We should abolish elections and replace them with sortition, random selection from the citizenry, thus guaranteeing a representative body. I’ve posted about that before. But if we must have elections, what voting system should we use? Pure proportional representation, that’s what; specifically multi-winner ranked choice voting without geographic districts or special thresholds to be elected.
In most countries that use proportional representation districts or thresholds are employed, undermining proportionality to some extent and much more importantly imposing a higher barrier to entry for new or small political parties. The Netherlands treats the whole country as one district (at a stroke making gerrymandering literally impossible!) and imposes no threshold beyond the mathematical hurdle emergent from a 150-member parliament, 1/150 of the vote or 2/3 of 1%.
Make it Easy to start a Party and get Elected to Something!
Low barriers to entry make it easy for someone to start a new party with a real chance of winning a seat or two, inspiring popular engagement from people unrepresented by bigger incumbent forces in the parliament and giving the new party a chance to prove (or discredit) themselves in the legislature. Thierry Baudet did this most recently with his Forum for Democracy, with the FvD actually topping the polls in the latest municipal elections just a few years after it was founded; half a century ago Democrats 66 emerged as a political force in much the same fashion.
Try doing that in the United States if you’re not a billionaire; even such stalwart outfits as the Libertarian Party, which has been around for half a century and is able to routinely find candidates for federal and state offices, struggle to even get and stay on the ballot there. So much for the global beacon of democracy.
Radical Political Reform for America
Indeed, voters in the United States most often only vote for one of the old parties in order to ensure the one they hate more doesn’t win; proportional representation obviates this concern. If voters from one of the big two parties defect to a third party, all that happens is that said third party gains seats at the expense of the big party they’re defecting from; the other big party gains no seats from such a development.
In the United States FairVote has been doing great work promoting ranked choice voting, and their model legislation creates “super-districts” with perhaps three winners. This in my view doesn’t go nearly far enough. Ideally the whole country would be a single district for House elections, and parties would be represented proportionally, with the threshold being mathematical, in America’s case 1/435 of the vote, or 0.23%.
Ideally of course the House would be much larger, well over a thousand members, in order to grant constituencies less than 800,000 strong some representation; George Washington and many of the Founders wanted there to be one member for every 30,000 people at most.
The Senate presents an interesting problem, since there are only two members for each state, with only one being elected at a time. Single-winner ranked-choice voting might suffice there. More radically, the Senate might be expanded as well, perhaps even to the same size as the House, but with each state having equal suffrage. Personally I prefer the ideas of Senators serving at the pleasure of state legislatures, perhaps with six years being a lifetime maximum length of service, but there are many options.
Ideally America would just move to a parliamentary system, with the government responsible to both the House and the Senate, but the President could just be elected by ranked choice popular vote if Americans must still have one.
Realistic Pathways to Proportional Representation in America
Now, all these far-reaching changes would no doubt work against the interests of the dominant players, so short of a mass popular uprising or something really weird happening there’s little chance of it being enacted, as a constitutional amendment requires two-thirds of Congress and three-quarters of state legislatures to ratify it.
Mandating proportional representation in each state’s House delegation, though, with each state being a district, is as far as I understand it within the federal government’s statute-making power, but that would still require a majority of the House and Senate and the President’s signature. A lower hurdle, but still unlikely to fly.
Much more promising is the idea of a citizens’ initiative to mandate proportional representation at the state and local levels; in states like California if a certain percentage of voters sign a petition to put an initiative on the ballot and a majority of voters support it there’s nothing the legislature or Governor can do to stop them. In a good portion of the states voters have the power to amend state constitutions directly.
Since 60% of Americans want a major third party, the mass constituency obviously already exists to change the voting system (and ballot access…) to be more third-party-friendly. All that’s really needed is to mobilize them, and in the 18 or so initiative states, most prominently including California, majorities could, and if they had the chance likely would, enact proportional representation.
With all those states serving as examples bringing the same system to the federal level will become much easier, as we see today with marijuana, which was legalized by popular initiative long before state legislators were willing to touch it with a ten-foot pole.
American Elections under Proportional Representation
So what will American politics be like under pure proportional representation? Fragmented and very diverse I suspect. The Netherlands in 2021 saw seventeen parties win seats in the parliament, with the leading party receiving barely more than a fifth of the vote. The Netherlands might actually be a better analogue for America than one might think, considering its history of pillarization, i.e. complete political segregation from the top to bottom of society, borne out of its considerable religious diversity.
White evangelical Protestants and the black population would likely have their own political parties, each catering to particular sub-demographics and ideologies within those communities, as would several other populations. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has actually come out and said that in a different country she and Joe Biden “would not be in the same party”; the Democratic Socialists of America would likely convert into a full-fledged left-wing populist political party. Greens would expand their vote share too. Donald Trump wouldn’t have bothered with taking over the Republican Party; he would have followed Berlusconi’s example and started his own.
Libertarians might experience the starkest benefit; if just the 15% of Americans who self-identify as libertarian vote Gold then in a Dutch-style political landscape they have a shot at being the largest single party! Assuming they don’t split of course.
So there you have it, some of my latest thoughts on political reform. Sortition is the only form of representation that actually is proportional, so even the purest form of “proportional representation” at the electoral level is a half-measure at best. Nevertheless it would be paradisaical compared to the thoroughly crummy voting systems the United States and even most other “democracies” employ.
Realistically, how many people are actually enfranchised in any meaningful sense by the two-party system in the United States? The number of people whose views closely align with the party lines of either major party is a small percentage of the population, as evidenced by the fact that only a bare majority of the country even self-identifies as one party or the other, and popular supermajorities have long wanted more choices.
The people who don’t like the major parties may not agree on much of anything in terms of policy, but in principle they can at least agree on radical political reform to empower themselves and disempower their enemies. For anyone sympathetic to this view such reform might be the highest priority, the one thing that must be done before anything else can be done. Let’s unite and make it happen!