The adoption of Proportional Representation (PR) is not exactly a hot topic in the UK but it’s definitely a conversation that everyone is aware of, even if it’s widely misunderstood. Recently though, I’ve noticed more interest in the US about whether it’s something that should be considered over there. What I’ve also noticed is a level of confusion about what PR is and how it would work, so here I’m going to run through the basics of how PR might improve political representation in the US.

What is PR?
PR does what it says on the tin, It simply means that after any election to a representative assembly the proportions of seats held by any party is the same as the proportion of votes for that party. This means that everyone’s vote is of equal value. Many people in the UK and the US are unaware that their current electoral systems don’t deliver on these obvious goals, which are pretty much the basic requirement for a democratic electoral system.

Which elections would benefit from PR?
The obvious candidate for PR in the US is the system of election to the House of Representatives. The House is supposed to represent the citizenry of the US and therefore all citizens should have an equal vote.
The Senate trades the democratic principle of equal citizen’s votes for the US objective of providing states within the federation with an equal voice, regardless of population. PR can only help systems that are intended to deliver the democratic principle of equal votes to deliver on that ambition. There is scope for the US to adjust the power relationship between citizens and states by adjusting the power relationship between the House, the Senate and the President, but it’s not possible to make elections to the senate always representative of the votes cast. Because the number of senators per state is fixed, and the state boundaries are fixed, reform of the Senate is more likely to come in the shape of a system of transferable voting, such as STAR voting

As for presidential elections, PR isn’t appropriate because you can’t have a president who is proportionally made up of different people. The principle of equal votes requires the abolition of the electoral college in presidential elections. Those in favour of the electoral college will mount various arguments in its defence, but there can be no defence of the Electoral College on the grounds of equal votes.

Do we really need PR?
Yes. Under the current system, some parties in some elections win one seat for every 162 thousand votes, while other parties need over 318 thousand votes for each seat. This means that different people’s votes have different values.
There is also a serious problem with Gerrymandering – the redrawing of electoral district borders to win seats. Under PR the borders can be drawn anywhere without giving any advantage to any party. So, if you want equal votes and/or Congressional Districts related to actual communities, then yes, you really need PR.

How would it work?
It’s astoundingly simple.
You run the election exactly as you currently do, with everyone voting for a local candidate, and the winner gaining a seat in the House of Representatives. So far so familiar. Next, the House is topped up until the proportion of Representatives for each party represents the proportion of votes for each party. The extra Representatives for each party come from that party’s closest losing candidates. That’s it. You now have a democratically elected House of Representatives and corrupt politicians can Gerrymander all they like – the total effect will be zero.

What are you waiting for?

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