Proportional representation was developed in the late eighteenth century at a time when representative democracies were gaining popularity in the midst of the American Revolution (1776–1783) and the French Revolution (1789–1799). Fearing tyranny of the majority, which was a persistent accusation made against representative democracies or republican forms of government, different electoral schemes were considered to ameliorate the dangers posed by this new form of government and to reduce the possibility of tyranny from occurring. Proportional representation, an electoral formula, provides a close correlation between the percentage of votes received for a particular group of candidates, represented by their party, and the percentage of seats they then receive in government for representation.
Proportional representation was first used in Swiss cantons in the 1860s. However, it wasn’t until 1899 that it was used in a nationwide election, which occurred in Belgium. Today, the formula used most often in legislative bodies bases the division of seats between different parties on the percentage of the vote. Most democracies throughout the world use a version of proportional representation in allocating seats in their respective legislative bodies. In fact, plurality voting systems, as evidenced in the United States, are the least frequently used electoral system. However, allocating votes for an executive, as practiced in the United States, is based on a winner-take-all system.
Not all legislative bodies recognize proportional representation as the electoral formula to determine which candidates hold which seats. For instance, the United States does not operate its elections for Congress based on proportional representation. Instead, the United States is bound by the winner take-all system or first-past-the-post process. Best understood in the U.S. presidential system, the candidate who wins the plurality of the vote in the election for a specific seat, regardless of party, wins that seat. According to election rules, each candidate for president must win electoral votes for each state from their respective parties. The candidate who wins a plurality of the vote in a given state wins all electoral votes regardless of the percentage of the popular vote carried. If the United States practiced proportional representation, a different scenario would occur. For instance, if candidate A wins 53 percent of the popular vote in a given state and candidate B wins 47 percent of the popular vote in the same state, the electoral votes are divided between the two candidates. Candidate A then wins 53 percent of the electoral votes and Candidate B wins 47 percent of the electoral votes. This therefore does not align with a winner-take-all system.
Proportional representation attempts to link the popular vote with the actual distribution of votes or governing seats. As a result of this close link, supporters of proportional representation systems claim that out of all electoral formulas this is one of the most democratic because it considers those voters that are in the minority. Many advocate its use in order to ensure that racial, ethnic, and gender minorities are represented and their voice is heard in elections. Advocates for its adoption in the United States make the case that proportional representation would not only provide fair representation for minorities, but also end the practice of gerrymandering, encourage campaigns that are based on the issues, promote the emergence of third parties, foster greater turnout at the polls, and facilitate the election of more women and racial and ethnic minorities.
The term proportional representation is used to more broadly refer to electoral formulas that deviate from winner-take-all systems and ensure the provision of a proportion of seats for the corresponding proportion of votes. Proportional representation can be subdivided into party list (PR/PL) and single transferable vote (PR/STV). Party list refers to lists of candidates for each respective party in which a vote is cast for the party, not the individual candidates. Depending on the proportion of votes received by that party, the party is allocated a corresponding percentage of seats. The party then determines which candidates will occupy the seats they won. The possibility exists that not all candidates on the party list will be allocated a seat. Single transferable vote is similar to party list; however, the use of this system does not depend on the presence of political parties and voters assume the role of creating the “lists.” Voters develop groupings, and their votes correspond to the grouping, not the individual candidates.
- Amy, Douglas J. Real Choices/New Voices: The Case for Proportional Representation Elections in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
- Barber, Kathleen L. A Right to Representation: Proportional Election Systems for the Twenty-first Century. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2001.
- Lundberg,Thomas Carl. Proportional Representation and the Constituency Role in Britain. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
- Roper, Juliet, Christina Holtz-Bacha, and Gianpietro Mazzoleni. The Politics of Representation: Election Campaigning and Proportional Representation. New York: Peter Lang, 2004.
- Vowles, Jack. Proportional Representation on Trial. Auckland, N.Z.: Auckland University Press, 2002.
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