For many of us, the concept of proportional representation in the United States sounds like a new idea. But for proponents, it is more an idea whose time has come again. The basic premise of proportional representation is that our current "winner-take-all" electoral system is inherently flawed. When 49.9 percent of the voters can walk away from an election feeling that there viewpoints won't be represented by the winning candidate, the stage is set for an alienated electorate. And when people are in a minority -- either racial or political -- the risk of driving them away from the process is even greater.
Enter proportional representation. Essentially, it is a system that opens the door for more voices to be heard and represented once the ballots are counted.
Congressional races offer a clear view of how PR could work. As it is now, we live in districts that each elect one representative to the U.S. House. Under PR, the size of the district would be greatly expanded. Instead of choosing one "winner", voters from a particular district would send, say, 10 representatives to Washington. They'd be elected on a proportional basis: If Democrats received 40 percent of the vote, then four Democrats would represent that district. That would leave room not just for Republicans, but also Greens, Libertarians, the Natural Law Party, etc. to have a chance of getting at least one person from their party elected.
"A party winning just 10 percent of seats could help progressives build coalitions, broadcast their ideas to a bigger audience and check any conservative drift of the Democratic Party," write Steven Hill and Rob Riche of the Center for Voting and Democracy. "There is no guarantee that progressives would outdo conservatives in winning over the majority, of course, as all PR provides is a more level electoral playing field. But the winner-take-all monopoly facilitates 'divide and conquer' strategies that can split a potential majority coalition of progressives with such wedge issues as gun control, gay rights, race and abortion.
"With electable choices across the spectrum, a multi-party system would show where the American people really stand."
Which leaves the question: Could a system like this ever be put in place here in America? The answer is: It already has.
"The choice voting form of PR was first tried in the U.S. earlier this century," informs the Center for Voting & Democracy. "PR was tried in the U.S. in the 1920's and worked very well in 24 cities like New York City, Boulder, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Cambridge, MA. Both the majority and various political and racial minorities gained representation where their voices had previously been unheard. The minorities at the time who won representation were Irish Catholics, Polish immigrants, African Americans and leftists. Although only two of the first 26 attempts to repeal choice voting were successful in cities around the country, formerly dominant political forces outlasted reformers and were successful in repealing PR nearly everywhere. Their general tactic was targeting unpopular minorities like blacks and leftists."