Proportional representation: Corrupt?

In multi-party democracies which run their elections on a “first past the post” basis, there are frequent calls for proportional representation. The federal Progressive Conservative party iin Canada, for instance, is barely clinging to its status as an official party, despite widespread support across the country.

The great argument against proportional representation in government is the lack of direct accountability by the representatives; the major parties would have some number of virtually guaranteed seats which can be doled out by the listmakers to whomever they wish. As long as they didn’t go too far off the deep end, their share of the vote would not be affected. With direct elections, at least the long-time party supporters in each riding have the opportunity to reject a specific candidate at election time.

Human nature being what it is, these places high in the electoral lists must be the object of intense lobbying, to say the least. In a worst-case scenario, the listmakers could simply auction off places on their list to the highest bidder.

What happens in practice in countries with this electoral system? What safeguards and scandals have actually occurred?

Proportional Representation can be gained by having sufficiently large multi-member constituencies, thus obviating the need for reserved seats- look at Ireland’s system.

PR is better than winner-take-all, that’s for damn sure.

System where parties choose the order of the list is not the only way to deal out places in a system using proportional representation. Finland, for instance, uses a method where you vote for a candidate instead of a party, and the final order of candidates getting in parliament depends on order of their votes inside the party. Thus, if candidate A of party A gets 200 votes, candidate B of party A gets 500 votes, candidate C gets 300 and candidate D gets 600, and party A gets 2 seats, candidates B and D get in.

It’s not a good idea. For example, my Congressional District is represented by John Larson. He has to keep in mind our interests in Washington, which is mostly the insurance industry and United Technologies. Also, he knows our district is socially liberal so he votes that way. He would not represent people of Central Texas, Northern Minnesota or Seattle, Washington well even though those are all constituencies that elect Democrats to the House. So when you have people elected from districts people have their needs best represented in Washington. Also, the two party system is a positive in America because the likelihood of loonies (Stockwell Day, I know he didn’t win, but he could’ve) coming to power is small because the two parties are both rushing to the center instead of having various extreme ideological factions forming coalitions.

Canada uses first-past-the-post method as well as United States, doesn’t it?

Yeah, it does, but it similarly doesn’t have a two party system, which I sensed some animosity toward so I tried to support that as well.

I know what you’re saying BKB, but proportional voting would work on state by state basis. Right now we have riduculous fights every 10 years over redistricting to conform the US House to the new census results. My state of Ohio keeps losing population relative to the rest of the country, so Ohio lost a House seat. I would be in favor of having all the candidates running on a statewide basis so as to eliminate the fiasco of redistricting every 10 years.

How many votes does each elector get? Also, my concern about this system is the cost of running (never mind the fact that those running for election via PR are campaigning against members of their own party). Are there any figures/complaints about this aspect?

The animosity wasn’t sensed in my post, I hope! The only reason I specified “multi-party” democracies is that PR tends to be a bigger issue - as when, for instance, the Conservatives, Alliance and NDP split the “anti-Liberal” vote, allowing the Liberals to take the seat with less than 40% of votes cast.

I understand where you’re coming from, but do the Cincinnati burbs have that much in common with inner city Cleveland or the northwest corner of the state? Regional interests are better protected under our current model. Plus, majority-minority districts would be eliminated, giving minorities far less clout in the House. What should really be done with redistricting is to have independent redrawing commissions. The one in Arizona this year did an excellent job of looking at regional interests and ignoring partisanship as well as complying with the Voters Rights Act, which is the driving force behind majority-minority districts.

I would have two concerns about such a system [ul]
[li]Poor representation of smaller groups within the larger constituency (as noted above)[/li][li]Cost of running for office. Does anybody have figures on what it costs to run for Senate in some of the larger US States, compared to running for the House? And is this a fair comparison?[/li][/ul]

The most expensive Senate races last year cost almost 70 million dollars (New York and New Jersey). This year it’s unknown if that’ll be beaten because there’s really only one competitive Senate race (Texas) with high media costs. The most expensive House races (A Pasadena-based district in California and a Central West Virginia one) both topped 10 million, and there are some races this year (Suburban DC in Maryland, Northwestern Connecticut) that could top those totals. Average Senate and House races are about half the record highs.

Corruption is independent of the voting system.

Recently Japan moved from multi-member constituencies to single member and at the same time Italy went to multi-members, both to reduce the possibility of corruption.

In the Australian Federal Senate, at each half Senate election each state has 6 positions to fill. The main two parties will offer 6 candidates though they will each win two, the third is a struggle (minor parties usually pick up one, sometimes two).

Having an independent electoral commission means that the real stouch occurs in the internal party decision as to who gets the winnable places and who get relegated to the 3rd (possible) or 4th (impossible). At this point you see pure, raw factional politics at it’s most viseral. Great theatre. You can see some genuinely talentless factional thugs pick up the 3rd spot. But it’s no more susceptible to corruption than any other pre-selection system.

It may have worked in Ireland, but it has failed dismally in Japan.


This is really an issue for parliamentary systems, where the executive is formed from the biggest bloc in the legislature.

PR can be *extremely *undemocratic, because it can encourage single-issue fanatics (eg the Green Party). If they get just a small amount of representation in parliament, they can blackmail larger parties by saying “adopt our policy X [which only 1 or 2% of voters want] in return for us supporting you on your other policies, and thus having enough votes to form a government.”

Under a 2-party, 1st-past-the-post system, both parties compete to appeal to more than 50% of the electorate. They are forced to adopt genuinely popular policies and avoid extremism. The UK Labor Party’s abandonment in the 80s/90s of nationalization and other quasi-socialist policies (the original reason it was founded) is a tribute to the power of such a system. his system also, of course, encourages close links between communities and representatives.

In a system like the US, it’s less relevant, though straight PR would threaten the 2-party system. You can argue that the US has forms of PR by virtue of the different methods of electing legislators to the House and Senate, and the electoral college in presidential elections. These systems grant additional weight to smaller groups (states) - a typical feature of PR.

  1. I don’t know whether this makes PR undemocratic. There is some justification for weighing strongly held preferences on a certain narrow set of issues more heavily than weakly held preferences that are supported by a majority.

  2. Still, I sympathize, as I am not a big fan of the Italian or Israeli electoral systems.

  3. But there is a straightforward fix: super-proportional representation, as practiced by Germany for example, can mitigate against these effects.
    a) There is often a minimum threshold to gain seats (eg. 5%). This allows a Green Party but will block a Truck Driver Party.

b) Parties with larger majorities receive a greater proportion of seats in parliament. So, if a party gains 35% of the vote, it might secure 45% of the legislature. This encourages parties to appeal to wide groups and discourages niche politics. Those practicing niche politics can on occasion secure voice, but their actual power is diluted.

Not correct. They are appealing to win 50%+ of the seats. Since no democracy is socio-politically homogenious, the distinction is important. Hence the focus on marginal electorates and, if voting is non compulsory, in getting their supporters to the polling booth. As an example the Le Pen result in France.

A policy that causes 2,000 of your supporters to swing away in a safe seat yet and picks up 500 votes to win a marginal seat is tactically astute politics.

IMHO minority parties are something that should be encouraged. A drift in voting to minor parties on “non mainstream” issues is a great way to get the magors to focus on them. If you have minority parties it is inevitable that they will periodically hold the balance of power. Que sera, sera.

Ireland’s system has most certainly not led to control by single-issue fanatics or extremists. Although we have a multi-party system here, you could not slide an envelope between the major parties, and the smaller parties are virtually irrelevant at national level.

I’m not sure that this statement’s totally correct. The Progressive Democrats (centre-right minority party in coalition with Fianna Fáil) seem to wield an undue amount of power than their overall 1997 mandate should allow them. Having said that, I can’t find exactly what proportion of the vote they got at the last election (from my online research it appears to be 4-5%), but it definitely wasn’t huge.