Proportional Representation and the Libertarian Party

William Redpath

William Redpath has been active for years in the Libertarian Party.  At its 2000 convention he sponsored a plank to the platform to endorse proportional representation elections.  It passed the platform committee of the LP overwhelmingly -- only 1 dissenting vote -- but was defeated on the floor after what some saw as a poorly informed debate.  Below is a memo he wrote in support of this plank.

To: The Delegates of the 2000 Convention of the Libertarian Party

Since the founding of the Libertarian Party in 1971, there have been 14 congressional elections. Candidates of the Libertarian Party have failed to win a single seat in all of those elections. In contrast, Movimiento Libertario, the Libertarian Party of Costa Rica (website: www.libertario.org), was founded in 1994, completed its registration process in 1997, and in the first congressional election after its founding, on February 1, 1998, won 1 of 57 seats in the Costa Rica National Congress, a unicameral legislature. That is equivalent to winning 9 seats in the U.S. Congress.

Why the difference in outcomes? Is Costa Rica a fervent hotbed of libertarianism compared with the U.S.? Hardly. The different outcomes are a direct result of the different voting systems employed to elect the Congresses of the two nations. The United States in most of its elections (and all elections for Congress) uses Single Member Plurality (SMP) voting (single member districts; the person with the most votes wins.) The people who vote for the winning candidate get representation. All other voters get no representation (or representation by a candidate they don't like).

Costa Rica, on the other hand, uses a proportional voting system called Closed Party List voting. Voters in Costa Rica vote for a party instead of a candidate for Congress. There are variations of this system, including Open Party List voting, whereby voters vote for a party and their favorite candidate of that party. The difference is that, with Closed Party List voting, a Party committee decides which individuals become members of the legislature; with Open Party List voting, the public decides the individuals who enter the legislature. (There are different proportional voting systems, as well, used elsewhere in the world.)

In Costa Rica, there are 57 seats in the National Congress. There are 7 provinces (states) in the nation, with the largest province (San Jose) sending 21 people to Congress and the smallest province sending only 4 people to Congress. The congressional elections are conducted on a province-by-province basis. The attached table shows the voting results from February 1, 1998. The political parties are listed on the left, with the provinces of San Jose, Alajuela, Cartago, Heredia, Guanacaste, Puntarenas and Limon listed to the right, with Total Votes listed on the far right.

In San Jose province, Movimiento Libertario (ML) earned 4.64% of the vote. 1/21 = 4.76%. Because it came so close to getting 1/21 of the vote in San Jose, given rounding, ML got 1 seat in the National Congress from San Jose province. Because ML got a lower percentage of the vote in the other provinces and because there were fewer seats to be distributed in each of those provinces, making the vote percentage threshold higher to be elected, ML did not win a seat from any of the other 6 provinces.

The negative effect of districting on the ML (and all political minorities) can be seen in the attached table. If National Congress representation had been decided on a nationwide, as opposed to province-by-province, basis, ML would have received 2 seats, not 1. ML got 3.08% of the vote. 2/57 = 3.51%, therefore, with rounding, ML would have received two seats. On the other hand, if San Jose province had been divided into as few as 2 districts, with 10 or 11 members elected from each district, ML would not have received any seats.

I have been a member of the Libertarian Party for over 16 years. I love the LP. I have worked hard for the LP. I have met the greatest people I know through the LP. But, as time has passed, I have come to the reluctant conclusion that the LP is not going to be an electoral success without a change in the United States to proportional voting systems.

Although often said by well meaning LP members, it simply is not true that "The American people are libertarian, they just don't know it." The Libertarian Party has not been an electoral success because we are a political minority in a winner-take-all voting system.

We're all working to make libertarianism a majority political sentiment in the U.S., but it is time to face reality that our progress is slower than what we would like, and we should not be deluded by the frequent predictions by some of tremendous success that is always just around the corner.  The LP may, many years from now, become the electoral success that we all want it to be. But it would be a success far beyond what we have known to date at the first election with proportional voting, which gives political minorities fair representation in legislatures, instead of shutting them out, as SMP voting does.

I recently spoke with Raul Costales, one of the three founders of the ML, who is a very strong advocate of proportional representation. He told me, "When you are in the National Congress, you are sitting at the table of power and your voice is really heard." Raul was Chair of the Florida LP in the mid-80's when he lived in the United States but was frustrated because the Party and he were ignored during his tenure.  Near the end of the conversation, he asked if I would do him a favor. I said, "Absolutely." He replied, "Bill, tell my Libertarian brothers and sisters in the U.S. to wake up to Proportional Representation and what it can do for the Libertarian Party there." Without it, he said, he strongly doubted the LP would ever really make it in the United States.

But we should support proportional representation (PR) not just because it would allow the LP to become electable (although that's enough, as far as I'm concerned). We should support PR because it would make for a more dynamic democracy, broaden the political debate and enfranchise more Americans in our political process. Please support my pro-Proportional Representation paragraph to be added to the Domestic Ills-Election Laws plank. Thank you.

Sincerely,

[William Redpath]