This is the completely revised and updated second edition of this book. The basic theme remains the same: the need to replace our outmoded and unfair winner-take-all electoral system with a new system: proportional representation (PR). The books shows how our current single-member plurality system is responsible for many of the problems afflicting American elections, including the lack of competitive races, the under-representation of women and minorities, the two-party monopoly, wasted votes, spoiler candidates, gerrymandering, and low voter turnout. It is argued that switching to proportional representation -- the multi-member district system used by most other Western democracies -- would solve all of these problems and produce a more representative and more democratic political system.
Virtually every chapter has been extensively rewritten and updated to include new studies and recent developments in electoral system reform. There is also a new chapter entitled "PR -- A Different and Better Kind of Democracy" that explains how proportional representation produces more of what we value in democracies: greater political equality, more power sharing, broader political debate, increased political bargaining, and policies that better reflect the public will.
This new edition of Real Choices/New Voices offers a timely and imaginative way out of the frustrations of our current voting system by proposing a proven alternative that is more open, responsive and democratic. As the debate over electoral reform continues, this book will be a invaluable source of ideas and information for those interested in revitalizing American democracy.
This page includes:
Douglas Amy has writen a very important book showing how fundamental election reform that involves European-style proportional representation would create a "different and better kind of democracy" in the United States.
-- Lani Guinier, Harvard Law School
Douglas J. Amy puts the issue of proportional representation where it belongs: on the agenda of American political reform. His book manages to be at once a lucid argument, a valuable reference work, and, some of us hope, a prophecy.
-- Hendrik Hertzberg, The New Yorker (of the first edition)
In a revelatory book that people serious about politics and social policy could wisely set aside the time to read, Douglas J. Amy makes the case that American politics can be reenergized by adopting proportional representation, the method by which most Western democracies vote.
--Ronnie Dugger, The New York Times Book Review (of the first edition)
Douglas Amy has admirably captured the essence of the case to be made for proportional representation. In marshaling the arguments in favor of this far-reaching reform of the American electoral process he demonstrates convincingly how it would vastly improve our political campaigns, and also insure elections that are more issue- oriented and assure fair representation of women and minorities. Real Choices/New Voices deserves wide readership by every person in our society truly interested in the reform of our political system.
-- John Anderson, 1980 U.S. Presidential Candidate (of the first edition)
This challenging and thought provoking book deserves to be read. It is, blessedly, well written and well argued, making it accessible to a variety of undergraduate audiences, in addition to graduate students and faculty.
-- Choice (of the first edition)
Preface to Second Edition
1. Fair Representation for All
2. Solving the Redistricting Problem
3. Improving Election Campaigns
4. Toward a Multiparty System
5. Electing More Women
6. Fair Representation for Racial and Ethnic Minorities
7. Encouraging Voter Turnout
8. PR: A Different and Better Kind of Democracy
9. Objections to Proportional Representation
10. Versions of Electoral Reform for the United States
11. The Political Prospects for PR in the United States
Appendix A: PR Seat Allocation Formulas
Appendix B: Transfer of Ballots in Single Transferable Vote
Appendix C: The Forgotten History of Proportional Representation in the United States
Paperback Edition (ISBN 0231125496) . . . .$18.50
Cloth Edition (ISBN 0231125488) . . . . . . . .$49.50
Individuals are encouraged to order Real Choices/New Voices through their local bookstore. On-line it can be order from Columbia University Press by clicking here to go to their web page for the book, and then by clicking on "Buy This Now." Bulk orders at a discount can be arranged through Columbia University Press. Call 212-459-0600 and ask for the sales department.
Examination copies can be gotten through Columbia University Press. For instructions on how to obtain one click here.
Douglas J. Amy is a professor in the Department of Politics at Mount Holyoke College. He grew up in Washington State and received degrees from the University of Washington and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He currently lives in Northampton, Massachusetts with his wife and son. Comments or questions about the book are welcome and can be sent to email@example.com.
The American electoral system is outmoded, unfair, and undemocratic.
Worse yet, a large number of Americans remain oblivious to these
disturbing problems. To be sure,
the American public frequently expresses a great deal of anger and frustration
about some aspects of our elections, such as poor quality candidates, the
constant reelection of incumbents, and the role of special interest money in
campaigns. But in fact, many
of the problems with American elections go much deeper than that, and are
located in the mechanics of the electoral system itself.
Electoral systems are the methods we use to elect officials – the basic
procedural rules by which votes are cast and counted, and the winners
determined. These rules form the
hidden infrastructure of our election process, and many Americans hardly give
them a second thought. They would
be surprised to learn that our electoral system is so deeply flawed that it
often violates the fundamental principles of democracy and fair representation
that many believe are the hallmarks of the American political system.
Americans are beginning to realize that electoral systems – sometimes also
called voting systems – can have important political ramifications.
One wake-up call came in the form of the 2000 presidential election.
The result of that contest made it painfully clear that at least one part
of the American electoral system – the Electoral College – could malfunction
in disturbing ways. The arcane
mechanics of this system resulted in the election of George W. Bush, even though
his opponent, Al Gore, actually won the popular vote.
Suddenly, many Americans realized that who wins an election is determined
not only by the votes that are cast, but also by the workings of the electoral
system itself. Not surprisingly,
this seemingly undemocratic election result produced a call to change the
electoral system that we use to choose our president.
however, most Americans have yet to turn the same skeptical eye towards the
predominant electoral system in the United States – single-member plurality
elections (SMP). This voting system
is commonly used to elect officials to our local, state, and federal
legislatures. In this system,
officials are elected one at a time in single-member districts, with the winner
being the candidate with the most votes – the plurality.
This is the winner-take-all electoral system that Americans have grown up
with and that most accept as the natural form of democratic elections.
But as this book will demonstrate, this system is riddled with grave
political problems. In fact, the problems that afflict SMP elections pose a much
more serious and widespread threat to the democratic process than any flaws in
the Electoral College. The
Electoral College affects elections to only one office – albeit an important
one – while the flaws in our legislative electoral systems affect the election
of thousands of officials in hundreds of policymaking bodies around the country.
Ultimately, these electoral problems make the American political system
much less democratic than it could be.
assume that our single-member plurality voting system serves as the model for
the rest of the free world. But nothing could be further from the truth.
In reality, SMP systems are increasingly on the wane worldwide. Among
advanced industrial democracies, only Great Britain and Canada join us in
clinging to this 18th century method of election.
Most other Western democracies have long since adopted another form of
elections: proportional representation (PR). In this system, officials are
elected in large, multimember districts according to the proportion of the vote
their party receives. If, for example, a given district had ten legislative
seats and a party received 30 percent of the votes, it would receive three of
those ten seats. Countries using various forms of proportional representation
include Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Ireland,
Israel, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal,
Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. And it is not the case that these countries
opted for proportional representation without knowledge of the American system.
Virtually all these countries at one time had forms of plurality election systems
but then explicitly rejected them in favor of proportional representation.
Thus for most of the last 100 years, the worldwide trend clearly has been away
from the U.S. form of elections.
emerging democracies around the world have followed the trend toward proportional
representation. In Eastern Europe
and the former Soviet Union, many new democracies rushed to embrace American
political ideals and economic practices. But
the one aspect of our political system that most deliberately rejected was our
SMP election system. Almost
three-quarters of them opted for various forms of proportional or
semiproportional systems. As one
Czech legislator pointed out, "We decided virtually from the beginning not
to take very seriously the [single-member plurality] system."
PR has also been the system of choice for many new democracies in Africa.
In South Africa, for instance, the African National Congress agreed to
use proportional representation elections so that the white minority would be
ensured of some representation in the new parliament. It seems that when countries can start from scratch and
consider all the electoral alternatives, they usually opt for proportional
rather than plurality elections.
Thus, although we
in the United States like to think of ourselves as in the vanguard of democratic
political institutions, we have in reality fallen behind in the area of
electoral reform, and our voting system has become increasingly outmoded.
Proportional representation is now the state of the art in elections.
America was once known as the laboratory of democracy, but in the area of
elections we are now in danger of becoming the museum of democracy.
Discontent in Countries Using Plurality Elections
Even in those few
long-standing democracies that still use plurality elections, discontent with
this system is growing and all of them have political movements pushing for a
change to proportional representation. One
of the most interesting examples of this trend is New Zealand.
For over a hundred years, New Zealand used single-member district
plurality elections for its parliament. But
in the 1980s, after a series of election fiascoes in which the party that came
in second place in the polls actually won the majority of parliamentary seats, a
national commission was formed to study the electoral system.
The commission recommended that a public referendum be held on the
electoral system, giving voters a choice between sticking with the plurality
system and changing to a proportional system. After
a long political battle to allow this referendum to take place, it finally
occurred in 1993. Voters approved
changing to a proportional system by 54 percent to 46 percent.
It is perhaps more
significant that agitation for electoral reform is also taking place in Great
Britain, the traditional home of single-member plurality elections.
For years, the Electoral Reform Society and its political allies have
been calling for the abandonment of plurality elections.
The movement gained some important momentum with the election of Tony
Blair and the Labor party in the 1990s. Blair
appointed a commission to study the electoral system and promised a public
referendum on the issue. The
Jenkins commission issued its report in 1998, which called for the adoption of a
new, semiproportional electoral system. At
this writing, because of disagreements within the Labor party, Blair has refused
to make a clear commitment to holding the promised referendum.
Public support for PR in Great Britain has varied over time, but it is
clearly substantial. At one of its
highpoints, a poll in the Economist in May of 1997 showed a four to one
majority in favor of switching to proportional representation.
proportional representation has been gaining ground in other elections held in
Great Britain. Both Scotland and
Wales now have their own parliaments, and both decided to reject winner-take-all
elections and use forms of proportional representation to elect officials to
those bodies. And in elections for
representatives to the European community, Britain has now switched to
proportional representation elections. These
developments have been important victories for the PR movement in Great Britain.
movements in the United States and Canada are not as advanced as that of Great
Britain. In Canada, SMP elections
are infamous for producing distorted results, with some parties winning
substantial parts of the vote, but few seats in parliament. This has begun to provoke some discussion about electoral
reform. After the 1997 elections,
for example, several political commentators soundly criticized their electoral
system, and the editors of the national newspaper, The Globe and Mail,
came out in favor of a change to proportional representation elections.
A number of academic books and articles have been published calling for
serious consideration of both proportional and semiproportional electoral
systems. The Reform party has called for a national referendum on the electoral
system, and the New Democratic Party established a study committee to look at
alternatives to single-member plurality elections.
Several organizations have also emerged for the explicit purpose of push
for PR, the most prominent being Fair Vote Canada.
In the United
States, interest in proportional representation has waxed and waned several
times during the last 100 years. The
first wave of interest in this alternative occurred in the early part of the
twentieth century, when PR was adopted and used successfully by two-dozen
cities, including New York, Cincinnati, and Cleveland.
(For an account of this largely forgotten history of PR in the United
States, see Appendix C.) Today we are seeing a second wave of interest in PR.
There has been a growing discussion of this alternative, especially among
academics and political commentators. Articles
on this topic have appeared in wide number of prominent national media,
including Time, New Republic, New York Times, Boston Globe, Atlantic, New
Yorker, Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune, The Nation, Washington Post,
San Francisco Chronicle, and USA Today.
A number of leaders in the civil rights and voting rights community,
including Jesse Jackson and Lani Guinier, have been arguing that PR could solve
the problem of ensuring fair representation for racial and ethnic minorities. Several third parties, including the Greens, have endorsed
On the national
level, the Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington D.C. has emerged as the
leading non-profit organization educating politicians and the public about
electoral alternatives, including proportional representation.
In part because of their efforts, legislation has been introduced during
several of the recent sessions of Congress to allow states to use PR for the
election of representatives in the House. Recognizing
the significance of electoral systems, the League of Women Voters decided in
2000 to have their local chapters study the issue of electoral reform.
significantly, on the local level, over 100 cities and counties have taken a
step away from winner-take-all elections and are now experimenting with
semiproportional systems for their elections.
Also, educational and activist activity in favor of PR has been taking
place in many states, including California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois,
Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New York, North Carolina, Oregon,
Rhode Island, Texas, and Washington. Several
state and local groups supporting PR have sprung up
around the country, including Washington Citizens for Proportional
Representation, Californians for Proportional Representation, Fairvote
Wisconsin, Fairvote Minnesota, the Midwest Democracy Center and Illinois
Citizens for Proportional Representation. This
kind of grassroots political activity is an additional sign that public interest
in this reform is on the rise.
The Problems of
But why is there
all this discontent with the single-member plurality voting system? What exactly
is wrong with this system and what are the advantages of proportional
representation that have made it the most popular voting system among advanced
democracies? These, of course, are the main questions that will be answered in
this book. But for now, let us at
least get a brief sense of some of the drawbacks of our current voting system.
Consider the following list of problems and complaints often associated with
It is not unusual for 90 percent of the incumbents to be re-elected to
Congress. Many areas of the country
are so dominated by one party that very little real competition exists.
For example, in elections around the country for state legislatures in
2000, either the Democrats or the Republicans failed to nominate a candidate in
41 percent of those contests.
Often voters have trouble finding candidates they are truly excited
about. So they end up reluctantly
supporting the least objectionable one. Winning
candidates always assume that anyone who voted for them is an enthusiastic
supporter, but in reality much of that support may be lukewarm at best.
Turnout in U.S. elections continues to be abysmally low – we
consistently rank far below other Western democracies. While others routinely
enjoy turnout rates of 80-90 percent, we get hardly more than 50 percent in a
presidential election year and often less than 40 percent for Congressional
elections. More than ninety million voters regularly sit out American elections.
Such low figures cast serious doubt on the democratic mandate that most elected
officials like to claim.
Telling the difference between the candidates offered by the major
parties is sometimes difficult. With both Republican and Democratic candidates
appealing to the swing voters in the center, they often tend to talk about the
same issues in much the same way. Given this situation, it is not surprising
that many voters feel they have little real choice at the polls.
Even when discernible differences between Democrats and Republicans
exist, those two choices hardly exhaust the political alternatives. While most
other democracies offer voters a wide variety of parties and ideological
alternatives, our two-party system severely constrains our choices. Increasing
numbers of Americans say that they would like to see alternative parties emerge
to challenge the Republicans and Democrats.
For voters living in districts dominated by the opposing party, voting
is largely futile. For instance, Republican voters in a district in which
Democrats form a large majority are merely wasting their votes, for their
candidates usually have no real chance of winning. Every election year tens of
millions of Americans find themselves in this frustrating position. Voters
coming away from elections with no one representing them are likely to feel
alienated from the political system.
Supporters of third party candidates are often caught in a frustrating
political dilemma. If they vote for
their preferred candidate, that candidate might act as a “spoiler” and
actually help to elect the candidate they oppose the most. In the 2000 presidential election, for example, Greens who
voted for Ralph Nader inadvertently ensured the election of George W. Bush.
Ideally, candidates in U.S. elections should put issues at the forefront
of their campaigns. But instead, they usually rely on slick media images and
negative advertising. Such campaigns cripple the public's ability to vote
intelligently. How can the public control policy through elections when the
candidates refuse to discuss in any detail what policies they will pursue once
While women constitute more than 50 percent of the population, they
made up only 14 percent of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2002. This is
a figure significantly lower than in other democratic national legislatures,
where women hold up to 43 percent of the seats. Many critics question whether
our legislatures can effectively address women's policy concerns when they
remain virtually all-male clubs.
Blacks, Hispanics and Asians are consistently underrepresented in our
legislatures. While African Americans constitute almost thirteen percent of our
population, fewer than two percent of the elected offices in the United States
are occupied by black Americans. Not
only is such misrepresentation unfair, it also fuels the political alienation
already felt in many minority communities.
In the United States, election
results are often determined not by how people vote but by how election district
lines are drawn. Through the skillful manipulation of district lines, dominant
political parties in the states often steal legislative seats from their
opponents and ensure the election of incumbents. For example, in the 1990s,
after redistricting in Texas, the Democrats were able to win 70 percent of the
U.S. House seats, even though the party only garnered 49.9 percent of the vote.
The public is
certainly aware of all these problems. What
many are not aware of is how they are directly related to flaws in our current
electoral system. In part this is
because each of these problems is usually traced to a different source. The
constant re-election of incumbents is blamed on the absence of term limits.
Low voter turnout is blamed on voters who are lazy and apathetic.
The lack of women legislators is thought to be caused by lingering sexism
among voters. Gerrymandering is considered the fault of unscrupulous and
power-hungry politicians. And so on.
But as this book will demonstrate, all of these problems are to some
extent caused by flaws in the electoral system itself.
As Hendrik Hertzberg, a political commentator for The New Yorker,
has explained, to appreciate the deeper causes of these problems, we must look
beyond the “usual suspects.”
A lot of the political pathologies we worry about in this country –
things like low voter turnout, popular alienation from politics, hatred of
politicians and politics per se, the undue influence of special interests, the
prevalence of negative campaigning and so on – are not caused by the usual
suspects. They are not caused by
the low moral character of our politicians.
They are not caused by the selfishness of the electorate.
They are not caused by the peculiarities of the American national
character and the American political culture.
They are not caused by television. They
are not caused by money (although money certainly makes them worse).
Instead, they are artifacts of a particular political technology.
They are caused by our single-member district, geographically-based,
plurality winner-take-all system of representation.
and the Two-Party System
Let us briefly
consider just one example of how our election problems are connected to our
electoral system. Let’s consider
some of the problems caused by our two-party system. Voters today seem
increasingly frustrated by the limited range of choices presented by the
two-party system. More Americans
are realizing that just as it would be ludicrous to have stores that provided
only two styles of shoes or two kinds of vegetables, it is no less absurd to
have a party system that provides only two choices to represent the great
variety of political opinions in the United States. So why does a system that
so constrains voter choices persist? Americans are certainly not wildly
enthusiastic about the two major parties. Only about a third of Americans
strongly identify with either of the major parties. Voters also are showing
increasing interest in independent and third party candidates, such as H. Ross
Perot and Ralph Nader. And polls consistently reveal that a substantial majority
of the public would like to see other parties emerge to challenge the Democrats
and Republicans. Yet we remain stuck in a two-party system.
Few Americans suspect that our plurality voting system is largely to
blame for this frustrating situation – that our voting procedures serve to
unfairly protect the two major parties from competition. But this is exactly the
protect the two-party system by making it virtually impossible for minor
parties to flourish in the United States. In
our system, only candidates who can get the majority or plurality of the vote
can win office – and by definition minor party candidates can rarely attract
such a large percentage of the votes. Potential
minor party supporters quickly learn that there are several disadvantages to
supporting their candidate in a plurality voting system.
First, they are likely to waste their vote on a candidate that cannot
win. Worse, their candidate might
act as a spoiler and their vote might actually help to elect the candidate they
least desire. Given the
disincentive for voting for third party candidates in this system, it is not
surprising that many potential supporters reluctantly switch to the
lesser-of-two-evils among the major party candidates. Once it becomes clear that
a minor party cannot win elections, it usually fades away and leaves the
political field once again to the major parties. In this way, the plurality
requirement effectively discourages new parties and acts as a barrier to a
truly competitive multiparty system in the United States.
representation uses very different election rules – rules that allow minor
parties to become viable and to compete fairly with major parties.
In PR, a party or candidate does not have to get a majority or plurality
of the vote to win office. Parties are represented according to the proportion
of the vote they win. So a small party might only get 15 percent of the vote, but
it would still get 15 percent of the seats in the legislature. Thus if we were
to adopt proportional representation in the United States, minor parties would
immediately become a realistic alternative for the American voter. For the first
time we could have a viable Green party, Libertarian party, or Reform party to
compete with the Democrats and Republicans. In such a multiparty system, voters
would finally enjoy a wide range of political choices at the polls – not
merely a choice between the lesser-of-two-evils. And these choices could
actually get elected.
Such a multiparty
system would have other advantages as well – advantages that would serve to
reinvigorate Americans elections. Having
a wider variety of competing parties would generate much more public excitement
over elections. Voters would have a greater chance of finding someone on the
ballot that truly represents their particular political views. Political
campaigns would be much more interesting, with a variety of candidates
expressing different ideologies and offering different analyses of our
problems. It would become much easier for new ideas and new voices to be heard
in the political system. The press would have to pay attention to minor party
candidates because they would be realistic candidates with a good chance of
being elected. Finally, with a multiparty system, our city councils and state
and federal legislatures would begin to reflect the true diversity of political
views in the United States.
There is, then, an
intimate relationship between our use of plurality elections and the political
frustrations that accompany our two-party system. This is merely one example of the numerous connections that
exist between our electoral rules and the problems that plague American
elections. Uncovering and analyzing these largely unnoticed connections is one
of the main functions of this book. Only when Americans are fully aware of the
extent of the political problems caused by our current voting system will they
be ready to consider alternative arrangements like proportional representation.
The other main purpose of this book is to show how adopting proportional representation in the United States would help to address these problems. This reform would prevent or mitigate all of the election problems described earlier in the chapter. Besides removing unfair barriers to third party candidates and broadening voter choices, PR would also virtually eliminate wasted votes. Spoilers would become a thing of the past. Elections would become more competitive because all parties would have a good chance of electing someone in each district. We would no longer have to put with gerrymandering. Campaigns would concentrate more on issues than on mudslinging. And it would be much easier for women and minorities to occupy their fair share of seats in our legislatures. Given all the electoral problems that PR helps to solve, it is easy to see why it has become the most common and popular voting system in advanced Western democracies.