Idea: Proportional Representation

Editor's Note: On February 6, we asked BlueOregon readers to suggest progressive ideas that the next Oregon Legislature should enact. Over the next several weeks, we'll post some of these ideas here - and ask you to discuss them. Good idea? Bad idea? Any suggestions?

From Eric Lindsay:

I would like to see the state legislature change our state electoral system to a proportional system, whereby I can support candidates of non-establishment parties without harming the chances of more mainstream progressive candidates.


[If you have your own original progressive idea to propose, do it here: "There oughta be a law."]

  • (Show?)

    I'm not in favor of such a system. The problem with proportional representation is that it tends to establish - even more than we have in the U.S. - party heirarchy as the be all end all of political influence. There would be no quick way for progressive to get rid of someone like Karen Minnis in such a system, or Joe Lieberman for that matter. Because even if the party lost, they'd still retain enough votes to put the top people back in charge.

    This also caters to extremism. You get little wedge issue parties able to amplify their votes by essentially selling it to the highest bidder. This is what has happened in Israel, where for years the religious parties switched between Labor and Likud, allowing them to impose absurd blue-laws that are unsupported by 80% of the nation. I don't want the same thing happening here.

    Rather than proportional representation, I think you really want fusion voting. This would allow the establishment of parties who can endorse other candidates. Although, quite frankly, I think that's a bad idea too. What progressive need is more unity, not less.

  • Jesse O (unverified)

    I like proportional representation, which would allow votes to be more equal. For example, right now, there are many more folks who vote Democratic than Republican in this state. Yet the Republicans control the Oregon House. Why? Because the Democrat votes are concentrated in particular parts of the state, meaning that we have a lot of 70-30% races for the Democrats and several 55-45% races for the Republicans.

    What's that mean? That the majority of Oregonians doesn't translate into the majority of our legislative body. That seems a bit silly.

    Granted, there are good reasons to encourage some geographical representation, but the current system is a mess, whereby some voters don't have as much influence as others.

    The Republicans are similarly given the short end of the stick in Congress, where we should have 3 Ds and 2 Rs, but have 4-1 instead.

  • (Show?)

    I don't know where to start. For readers, try Gary Cox's "Making Votes Count." It is tough sledding at some points, but really a superb treatment of the strategic effects of various electoral systems.

    I can say more but for now: what Steven Maurer posts is incorrect. I fact, the SMSP (single member simple plurality) system is more prone to electing extremists.

    Maurer's example is flawed in three ways. First, Israel has a very low national threshold (1.5%). Second, Israel has a very high "magnitude" (number of seats per district)--they have one, national 'District' consisting of 120 seats. Third, Israel has complex ethnic and religious divisions that increase the number of parties.

  • Gil Johnson (unverified)

    I'm still waiting for someone to propose a law that has a snowball's chance of getting through the legislature. First disarming police, now this. While there is some merit in proportional representation, the members of the legislature have a strong interest in seeing it never happens.

  • Betsy Wilson (unverified)

    Initiative reform -- increased number of signatures for ballot title -- passed the Senate last session, I think, and had bipartisan support. Stymied by the House, but mainly for lack of effort by constituents.

  • Eric Berg (unverified)

    It would make sense to discuss the idea of proportional representation if we Oregon were to secede from the Union and establish a parliamentary system. Meanwhile, the ORA (Oregon Republican Army) should set it's sights a little lower. Such as: instant runoff voting or fusion voting.

    I support the idea of IRV over fusion. However, a fusion actually has a chance of passing the legislature next session. There's still a small chance the Working Families Party will try to put a fusion initiative on the ballot this year.

    I know many who read BlueOregon disagree, but no ideas on campaign or electoral reform can be considered "progressive" unless it:

    1) Removes signifigant money from politics. 2) Loosens the state from the stranglehold the Democratic and Republican parties.

  • (Show?)

    I think it would be great to have proportional representation for the house, and keep the Senate as is. The two main political parties need more competition, which would force them to re-invent themselves more often and figure out what they really stand for. It would give voice to people who feel their voice is not heard in the legislature.

    Instead of forcing voters to choose between two big coalitions before elections, it would allow people to vote according to their true interests and beliefs, and then make the parties form coalitions after the election.

    I think Steven Maurer's concerns are overblown, for reasons paul gronke mentions, and because we would still have the Senate, with members elected by districts.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    Proprtional representation without contribution limits and public campaign financing would increase the power of wealthy interests, because candidates would need to communicate with larger numbers of voters.

  • (Show?)

    Hmmm. I must say that Paul's book suggestion is one I should take up. From the reviews, it seems that Gary Cox is indeed an interesting political science professor.

    Still, I must confess some bemusement in reporting that when I looked up the first 5 page introduction for "Making Votes Count" on Amazon, I found that the beginning of the book compares and contrasts the nominative fates of Walter Mondale in the U.S. vs Mario Vargas Llosa in Peru. Mondale, as many will recall, was the Democratic Nominee against Ronald Reagan. He was moderate to the point of being bloodless. Yet, as the book points out, he won the nomination only because he was everybody's favorite second choice - not their first. Llosa, on the other hand, went down in Peru's system to Fujimori - of "Dictatorship in everything but name" fame.

    And this is the book Paul cites as his contention that our current system is "more prone to electing extremists"?

    Sorry, but you'll have to do better than that to get me to change my mind. I see the evidence as being overwhelming. Hell, it's why we're talking about it in the first place. Eric Lindsay's stated reason why he wants the change in the system is because he's unhappy with the moderation of Democratic Party nominees. He's upset that he has to choose between his far more progressive beliefs and his pragmatic fears about the Republicans taking over.

    I would argue, however, that as uncomfortable as this choice is, it's much better in the hands of voters than it is in politicians - who inevitably end up cutting back room deals that don't serve the people well at all. If you don't like Israel as an example, then use Italy instead.

    Scared enough yet? Or is there another excuse there as well?

  • LT (unverified)

    The question is how this would work and how this would be implemented. Ask anyone you know who is not political if they would accept a system where they wouldn't just mark ballots as they customarily do but a whole new system. And be prepared for lots of "you want to change the way we vote and make us learn a new system because....?".

    All kinds of games could be played with this kind of system. I have seen organizational elections of various sorts and one where there were 3 people running. The 3rd, less well known candidate was spotted in a corner of the room making a deal with one of the 2 more well known candidates. So I said told the other well known candidate that if she would answer some questions I would vote for her. 3rd candidate lost value as an alternative when in league with one of the others.

    Is that the sort of thing we want in legislative elections? Seems to me that more grass roots candidates and a different system would be better. People popular in their community, not just recruited because a caucus recruitement employee tells them if they implement a campaign plan they will get elected whether they engage in public dialogue or not--like it or not, that is the perception some have of the current partisan process. And / or maybe it is time for a nonpartisan legislature so there would be more emphasis on getting quality people elected than on one "side" or "team" winning as if that is all that matters. The sun rose and set every day when the 2003 session was 15-15, so I don't see how the Oregon government falls apart if there is not a Majority Office and a Minority Office in each chamber. Aren't individual legislators supposed to be elected to represent districts, and not just party?

  • Mike Austin (unverified)

    Oh, please! Most of the developed world has some form of proportional representation and most of them are not only more democratic than we are, they have more representative government. (They also have universal health care, less income inequality, stronger environmental laws, more support for education, less militarism, and so on. Is this a coincidence? I don't think so.)

    Rather than choosing Israel and Italy, why not choose Germany and France?

    If one's car-buying choices were limited to Buick and Chevy, is there anyone who would argue that this is a good thing? The current system eliminates <u>effective</u> competition and that alone is reason to replace it.

    Finally, the money will never be taken out of politics until the two current parties lose their stranglehold over our political lives.

  • (Show?)

    I'm with you all the way, Eric. Well, not ALL the way. But I'd vote for you even if you were a Green Party member.

  • LT (unverified)

    Rather than choosing Israel and Italy, why not choose Germany and France?

    If one's car-buying choices were limited to Buick and Chevy, is there anyone who would argue that this is a good thing? The current system eliminates effective competition and that alone is reason to replace it.

    Finally, the money will never be taken out of politics until the two current parties lose their stranglehold over our political lives.

    My point is that the decision will not be made by bloggers. It will be made by the folks who don't follow politics.

    Go to a PTA meeting or a neighborhood meeting or any other group which is not necessarily partisan in nature and say "I've got a great idea. Let's revolutionize voting and have a whole new system. The ballot will no longer look the way it looks now, and you can vote for more than one choice".

    And then be prepared to answer questions like "I couldn't stand the incumbent and there was only one challenger, so how would this have changed anything?".

    Before Vote By Mail became official for all elections, there was a process that went on for years. There was a groundswell of support for more convenient voting--more and more people registered absentee.

    Where is the evidence that the general public (and not just bloggers and theorists) thinks proportional voting is a great idea? How are you going to impose it on people who have never heard of the idea and are too busy in their daily lives to read blogs?

    Is there an elected official / candidate ready to introduce legislation, will this be a ballot measure? How would this come to happen, or isn't that important because this is a theoretical discussion?

  • Garlynn (unverified)

    Adam Z said: "I think it would be great to have proportional representation for the House, and keep the Senate as is."

    Can anybody tell me what the difference is between the Oregon House (60 members serving 2-year terms) and the Oregon Senate (30 members serving 4-year terms), now, with regards to the relationship between our system and the federal system? That is, under the federal system, the House is divided by population (areas with greater population have more votes) and the Senate is divided by administrative unit (2 Senators for each state).

    I've never quite understood what the difference is between the Oregon House and the Oregon Senate, in this regard, except that one has fewer members than the other. It would have made sense to me for Oregon to divide it up in such a way that each county got one Senator, and then the 60 house districts were divided into areas sized equally by population... but I guess with some of the Oregon counties posting such low populations, this could make for an even more unequal system for the Senate than we have now.

    I do like the idea of having one chamber being elected using proportional representation, while the other is elected based on districts distributed on the basis of equal population. Perhaps the Senate could be elected by proportional representation, and the House by equally-populated districts?

  • (Show?)

    With all due respect, Steve, you need to read a bit more carefully.

    Fujimori ran in an SMSP system just like our own--that is how Peru elects their President. That is exactly Cox's point. In a proportional representation system, there would have been no incentive for Peruvian voters to switch to their "anyone but Llosa" choice.

    Nowhere does Cox write that Mondale was everyone's second choice. He wrote that voters who disliked Mondale "faced a coordination...if they could agree on a single alternative to Mondale...they could conceivably deny him the nomination" (italics added).

    You really want to choose Italy? Another bad example. I think you are reasoning by anecdote and reputation, not history and facts. Don't mistake many elections with different sorts of public policies.

    For most of the post-war period, Italy had one dominant centrist party, the Christian Democrats, and Christian Democratic Prime Ministers. Yes, many "governments" (because many elections), but a highly stable governing coalition--exactly as you'd expect in a PR system.

    Where we do have overwhelming evidence, Steve, is that our system is about as disproportional a system as you can create. There are some justifications for our system--the fact that it creates governing majorities is a big one for many.

    But if you really are advocating empowering the voice of voters instead of backroom deals by parties, then you ought to be advocating for PR, which represents voter preferences far more sincerely.

  • JoanneR (unverified)

    You know what? If there are more republicans in the state legislature it's because a majority of the people in their areas voted them in. If you want more democrats and/or progressives, you better get your tails out there and convince people why it would be more bennificial for them to vote your people into office than the conservatives/republicans. If you do a good enough job, and the people believe you, then you're people will get elected. It really is that simple.

  • Chuck Butcher (unverified)

    I'm trying to figure out why anyone in a rural area would go for this idea. The voting power of rural areas is already pretty small, so in this scenario unless they power bloc voted the I 5 corridor would elect everybody?

    The actual reform of politics will happen if the elctorate actually participates in the process, ie: contribute, volunteer, vote... Clicking Chuck Butcher will take you someplace to do that.

  • askquestions1st (unverified)

    Here's something that should keep folks talking for awhile:

    Without speaking in favor or against the idea, one has to admire the simple logic of how this plan would negate the Electoral College without actually amending the Constitution.

    Modern NW populists --- who seem to be enamored more with impractical electoral ideas than feasible solutions for the electoral and societal problems we face right now --- may find this attractive because it is undeniably populist, sufficiently quirky, and yet well within the realm of possibility.

    Right wingers and red staters who have disproportionate Congressional power (and therefore Electoral College votes) right now could find this disorienting. On the one hand, it appeals to their irrational proclivities for the emotionally driven power of the mob over those elitist Electoral College types. But on the other hand, even a little rational analysis indicates this system would tend to redress the disproportionate influence they have had in national politics in the last 20 years. Quite the appealing thought of the brain twisting they would go through if the idea really was considered by our state legislature.

    Of course, it also seems quite possible that both sides, and the uncertain middle, could just decide it has to be some kind of trick and together reject the idea.

  • Eric Lindsay (unverified)

    Another, and on the level of principle perhaps more important, reason for my support of proportional representation system is the following. Currently, both on a federal and state level, our only systems of representation are tied to geographic location. This, to me, appears highly arbitrary. Not arbitrary in a historic sense, but rather in our current political context. Such systems almost completely ignore disparate groups, and thus both disempowers them and undermines their formation. If 12% of Oregonians (who happen to be scattered about the state more or less equally) feel very strongly about an issue or a set of policies principles, they, in our current system, are likely to be completely disenfranchised. Two large parties can easily ignore such a group, whereas in a system of PR the 12% could make or break an effective coalition, thus forcing a major party to make policy concessions. In such a situation, a disparate group of like-minded individuals gain representation, thus furthering the strength of our democracy.

    On a side note: I was thinking of Germany, having a threshold of 1.5%, such as Israel, I think a poor idea for a state with our population.

    Maybe PR would enable something to be done about the OLCC.

  • (Show?)

    PR is tricky. i don't think we want an Italian version, and the German, while usually resulting in long periods of stability, can also require that screwy coalitions are needed to have a ruling majority.

    the goal of PR is not to increase the number of parties. it's to give people enough choices. the UK purports to have PR, but the 3rd party, the Democratic Liberals, gain far fewer seats in Parliament than what they should in terms of votes received because of their "first past the post" system. as much as i support the Democratic party and am proud to be an active member of the Party of Jefferson, Roosevelt and Kennedy (not to mention Paul Wellstone), i would accept the challenge of a fair election between multiple parties. but we have a lot of things to change first, and above all the role of money in elections and government. until that changes, dealing with PR or anything else is pointless.

  • (Show?)

    Sorry, I know way too much about this...

    UK has a first past the post system, just like ours. They don't have PR.

    Germany has a two tier system; you vote for single seats (left side of the ballot) and then a party list (right side of the ballot). Extra seats are allocated to make the outcome as proportional as possible given the district magnitudes.

    German coalitions have not been screwy. Except for a few grand coalitions, they have consisted of the right (CSU/CDU) + centrist (FDP) or the left (SDP) + centrist (FDP). It is only in the very recent decade that the Green party has grown significantly enough to constitute a possible coalition partner with the SDP.

    Chuck, it is not at all clear how PR would impact the power of the rural vote--it depends on how the disticts are drawn and how partisanship is distributed. Under PR, for instance, a small number of Democrats located in eastern Oregon could be "represented" because their party vote would translate into seats.

    But I agree in practical politics: PR is a non-starter in the US, even though it is a much fairer electoral system. If you want to make our system more proportional, the way to go is to institute multi-member districts. If you want to encourage more parties, then look to fusion voting.

  • (Show?)

    Just curious, I'm here in Korea. Isn't PR the system that Korea is using?

  • (Show?)


    Go here:

    Korea uses a two tier system. Most seats are elected SMSP, with 40 seats elected PR in order to make the result most proportional overall. More info on the formula and etc. are above.

    <h2>The President is SMSP.</h2>
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