June 08, 2005

Varieties of P.R.

It's in the category of "things that will never happen" but in this month's American Conservative, Jon Basil Utley argues against proportional representation:
To understand PR, imagine if our Congress were composed of four parties, Democrats, Republicans, a traditionalist Old Right Party, and Greens, each of the last two with 5 percent of the seats. Also imagine that each party is run by the old men who had been around the longest, perhaps a Senator Byrd for one and Bob Dole for another. There would be little new thinking and close political disputes would often be decided by the swing votes—the Old Right and Greens. That system of government, with even more parties, afflicts most of Eastern Europe and Latin America. Any political party that can garner at least 5 percent of the vote would obtain representation in Congress.

It gets worse. Each party runs nationwide, and its candidates are determined by lists controlled by each party’s machinery—usually old-timers who are owed favors and remember grudges. The old men name themselves to the top of the list while the younger start at the bottom, if the bosses approve of them. If the party then wins 40 seats in Congress, the first 40 names on the list get selected. Old politicians like this system: they rarely lose office. Also, reformers—often seen as troublemakers—can be eliminated by simply keeping them off, or at the bottom, of the lists. Corruption is endemic and protected as voters can’t throw out an individual representative. As long as their party gets at least 5 percent of the vote, the old-timers at the top of the list will always have seats in Congress and decide who else gets on the lists. In parliamentary governments, the winning alliance then votes for one of their old leaders to become prime minister.
Conclusion: we should never have P.R. here in America. Well, okay, but this assumes that there's just one way to do proportional representation: namely, have each person cast a vote for a nationwide slate, and then let the national party leaders apportion seats based on how many votes their parties received. But that's not the only way; far from it! For instance, we could turn our Senate into a more P.R.-like system by implementing the Hare method of voting. This is a bit complicated to summarize, but they do it in Ireland, and basically, every voter would rank up to, say 7 candidates, and your vote would be "transferred" to your second-place candidate if your top candidate already had enough votes to meet the threshold, and so on. No worries here about crusty old party machine-hands doling out seats.

Alternatively, for the House, we could turn each state into a single-district P.R. election, which would prevent consolidation of parties at the national level. Or each state could engage in a single-transferable vote election to elect its representatives. (Obviously this doesn't make a difference for the small states, but oh well.) Lots of options! The advantage here, of course, would be that people could have real elections, rather than engage in pointless exercises in re-electing incumbents with overwhelming majorities.

Utley thinks P.R. systems would engender too much instability—I doubt it—but he doesn't quite seem to appreciate how difficult it is to change things under the current regime. Say you're one of the 77 percent of Americans dissatisfied with Congress right now. Well, as far as the House goes, you can't vote the dirty rascals out of office. You can try to vote out precisely one dirty rascal. And thanks to the advantages of incumbency, you'll probably be unsuccessful. But if you are successful, it's very likely that switching the representative in your district won't make a shred of difference in Congress: you've voted out only 1/435th of the problem. In fact, all you've really done is screw yourself over, since now your representative is low on the seniority totem pole and isn't likely to bring home any more goods for your district. That's what you get for doing your civic duty!

Hm, now other people worry that proportional representation would deprive Americans of "local" representatives. I'm undecided on whether that's important or not, but we could always strike a compromise here: look at what New Zealand has done, with its "mixed member proportional representation" system, put in place after a 1993 referendum. Basically, every citizen gets two votes, one for a politician to represent your district and one for a party. So let's say there were 50 districts, and the Democrats won 30 single-districts, but 70% of the national vote. Then it would end up with 70 percent of the seats in Congress, with 30 of those "local" seats and the rest list seats. That way you can keep the pork flowing to your district, but still throw the bums out at a national level. Sounds complicated, but it's not, and nowadays New Zealand regularly enjoys higher-than-average levels of turnout. On the other hand, Bolivia went from regular P.R. to New Zealand-style MMP in 1994, and some scholars think that the shift caused the country to fracture. Something to worry about. And whatever, yes, yes, this is all impossible and will never happen.
-- Brad Plumer 2:09 PM || ||