Answering Objections to Proportional Representation

Minority parties wield too much power

The idea here is that PR encourages multiple parties, no one with a legislative majority, and that small parties can exact a high price in return for joining a majority coalition to pass (or kill) legislation. The implication is that we should have a majority governing party that can legislate at will.

There are at least two problems with this argument. One is that, under PR, the collection of parties or individual legislators are representative of the electorate at large, and that the compromises and coalitions necessary to govern reflect the preferences of the voters. The second problem is that, to the extent that this is a genuine problem, it’s at least as bad under non-PR forms of government. The United States Congress is a case in point. In close votes, swing voters have enormous power in dictating changes to bills; we saw this with the 2009 health-care reform votes, even though Democrats had, at least nominally, an overwhelming majority.

PR is too complicated

Quoting ERS directly:

Under most PR systems, there is a simple relationship of cause and effect for the voter. If you vote for a candidate, you increase his or her chances of getting elected. If you vote for a party, you increase that party’s entitlement to seats. By doing this, you achieve more representation for your views. This does not happen under >FPTP. Many votes are wasted, and voters often have to make tactical choices because if they vote for their real preferred candidate who lies in third place, they could help the chances of a candidate whose views they strongly dislike.

(FPTP, or first-past-the-post, is the common plurality-winner method used in the US and UK.)

The voter experience under PR is simple: one simply votes for a party (closed list) or candidate (open list), or ranks one or more candidates in order of preference STV. Counting the votes is slightly more complex than counting a plurality election, but the counting process isn’t hard to understand in concept, and not much harder to implement, as demonstrated over and over again around the world.

PR systems require people to vote for parties instead of candidates

This is true only for closed-list PR, where one votes for a list of candidates chosen in advance by a party. Under PR, one votes simultaneously for a candidate and a list, and under STV, one votes only for candidates, not for lists or parties.

PR legislatures are typically ruled by unstable coalitions

The idea here is that, if there is no party with an absolute majority, a coalition of parties is required to pass legislation, and (in a parliamentary system) form a government, and that one or more smaller parties can bring down the current government by leaving the ruling coalition.

While there are a number of interesting side arguments to be made here (the question of coalition government per se does not arise in the US, for example), the basic fact is that this claim is simply false. Most countries that use PR have quite stable governments, and in fact more stable than many non-PR countries. The commonly cited exceptions (most often Israel, sometimes Italy) have specific features, most notably a very low threshold of participation for parties, that are easily avoided when constructing a PR system.

A variation on this objection is that multiparty coalitions lack a clear voter mandate. However, under a PR system, parties if anything in a better position to claim a voter mandate, compared the the US system, in which legislative majorities are effectively a coalition of individuals often representative of at best a small majority of voters in their districts.

PR legislators and coalitions are less accountable than one-party majorities

This objection is related to the lack-of-mandate objection we’ve already discussed. The question of accountability is one where PR has a decided advantage over the US major-party system: under PR, voters have alternatives, and parties can’t make the implicit “you have nowhere else to go” excuse.

PR systems encourage party fragmentation

Parties should split when a monolithic party is unable to represent all its members. On the other hand, most PR systems have threshold of representation, whether explicit or implicit, that makes it unproductive for parties to fragment below 5–10% of the electorate. Except in extreme cases with very low thresholds (Israel is the classic example), the number of parties with legislative representation is not very large, typically from three to half a dozen.

Small parties wield too much power under PR

This objection is related to the coalition objections discussed above: a small party necessary for a majority vote is in a position to bargain in its members’ interest. But this is as it should be, with all as much of the electorate as possible represented in legislative negotiations, in proportion to their number.

And, of course, to the extent that such bargaining is undesirable, it’s hardly unique to PR systems; we see the same behavior with individual representatives and party factions in the US Congress and in state legislatures. The advantage that PR systems have is that such groups are fairly representative of specific voter constituencies, and can be held accountable by those voters.

PR encourages political extremism

In the US, we’ve seen Congress and many state legislatures (California’s is a case in point) polarized by strongly held, often extreme, positions taken by members of both major parties. Under PR, legislatures end up representing the political views of the electorate, which in general tends not to be very extreme. To the extent that significant portions of the electorate are “extreme” (we might think of the Abolitionists of the 19th century, or the civil rights advocates of the 20th), they have the right to earn a place at the legislative table—in proportion to their numbers—and to try to persuade the rest of us.

Large PR districts undermine geographic representation and constituency relations

This objection has several answers.

  • While PR districts are, in general, larger than single-member districts, they are typically geographically limited, so there is at least a degree of geographic representation available.
  • Under STV and open list PR, voters themselves have the option of how much weight to give geographic representation, by voting for local candidates.
  • The mixed member variation of party list PR allows for both single-seat districts, giving geographic representation, and proportional representation, by using a parallel party list election to fill the additional seats required to achieve proportionality.
  • Ultimately, though, the advantages of PR far outweigh any loss of geographic representation. Voters are much more likely to actually contribute to the election of a candidate who will actually represent their views, and not just have a nearby mailing address.

Alternative solutions

Sometimes we hear not so much an objection to PR itself as a claim that some other reform will fix our electoral problems.

Redistricting reform will solve all our problems

Redistricting reform typically takes the form of the establishment of an independent (non-partisan) body for drawing district lines. A commission for this purpose was recently established in California for this purpose, and will be responsible for drawing district lines based on the 2010 census.

We know from the experience of other states that have enacted similar reforms that they have little effect on the defects they’re trying to fix. Incumbents continue to be re-elected; we still have uncompetitive districts. This should come as no particular surprise: no amount of neutral district drawing will create competitive districts in the San Francisco Bay Area, or in the Republican-dominated Central Valley. And even if it could, we have already seen that competitive districts themselves work to exclude larger groups of voters from representation.

So while district line drawing should by all means be fair and neutral, even the best-drawn districts cannot address the issues that proportional representation is designed to solve.

Open primaries, or top-two runoffs, will solve all our problems

The problem with reforms like open primaries and top-two systems, or indeed any reform that leaves single-seat districts in place, is that they perpetuate the existing majority-take-all system, again leaving a substantial portion of the electorate, as much as half, unrepresented.

More on objections to PR

For more on the subject, see the ERS publication PR Myths: The facts and the fiction on Proportional Representation and Amy 2002, to which this page owes a debt of gratitude.


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