Searching for the center: A citizens assembly for California?

Something I have been wanting to get around to for a while: There is a proposal soon to go before the California state legislature (ACA 28) to create a citizens assembly to review possible electoral reform for the state. The idea is derived from the recent Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform in British Columbia. A similar institution will begin work in Ontario* this year.

From the Sacramento Bee, December 20, by way of FairVote (emphasis below is mine).

Two California assemblymen known for their efforts at bipartisan cooperation have joined forces on a bill that seeks to fundamentally overhaul the state’s electoral system in a search for its political center.

Under the legislation to be submitted next year by Democrat Joe Canciamilla of Pittsburg and Republican Keith Richman of Northridge, a “citizens assembly” would be created to come up with a new electoral system and place it in the form of a constitutional amendment on the November 2008 ballot.

A draft of the bill doesn’t mention what kind of changes might be proposed. But Canciamilla and Richman said in interviews that they strongly favor such changes as proportional representation, independent redistricting, term-limit modification and campaign finance reform.


The body would be made up of two members from each of the 80 state Assembly districts, selected by a task force of academic experts from a pool of volunteers representing the state’s adult population according to age, gender, race and geography.


“We’re not suggesting an outcome,” Canciamilla said. “We’re trying to focus on electoral reform, and that could be pretty much anything…”


“I think the confluence of gerrymandered districts, short term limits and campaign finance have resulted in legislators being unwilling to do anything other than vote for the agendas of the special interest groups that are going to help them get re-elected or elected to their next office,” Richman said.

So far, not only a good idea, but a good newspaper report about a good idea. But then there is this:

Although the draft legislation does not recommend any specific changes in the electoral system, those involved say they are interested in exploring a proportional voting system along the lines of the parliamentary systems of Europe.

OK, well, it is certainly true that most European countries have parliamentary systems and most also have proportional representation. But the two, as concepts, have nothing to do with each other, and one can exist in a political system without the other. The UK is parliamentary, but uses plurality in single-seat districts, just like California and most US jurisdictions. France is semi-presidential–and the cabinet depends on the parliamentary majority, not on the president–and uses two-round majority in single-seat districts (like many larger local jurisdictions in California). And then there are presidential systems–like the US and all its states–that do not use single-seat district winner-take-all elections like we do, but instead elect their legislators by PR– examples include Costa Rica and most other Latin American democracies.

While I think it would be great if a citizens assembly would also be allowed to at least consider a parliamentary government model for California, let’s not conflate parliamentary systems with proportional systems!

David Lesher of the New America Foundation in Sacramento, also quoted in the Bee, notes:

One of the problems in Sacramento is that the Legislature is too polarized and that there is a great, vast center in California that is not adequately represented. When you think about political reform, it’s how do you create a legislative body that reflects its constituents better than Sacramento does today?

Exactly. And this is how any dicussion of proportional representation in California or elsewhere in the US should be framed. Too often the focus in discussions of PR is on allegedly “foreign” models and the European parliamentary context, and on opening the gates to fringe parties rather than by focusing on the benefits to the great chunk of voters who are not committed to any party, major or minor. Consider each of these in turn.

PR is not foreign. Almost every US voter who has ever voted in a presidential primary has voted in a PR election, as both parties (Democrats in all states and Republicans in most) use PR to allocate convention delegates to presidential candidates (though with very high thresholds, often 15%). Two common PR formulas are known by very “foreign” names (d’Hondt and Ste.-Laguë), but the exact same formulas are also known as Jefferson and Webster in their use, at various times throughout US history, for apportioning seats to states in the House.

PR is not just for parliamentary systems. I already began to address this issue above, but it is worth noting that the claims (which are themselves much over-stated, but that’s a different debate) that PR breeds government “instability” are hardly relevant to the fixed-term executive of the US and California. Now, there is a lot of literature in comaprative politics that claims PR and presidentialism are unworkable, but I find this literature unconvincing.** The compatibility of our executive type with PR is a debate worth having, as any PR system has to be designed with the separate executive in mind (and thus not simnply imported from those foreign contexts) and I would like to have that debate here at F&V and elsewhere. But if the question is instability, defined (albeit not properly) as short-duration cabinets brought down by small parties or shifting coalitions in the legislature, this is not relevant to California or US separation of powers.

PR is not just for the fringe. Too often in debates about PR, the assumption is that the only voters who would benefit from it are those who favor fringe parties and ideas. Obviously, such voters indeed have a stake in PR, for it lowers the effective share of votes needed to obtain legislative representation. But I do not expect any PR system that could ever be adopted in California or elsewhere in the USA to have an effective threshold lower than around 5% (and it might well be higher). If Greens and American Independent and other very small parties are to clear such a threshold, even they would have to moderate their views. In doing so, they would no longer be the fringe parties that go by those labels today, and they would be appealing to voters located much closer to the center than their current “true believer” fringe electorate. That brings me to my last point about the benefits to nonpartisan voters.

PR is good for centrist and nonpartisan voters. The rationale for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s failed ballot measure to create a panel of judges to re-draw congressional and state-legislative districts was that our current districts are too “safe” for one party or the other and that elminating partisan and bipartisan gerrymandering would elect more moderates from competitive districts. The goal of electing more moderates was also behind the push for the blanket primary (which the US Supreme Court invalidated) and occasional calls for Louisiana-style nonpartisan two-round majority elections (as though Louisiana were a beacon of political reform ideas!). The problem with all these propsals is that they remain within the single-seat district paradigm. And the winners of those districts will still be Republicans or Democrats, and because of the geographic distribution of party supporters, only a handful of districts would become genuinely more competitive and friendly to moderates than current districts under current electoral rules.

Moreover, any supposed moderates who are elected under these various within-the-pardigm “reform” ideas would still go to Sacramento (or Washington) and caucus with the legions of more committed partisan members sharing their party label and who are elected in fully safe districts.*** At a time when the fastest growing choice on the portion of the voter-registration form that asks for party affiliation is “decline to state,” what is needed to represent these moderate voters was best stated by Henry Droop (in continuation of the quote at the top of the left sidebar):

if this moderate non-partisan section of the electors had their separate representatives in the assembly, they would be able to mediate between the opposing parties and prevent the one party from pushing their advantage too far, and the other from prolonging a factious opposition. With majority voting they can only intervene at general elections, and even then cannot punish one party for excessive partisanship, without giving a lease of uncontrolled power to their rivals.

I have no idea what proposal would emerge from the citizens assembly. But I do believe that citizens, educated about alternative electoral systems, are highly unlikely to believe that the status quo should be retained, or that simple tinkering around the edges would deliver the benefits that the vast “moderate non-partisan section of the electors” wants to see from its government.

My previous posts on proportional representation in the USA can be viewed together at the PR-USA subdomain. Specifically, please see:

What if the USA changed to proportional representation?

Proportional representation–a common misconception

Partisan polarization and the case for PR

And my F&V mission statement (especially the sub-heading “Towards a poitical re-engineering agenda for the USA).

*The Canadian province, not the California city.

**Most of this literature is based on the collapse of democracy in several Latin American countries in the 1960s and 1970s. But there were far greater problems for democracy in those societies than either presidentialism or proportional representation. For one thing, the right wing, often backed by the US, was much more willing to throw its lot in with the military than to accept the difficult compromises of democracy, and the left was far more radical than it is today, dreaming of revolution rather than willing to face the difficult compromises of democracy. Societies like Chile and Brazil were deeply polarized, and PR did not create the polarization, nor would majoritarian electoral systems (with whatever executive type) have kept a lid on it.

*** And there is growing political science evidence that parties’ legislative caucuses tend to select leaders closer to the party mode than to the median. In other words, the moderates lose out to the more committed partisans (who tend to be from safe districts). It thus takes a lot of new moderates to make a major dent in the political position of those who direct the party’s legislative business. And, as already noted above, there is little realistic prospect of a large increase in the number of moderates elected, even with a “fair” redrawing of the map of single-seat districts.


Partisan polarization and the case for PR

The quote that I recently added to the right sidebar of Fruits and Votes comes from Henry Droop’s essay, “On the Political and Social Effects of Different Methods of Electing Representatives,” published originally in 1869. The essay includes some rather remarkable and still-timely insights into the functioning of two-party politics and how various forms of proportional representation would improve representation and governance.

Unlike most contemporary advocates of electoral reform, Droop emphasized not the representation of minority views from outside the mainstream (think Greens, Libertarians, etc.) but the enhanced representation of moderate and nonpartisan voters that proportional representation would bring about.

The full paragraph from which the sidebar quote is drawn reads as follows:

As every representative is elected to represent one of these two parties, the nation, as represented in the assembly, appears to consist only of these two parties, each bent on carrying out its own programme. But, in fact, a large proportion of the electors who vote for the candidates of the one party or the other really care much more about the country being honestly and wisely governed than about the particular points at issue between the two parties; and if this moderate non-partisan section of the electors had their separate representatives in the assembly, they would be able to mediate between the opposing parties and prevent the one party from pushing their advantage too far, and the other from prolonging a factious opposition. With majority voting they can only intervene at general elections, and even then cannot punish one party for excessive partisanship, without giving a lease of uncontrolled power to their rivals.

As an American voter, frustrated by the current polarization of our two parties–the “win at all costs model” decried in an excellent post on December 23 by James Joyner about the “Kosification” of party politics–Droop’s words ring true. Moderate, or swing voters, indeed are faced with giving a lease on power to an “out” party that they do not fully trust and that does not really represent them, or else seeing the incumbents continuing to push their advantage too far.

Joyner notes that one of his own core premises is “that policy matters and that honest debate over policy is essential to good governance,” and decries the focus of blogosphere activists like Kos for their almost total focus on tactics, rather than policy. As he also notes, it is not just Kos and Democrats; it is a bipartisan phenomenon, but Democrats are currently the party needing to win before they can get serious about policy.

Nonetheless, the “win at all costs” polarization is corrosive. Joyner again:

Ordinary voters are more likely to be turned off by the rancorous atmosphere and the core electorate will likely be more energized than ever to make sure that the “bad guys” lose.

What the “Droopian” logic quoted here highlights is the extent to which the climate Joyner decries is a product precisely of a politics that creates no room for other parties to gain access to the policy-making processes–other parties that might care more about ideas than about “win at all costs,” precisely because in a multiparty context, “winning” is not being the sole party responsible for governing. Rather, winning is a complex process of building alliances in a context in which power is not so starkly defined as winners vs. losers.

Prior to some time in the last two decades–some time before the 1992 election, as I have argued before–the two US parties were not so sharply differentiated, and so there were many more openings in the center for cross-party policy coalitions. Obviously, the prominence of politicians willing to reach across the partisan divided before 1992 was helped by the fact that it was an era usually characterized by divided govenrment, and when power was not divided, the Democrats were such a “big tent” that even the Carter (and to a lesser extent, Johnson) years often looked like divided government.

There is at present no break in the sharp differentiation of partisan lines foreseeable. But, despite appearances, this nation manifestly does not consist of “only these two parties.” Most voters care more about good governance, and not about the conflicts between party leaders increasingly beholden to their sharply differentiated activist cores.

Only with multiple parties can the real diversty of interests that exists in society check and balance each other in our representative institutions, and thereby depolarize the increasingly ugly bipartisan climate that turns off more and more “ordinary voters.” It is for this reason that I consider Droop’s ideas to be an expansion of James Madison’s famous treatise on “factions” in Federalist 10.

(This post is a variant of my overview of Droop and representation that is linked at the sidebar quote; I also develop some of these ideas in the page I recently linked to the blog’s banner.)

The radical middle: Perot, Schwarzenegger, the class of 1994, and looking ahead to 2006

I was drafting a rather lengthy comment in response to a comment left at my post on the 2004 election. But it makes sense to bring it to the front page, because while the comment by “B” is directed at a point I had made about the 1992 presidential election, the general point is relevant to current California politics as well as to next year’s congressional midterm election.

The thread that ties all these issues together is the unrepresentativeness of the two-party system and the electoral rules that maintain it. That is, absent proportional representation and multiparty politics, our policy-making process lacks a means to institutionalize reformist sentiment arising from the nonpartisan segment of the electorate. What happens instead is periodic explosions of “radical middle” or “populist” sentiment against the usual way of doing political business. Usually this happens in executive elections, but the 1994 midterm showed it can happen in legislative elections, too. It could happen in 2006. But every time it happens, the existing institutions normalize the situation, and the responsiveness to centrist reformist impulses whithers.

We have sporadic breakthroughs by third-party candidates (e.g. Perot with his 20% showing in 1992, or the election of Jesse Ventura in Minnesota). Other times we have unusual circumstances that bring about a nominee of one of the major parties who has nonpartisan appeal (as when the distinctive rules of the California recall alllowed Schwarzenegger to bypass the normal partisan nomination process). And in 1994, we had the extraodinary Contract with America, in which Republicans seized upon the seething resentment at politics as usual and took control of the House for the first time in 50 years.

The problem is that there is no good vehicle for institutionalizing this sentiment. Our winner-take-all institutions for both executive and legislative posts mean that coalition-building and expression of alternative views is almost entirely a pre-election affair. There is no good mechanism to continue the expression of alternative views post-election, because the two parties have every incentive to co-opt what they can to avoid defeat at the next election, but, more importantly, to ignore what they can get away with ignoring to protect their and their core constituencies’ prerogatives. Thus between periodic eruptions of reform sentiment, things return more or less to normal until they erput again at some later point.

The normalization of the two-party system, rather than the institutionalization of a more responsive alternative, is reflected well in the J.C. Watts quote that I referred to before:

Republicans in just 10 years have developed the arrogance it took the Democrats 30 years to develop

The normalization of the two-party system, rather than the institutionalization of a more responsive alternative, is reflected in the stunning way in which Schwarzenegger, two years since being elected on a wave of cross-party support for shaking up California politics, is now seen (corretly, in my view) as just another Republican—just as out of touch with his state’s electorate as was Gray Davis before him and as were and are the Democratic majorities in the state legisalture.

But the first of these episodic bursts of non-Democratic, non-Republican radical-middle sentiments in recent times was Perot. So, let’s go back to the Perot example.

In my post about the 2004 election, I reflected back on the Clinton presidency:

…it was the Clintons (and Al “Dialing for Dollars” Gore) who so squandered the opportunity presented by the 1992 election to build a new constituency for a modern center-left (which would have meant co-opting the Perot constituency, rather than ignoring it and defaulting it to the right).

B’s comment says, in part:

I have a hard time seeing a unified “Perot constituency” that could have been co-opted. You had your usual pox-on-both-their-houses types and others who just didn’t feel inspired by either candidate, probably more for personal reasons than ideological ones [exactly what I am talking about–MS.]


Clinton (with much fanfare, I might add) brought the budget back into balance and essentially dismantled welfare. If Perot voters couldn’t warm to Clinton after that, they either weren’t paying much attention or were simply never going to warm to Clinton no matter what he did.

Of course, only the budget balancing bill was pre-1994; the welfare overhaul took place only after Republicans were in charge of Congress, notwithstanding that it was something Clinton had promised in his campaign to tackle early in his presidency and was an issue that probably kept the Perot vote from eating farther into Clinton’s own vote in 1992.

My response to B’s main point would be that this is not a matter of “warming to Clinton.” It is a matter of building coalitions. And, in the specific case of the Perot constituency, the Republicans proved more adept at it (again, temporarily) than did Clinton and the Democrats.

The Perot constituency thus ended up going pretty decisively to the Republicans in 1994. I think there were ways for Clinton and the Democrats to prevent that. Clinton had campaigned in a way that emphasized how different he was from a mainstream Democrat. He was clearly speaking to a segment of the electorate that was ready to swing away from G.H.W. Bush, and was deciding between Perot and the Democratic challenger. It was an opportunity for a center-left reformist agenda, yet in office, it was squandered.

Clinton mostly governed initially at the behest of congressional Democrats. The few cases where he did not do so were on issues that were sure to alienate the Perot constituency (the gun bill, which the House leadership wanted to avoid, and which passed only because some northern Republicans favored it).

It would have been hard for Clinton to reach out to this constituency more systematically in the context of entrenched Democratic majorities in Congress and in the absence of an institutionalized voice for the Perot voters. That is precisely my point. But by failing to make a serious effort at doing so, it opened the way for another pre-election coalition between an established party and a reformist constituency—in this case, by the Republicans under the nimble leadership of Newt Gingrich.

So, it is clear that the underlying problem with forging post-election coalitions is an institutional context in which it is possible for the third force to have 20% of the presidential vote yet ZERO representation in congress. (In virtually no other democracy could something like this happen!) This demonstrates the problem with the absence of institutionalization of alternatives to the normal way of doing politics. These sentiments can be expressed in elections (usually executive elections, 1994 notwithstanding), but do not obtain direct representation with which to hold the established parties accountable for what they do after elections.

Things in 1992-94 would have been very different–by necessity–if congressional elections were proportional and thus Perot voters had been represented BETWEEN elections. Perot did talk about political reform, but it was term limits, not PR. And term limits was something Republicans picked up on in 1994 (and then proceded to do little about).

Term limits are what I call JUNK REFORM, not the real thing, but they are inspired by the same radical middle sentiment against politics as usual for which PR would be a far more meaningful fix. Republicans used term limits as one of several ways to woo the Perot vote, and they have controlled Congress ever since, even while long since having abandoned most of their “we’re different” credibility that Perot’s movement once gave them.

In 2006, there could be an opportunity for Democrats to mobilize a reformist constiutuency. I have doubts that they are capable of doing it, but the kindling is there if they can find the right match to light it. But I am quite certain that, even if they do, they will squander the opportunity once back in power, much as the Republicans before them and Clinton–Gore before that. And very much also like Schwarzenegger today in California. There simply is no means, absent proportional representation and multipartism, to put meaningful checks on the natural tendency of either party to revert to form once a seemingly critical election is over.

Democrats, socialism, PR, and Bernie Sanders

[This post is written from the perspective of the left, but a similar case could be made with respect to the Republicans and libertarianism, for example—although there are no current independent congress members of that programmatic bent.]

Something has been on my mind off and on ever since I wrote the following in my post asking “what if the USA changed to PR“:

Get the Waters and Robertson acolytes out of the internal coalition of the Democratic and Republican parties and I, for one, will like both parties a whole lot better than I do now. And I suspect most voters would, too.

I have been trying to reconcile my own political positions with that statement. (I loathe the idea that there could be anything inconsistent about my world view–and, yes, the words before those dashes are meant to be ironic, because being an intellectual means being able to hold contradictory positions and think them through.) Bernie Sanders, a “socialist” member of the House and likely future Senator, helps point the way towards reconciling my positions and my statement.

The ideological political test that Steven Taylor posted a link to some time ago said I was a “socialist.” If we take that to be “social democrat” then it is probably close, though I would note that the “test” left no space for green, which would probably be more accurate. (Like Steven, ideological labels make me “itchy.”)

In any event, why would I prefer a Democratic party that no longer had Maxine Waters (the example used by Chris Lawrence in the post I was responding to), Dennis Kucinich, Barney Frank, and other leftists, if I am a social democrat (i.e. on the “left”) myself? This is where Sanders–a socialist, and not a Democrat–comes in.

We can see a snapshot of the ideological spectrum in the US party system by looking at the rank ordering of members of the US House from left to right. My colleague Keith Poole’s Voteview Web site (a spectacular resource) presents the data.

Bernie Sanders of Vermont actually calls himself an independent and caucuses with the Democrats, but he is labeled a socialist, and not only by his enemies on the right who consider the term a convenient shortcut for nutty, dangerous, subversive, etc. For instance, in a recent Nation magazine profile and in some sympathetic biographies referenced on Sanders’s own Web site, the label “socialist” is used.

So, where is Sanders on the spectrum of US politics, according to Keith’s analysis of House voting? In the 109th Congress, he ranks no. 41 (counting from left to right). In the 108th, he ranked 30, and in the 107th, 47.

In the last three Congreses, there have been on average 38 members more to the “left” than “socialist” Sanders. In fact, as the Nation article points out, quoting a Vermont Progressive Party activist, “Sometimes, Bernie’s biggest critics are on the left,” the reason being that “some social liberals quietly grumble that Sanders maintains too rigid a focus on economic issues.” [My emphasis]

That is, if we had a proportional representation system that fostered multiparty competition, there is no guarantee that the “social liberals” and the “socialists” would be in the same party. Nor, presumably, would social and economic conservatives coexist inside the same party—this is the very faultline within the Republican party that was exposed by the Miers nomination.

There is nothing inconsistent* about wanting a more centrist Democratic Party shorn of its “social liberals” while also wanting the opportunity to vote for a social democratic (or green or socialist) party that would actually gain representation and thus have a bargaining weight in Congress vis-a-vis the Democrats (and other parties) that my vote could make a small contribution to enhancing.

In the meantime, the best I can do is root from the sidelines of American politics (I live in an utterly safe House district in the grip of the Viper) for Sanders to become one out of 100 instead of just one out of 435: He is likely to win the open US Senate seat from Vermont, exchanging one independent (Republican defector James Jeffords) for another.

*Not that there is anything wrong with inconsistency…

(Thanks to RAC for inspiring this post)

Miers: US Constitution requires PR

Among the many puzzling things Harriet Miers has said comes yet another from the (in)famous judicidary committee questionnaire. In describing one matter on the Dallas City Council, Miers referred to “the proportional representation requirement of the Equal Protection Clause” as it relates to the Voting Rights Act.

From the Post:

“There is no proportional representation requirement in the Equal Protection Clause,” said Cass R. Sunstein, a constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago. He and several other scholars said it appeared that Miers was confusing proportional representation –which typically deals with ethnic groups having members on elected bodies — with the one-man, one-vote Supreme Court ruling that requires, for example, legislative districts to have equal populations.

Actually, either the Post or Sunstein is also confused, as the term “proportional representation” actually typically refers to the allocation of legislative seats in proportion to the votes obtained by parties. But it most certainly does not mean what Miers appears to mean.

I wish there were a proportional representation requirement of the Equal Protection Clause, but alas there is not.

I don’t have the Post story to link to; I am relying on a private e-mail I received from a trusted Post reader.

Proportional representation–a common misconception

In Stephen Karlson’s post to which I replied the other day, there is one passage that I left on the siding as I chugged on by. But it deserves to be addressed:

The United States Constitution apportions representation by states. Many other republics apportion representation by political parties.

The misconception here is the implication that it must be one or the other—states or political parties.

In fact, there are very few proportional representation systems that do not apportion their seats by state or province (or whatever their subunits might be). Almost all PR systems have district lines that coincide with existing subnational units. In that sense, they are just like the US, where states are allocated House representation in proportion to their share of the national population.

The apportionment to subnational units is a separate dimension from what the districting arrangements are, and how seats are won within those districts.

It would not be necessary (though it would be possible, even under federalism) for a hypothetical PR-USA system to allocate seats by national proportion of the vote. Supposing no such national party allocation, PR simply would mean that a state’s seats (for those states with more than one) would be allocated by party share of the vote cast within that state. Districts would be multi-seat, whether statewide or, in larger states, with intra-state districting.

PR without national calculation of party shares would be easier to manage in a larger House (so fewer states would have small numbers of seats to divide among the parties), but the question of increasing the size of the House is a separate question and would be a good idea regardless of whether we ever jump on the PR train or not.

The bottom line is that in no sense would proportional representation by party compromise the principle of apportioning representation in the House by state. I find that this point is often not well understood (and thus I am by no means picking on Stephen!)

What if the USA changed to proportional representation?

[I later followed this up with “Democrats, socialism, PR, and Bernie Sanders.”]

Among the small, but beneficial, ripples from the allegedly “inconclusive” result of the German election on September 18 has been some discussion of how multiparty democracy with proportional representation (as seen in Germany and most other democracies) compares to the strict two-party system (seen almost uniquely in the USA).

For example, Chris Lawrence suggests:

If the incentives for a two party system melted away, more likely than not our existing Republican and Democratic parties would melt away with them (or at least be transformed beyond recognition). And if you think our parties are bad now, wait until you see the parties led by Maxine Waters and Pat Robertson (or their acolytes) and comprised solely of their true believers.

I disagree that Dems and Reps would melt away or be transformed beyond recognition; more on that later. First, I want to stick to this “true believers” analogy, because Stephen Karlson also uses it:

Successful political parties in parliamentary republics are able to appeal to their true believers — who do not have to live in contiguous districts such as Berkeley, or Emporia — to obtain seats in proportion to the true believers’ share in the vote.

Now, let us assume that Stephen meant parliamentary systems with proportional representation (as implied by his own subject line) and not parliamentary systems more generally, given that some parliamentary systems (notably Britain and Canada, which are not “republics,” by the way) use the plurality (first-past-the-post) electoral system just as the USA does. Let us further focus only on the dynamics of legislative party positioning, and not government formation, since for the latter process the make-up of the legislature is almost irrelevant in a presidential form of government like the USA has.

Do parties in proportional representation (PR) systems appeal solely to their true believers? And would hypothetical coalitions between Democrats or Republicans and smaller parties render our two big parties more polarized than they are today (as implied at Betsy’s page)? No, and no. In fact, no one who has ever watched an election campaign in a European PR democracy or New Zealand since it adopted PR could possibly make such claims. Caricaturing the process in this way represents a fundamental—but, in America, widely held—misunderstanding of how multi-party democracy works.

In a nutshell, the point is that, with very few exceptions, parties in PR systems cannot afford to appeal solely to true believers if they seek any actual policy-making influence. Why? Because inter-election volatility (the movement of voters from one party to another) is much higher in multiparty PR systems. It is higher precisely because each voter has more choices—that is, more than one party that may be appealing to some aspect of his or her policy preferences. If parties are competing in an environment with this heightened level of competition, the ones that stick to their true believers quickly become rumps and find themselves marginalized.

In the quote above, Chris asks rhetorically, “if you think our parties are bad now…” Yes, I do think our parties are bad now, and it is largely because one of them is pulled too much one way by the likes of Maxine Waters and the other is pulled too much the other way by the likes of Pat Robertson (to use Chris’s examples). As Chris notes, our electoral system and two-party system generate broad parties that are internal coalitions of interests. And he is also right that all parties—even the small ones in some PR systems—contain internal electoral coalitions of interests. Get the Waters and Robertson acolytes out of the internal coalition of the Democratic and Republican parties and I, for one, will like both parties a whole lot better than I do now. And I suspect most voters would, too.

In broad “catch all” parties with loose internal organization like ours, political forces represented by the likes of Waters or Robertson are constantly digging in and attempting to keep their respective party from drifting too far to the center in the quest for the mythical “median voter.” A member of congress like Waters (or Frank or Conyers, etc.) can dig in her or his heels and, because our single-seat-district electoral system gives such members safe seats, these members never have to worry about losing influence by doing so. It is close to frictionless for them to stake out extremist positions in advance of bargaining over specific pieces of legislation. There are simply no electoral costs for them from doing so, and lots of potential benefits if they can keep the policy debate within their party skewed even a little bit in their direction, while at the same time appealing to their own relatively cohesive and ideologically extreme electoral districts. (The same analogy holds within either party, though we would need to use a congress member who was close to Robertson’s views, rather than Robertson himself, because he is not a member of congress, as is Waters.)

In a PR system, let us suppose Waters (and her allies, as well as her counterparts on the opposite side of the spectrum) split off and form their own parties. For the sake of argument, I am going to assume that the US has adopted MMP, like in Germany and New Zealand, though this thought experiment would not be radically different under most other forms of PR.

Now, in our hypothetical MMP system, Waters’s clout in congress (i.e. the share of seats her new party obtains) depends on her success at garnering votes from outside her own safe electoral district. She is now subject to competition with the Democratic party—which surely would survive, as would the Republican, albeit in smaller and more moderate form. The party led by Waters, Conyers, et al., is now tugged towards the center, because that is where it can gain the most in additional votes. That is where the inter-election volatility will take place, not at the fringes.

In conclusion, I do not deny that there are some parties and some party systems where PR and multipartism contribute to the kind of narrow ideological appeals that Chris and Stephen have in mind. For example, Israel, with its extremely low threshold and several tiny religiously oriented parties, or Italy from the 1950s to 1980s (but not today) with its very large and ideologically marginalized Communist Party. But these are not typical of PR systems more generally, and are not even remotely relevant comparative referents for a hypothetical PR system in the USA—for all its diversity, this country lacks the kind of rigid social divisions that give rise to parties like Shas or the former Italian Communists. Combine that with the probable high threshold our PR system would have (on the order of Germany and New Zealand) and our presidential form of government, in which the parties that can realistically elect presidents are sure to remain the most important players in the system, and it is clear that PR in the USA would hardly be as radical as Chris and Stephen fear. PR would moderate, not further polarize, our partisan competition.

No more third parties on North Carolina ballots

Via Signifying Nothing comes this link to political science Professor Michael Munger’s column on North Carolina’s repressive stance on ballot access for third parties.

Mike asks, rhetorically, “Do we “need” a third party? Do we need all that clutter, and choice, on the ballot?” and answers:

Suppose you asked Ford and General Motors if the American public “needs” more choices. They’d probably say no. […] Two choices ought to be enough, our leaders with a stake in those “choices” might have us believe.

Noting that NC was one of only three states to have kept Ralph Nader off the ballot for president in both 2000 and 2004, he goes on:

Now, you can be for Nader, or against him, as a presidential candidate, but how can you argue that voters can’t make their own choices? Some people accused Nader of denying Al Gore the election in 2000. But you can’t blame the Green Party for trying to articulate an alternative vision of government and society, because that kind of competition of ideas is the foundation of a healthy democracy.

Exactly, and the emphasis on the well put statement is mine.

I only wish Mike would take it to the next logical step: It is not just our ballot-access laws that are repressive to choice, it is our legislature-access laws that are repressive to representation.

You see, it is wonderful that here in California the Greens, Libertarians, Natural Law, and other parties get a place on the ballot. But how about a place in our legislatures? For that, realistically, we need to join most of the democratic world and begin using proportional representation methods in legisaltive races.

Voting for third parties is on the upswing in the US. (Raise your hand if you know that it has been hovering around five percent in House elections for the last 15 years.) Many more voters would be likely to vote for such parties if they could get represented in Congress and state legislatures, where their “alternative vision of government and society” could actually have impact, as ought to be a positive thing in “a healthy democracy.”

How refreshing that would be!