It’s a sign of popular disillusionment with the current course of American democracy that the past couple of years have produced a flurry of reform ideas aimed at changing the way elections are conducted. The newer proposals allow voters to rank several candidates in order of preference, or create nonpartisan primaries in which the top-two finishers are nominated, regardless of party. One older idea that’s being talked about again is proportional voting. Proportional elections are conducted in other countries, and in many of those places, the rules are pretty simple. If a party wins 30 percent of the national vote, it wins 30 percent of the legislative seats. That’s not the way it’s generally been tried in the United States.
The cities that have used proportional voting here — which at one time was as many as two dozen, including Cleveland, Cincinnati and New York — created multiseat districts. Candidates were all listed together on one ballot and the individuals who finished in, say, the top five in a five-seat district would all win, whether they came from one party or five parties.
Regardless of how it’s done, proportional voting has the potential to address two major problems with our politics, says Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at New America, a nonpartisan think tank. Under our current winner-take-all system, most votes don’t matter. Districts are either comfortably Republican or Democratic, and the only important contest is the primary in the locally dominant party. Many officeholders are more concerned about being unseated in a primary if they break with party orthodoxy than they are about winning general elections by appealing to broader groups of people.