Henry Droop is today known–if at all–for lending his name to a quota commonly used in the allocation of seats under the single transferable vote form of proportional representation. However, his contribution to elections and, more importantly, democratic theory, is much greater than that. For one thing, the theoretical link between the single-seat district plurality (winner-take-all) rule used in the US and UK for legislative elections and a two-party system, usually attributed to Maurice Duverger, was advanced by Droop almost 90 years earlier (as noted by William Riker in his 1982 article on the history of “Duverger’s law” in the American Political Science Review).
Some key quotes can be gleaned from his very readable essay, “On the Political and Social Effects of Different Methods of Electing Representatives,” published originally in 1869 (and not easy to find today, unfortunately). 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. (As an aside, I would argue that much political scholarship on democracy, including by such contemporary luminaries as Arend Lijphart and G. Bingham Powell, Jr., confirms Droop’s assertions.)
One full paragraph on this point is worth quoting in full:
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, of which our nation, as represented in congress, only appears to consist of exclusively, I find that Droop’s words ring as true today as ever. 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. Only with multiple parties can the real diversty of interests in society check and balance each other in our representative institutions. For this reason, I consider Droop’s ideas to be an expansion of James Madison’s famous treatise on “factions” in Federalist 10.
Droop states his views on representation:
It will, I believe, hardly be disputed, that the claim of a representative assembly to have the decisions of a majority of its members accepted as the decision of the whole country, depends upon the theory that these decisions do in general correspond to what the majority of the whole body of electors in the country would decide, if they had leisure sufficiently to investigate each of the questions to be decided, and an opportunity to vote upon it.
He follows this up with a discussion of how the executive would work with a proportionally elected legislature, confronting those in his day (and still in ours) who assume that PR inevitably means feeble executives:
…a representative assembly in which all parties and sections of parties and all diversities of opinions are represented proportionally, will be much easier to deal with, than an assembly in which the particular differences of opinion upon which the division into two parties is founded, are represented to an exaggerated degree, while subordinate divisions of parties and the various opinions existing upon other questions are only represented by the chance opinions of individual members, and not by members authorised to speak upon these points in the name of their constituents.
The last two clauses, about divisions of opinions within the two big parties being represented only by “chance” and not by an accountability link to groups of citizens who share those views is one of the strongest arguments for PR, in my view, and a theme I developed in one of my own “core” posts: “What if the USA changed to proportional representation?”
Droop’s essay also contains several other nuggets, including these remarks on the swing voters of his day:
Many such electors vote for a particular candidate merely from a desire to please their landowner or employer, or some good customer; or because the public-house to which they habitually resort is engaged as a committee-room…
Voters voting for non-political reasons was part of the problem of plurality voting, for Droop, who then noted the following changed dynamic that would the adoption of PR:
…even if the number of politically neutral voters continued unaltered, but in fact with single voting applied to constituencies returning five or more members a-piece, each elector will have at least six different candidates with six different sets of opinions to choose between; and, therefore, if he has any political opinions at all, he will be able to find at least one candidate he cares to vote for…
In context, it is clear that by “single voting” he means the full set of rules that can be contrasted with majority methods (whether in single-seat or multi-seat districts) in that they allow minority political views to be represented. The system he most clearly prefers is, of course, STV. He also briefly and favorably discusses party-list PR. He contrasts both STV and list PR to other multi-seat voting methods like block vote and the limited vote. In Droop’s time, single nontransferable vote ( SNTV) was still one of “several new methods of voting,” but he already understood why it would prove inferior to STV: The latter would offer an antidote to the problem under SNTV that a party
commanding a sufficient number of voters to return several representatives, would fail to obtain as many as it was entitled to, through too many of its votes being accumulated upon its most popular candidates.
This statement, of course, reflects a truism of contemporary electoral studies, shown empirically to be a real problem in actual SNTV systems (formerly in Colombia, Japan, and Taiwan, and currently in Afghanistan, for example). It worth noting also that Droop considered the cumulative vote (another archaic system still favored by some US reformers and mistakenly grouped by some as a form of proportional representation) to be an improvement over SNTV. Yet he also regarded it, correctly, as “In its practical operation… almost identical with [SNTV].”
Finally, Droop reflected upon a problem of single-seat districts in the USA that, unfortunately, remains uncorrected to this day. He quotes a US Senator, Charles Buckalew of Pennsylvania:
from Maine westward to the Pacific Ocean, in the last ten years, in no state whatever had there been an honest and fair district apportionment bill passed for the election of members of Congress [except] where two branches of a legislature were divided in political opinion, and one checked the other.
Alas, even as simple and obviously “good-government” a reform as taking the drawing of district boundaries out of legislators’ hands remains elusive.
With his essay from 1869, Droop anticipated many of the subsequent analyses of electoral-systems scholars (including yours truly), and articulated a clear argument in favor of non-majoritarian voting methods for offering nonpartisan voters a voice that is stymied by the two-party system. In these ways, Droop, as much as Madison, is one of the founding fathers of both the science of representative government and the never-ending pursuit of perfecting democracy.
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