How Proportional Representation Elections Could Revitalize American Democracy

Second Edition


Douglas J. Amy

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:

Excerpts from Reviews

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)

Real Choices/New Voices

    Second Edition

Table of Contents

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




Ordering Information

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. 

About the Author

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

Excerpt from the Introduction to Real Choices/New Voices (2nd Ed.)

Copyright (c) 2002 by Columbia University Press. Reprinted with permission of the the publisher.

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.

Fortunately, some 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.

Unfortunately, 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.

The Trend Away from Plurality Elections

Americans sometimes 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.

Most recently, 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.

Growing 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.

More importantly, 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.  

The pro-PR 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 PR.  

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.

 More 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 Plurality Elections

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 Ameri­can elections:

Lack of Competitive Elections

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.

Low Voter Turnout

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.

Tweedledum and Tweedledee Candidates

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.

The Two-Party Monopoly

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.

Wasted Votes

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.

Poor Quality Campaigns

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 in office?

Underrepresentation of Women

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.

Lack of Minority Representation

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.

Electoral Rules 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 case.

Plurality rules 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.

Proportional 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.


Proportional Representation Library ] PR Books ] PR Web Sites ] Bibliography ] Articles ] Beginning Readings ]