to the global community of proportional representation nations.

For more information about proportional representation, visit FairVote’s Program for Representative Government.

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