PR for America?

I’m taking a break for a few days for Easter, but I thought I’d leave you with some reading material for the holiday in the shape of a new report on democracy in the United States. Towards Proportional Representation was published last week by two non-partisan think-tanks, Protect Democracy and Unite America (Grant Tudor and Beau Tremitiere are the lead authors); you can read the press release here and the full report here.

The unsatisfactory state of American democracy is, of course, no revelation. Among foreign observers, as well as increasing numbers in the US itself, it has become something of a laughing stock, due to the toxic interaction of (at least) four elements: single-member districts, first-past-the-post voting, an institutionalised two-party system and partisan control of electoral processes (including the drawing of boundaries).

Tudor and Tremitiere take aim at the first of those. Their starting point is the Uniform Congressional District Act of 1967, which requires states to elect their members of the House of Representatives via single-member districts. As they explain, it was seen at the time as a progressive move, since it outlawed multi-member block voting, which dominant parties could use to monopolise congressional delegations (as was used, for example, in the Australian Senate prior to 1949).

But it also has the effect of banning proportional representation, which, as the report forthrightly points out, is now the norm in the rest of the democratic world. Allowing states to use PR systems offers the chance, it says, to

curb gerrymandering; increase the share of competitive congressional seats; expand the ability of racial minorities to elect candidates of their choice; allow conservatives and liberals to gain representation in proportion to their actual support within a state; decrease dangerous levels of polarization; and lessen political extremism and the risk of political violence.

It’s well worth a read; it covers a lot of ground in explaining how PR works and how it could be implemented in the US, as well as the historical background to the current system and its pernicious effects. It’s particularly good to see the debate starting to engage with international experience in electoral matters, which all too few American pundits tend to do.

Speaking of which, it’s also worth thinking about how much of the report’s arguments also apply to Australia. Some of America’s problems are unique, and the effects of single-member districts here are moderated both by preferential voting and by PR in the Senate. But it’s unquestionably true that some of the same pathologies that Tudor and Tremitiere point to have gained a foothold in Australia, and a serious debate about PR for our lower houses is long overdue.


5 thoughts on “PR for America?

  1. Charles, i am surprised you are not wary of PR for Australian lower houses. Imagine if we had this during the Cold War – treasonous pro-Soviet bloc Bill and Freda Brown types holding governments hostage. In 2019, if we take Senate votes as an indicator of how people would have voted in a PR Reps, the result would have been a weak Coalition government dependent on One Nation.


    1. Thanks Paul – I think “a weak Coalition government dependent on One Nation” is just what we did get in 2019, reliant on One Nation votes in the Senate & on One Nation sympathisers on its own back bench in the House. With PR, I don’t think people would vote the same; there would be the opportunity for a centrist or liberal party to establish itself and most probably win the balance of power.

      Similarly I don’t see any reason to think that Communists would have exercised much power during the Cold War period – lots of western governments had PR at that time without that being a problem. Letting a few extremists into parliament to blow off steam & make fools of themselves generally does more good than harm. Certainly better than a situation where if the extremists manage to take over a major party (as in the US) they can win a majority on a minority of the vote.


  2. Many Australian progressives advocate an amendment to s128 that removed the need to have a majority of states would still need the support of four states.

    I don’t like their chances.

    The fact is that those two wily old Tories, Sir Samuel Griffith and Andrew Inglis Clark (a Queenslander and a Tasmanian) wrote a Constitution which includes a built-in veto for the small states, which cannot be removed without their consent.

    They have kept us all nicely tied up by their Constitutional strings ever since.

    You could make a good case that Griffith, in his grave since 1920, is still the most powerful man in Australia.


    1. I don’t have a problem with constitutional amendment being difficult; I think the majority of proposed amendments are bad ones, altho I voted yes on the republic & will probably support the Voice. The Whitlam govt tried to remove the 4-state rule in 1974, but it went down 52-48.


  3. As i note, the idolisation of Inglis Clark by the Australian left when he was a reactionary Tory has never made sense to me.

    How many times have both you and I pointed out to our friends on the left that the Refugee Convention of 1951 does not say what they all go on saying that it says?

    Does anyone change their mind as a result of our remonstrations?

    No, because the left is so emotionally committed to their narrative on this issue that they are impervious to contradictory facts.

    Such, sadly, is human nature.


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