U.S. election system has few imitators across globe

Andrew Pritchard

French politicians have a word for their government’s proposal aimed at excluding small, fringe parties from parliament.

“Americanizing.”

Following the surprisingly strong electoral showings of radical parties in French elections in early summer, President Jacques Chirac’s government is proposing to increase the minimum percentage of the vote a party must draw to obtain parliamentary seats.

The plan’s opponents say small parties would lose their ability to demand compromises in exchange for their participation in governing coalitions. They contend the nation would move toward having only a few electable parties, making its politics, in a word, “Americanized.”

Two electoral systems

the United States is one of the few countries to use a “winner-take-all” election system, in which the candidate receiving the most votes in each district wins that district’s congressional or legislative seat.

Under “proportional representation,” used in France and most other democracies, representatives are chosen by voters’ political party preferences, with each party holding a proportion of legislative seats equal to its percentage of the vote.

“(Proportional representation systems) make it easier to get minority opinion into the decision-making process,” said University political science professor W. Phillips Shively.

Shively also said PR governance probably increases political participation because fewer voters are needed to get a candidate elected.

“The main disadvantage to proportional representation systems,” he said, “is that it allows all parties into the parliamentary system, and depending on how the parties get along, that can be a chaotic situation.”

The most common form of proportional representation – used by more democracies than any other electoral system – is “list voting,” used in almost all European and South American countries.

In this system, each party presents a list of its candidates and a voter votes for the party. The party then receives parliamentary seats in proportion to its share of the vote.

Most list-voting nations have a minimum share of the vote – usually 4 percent or 5 percent – that a party must receive before being entitled to any parliamentary seats.

PR in the U.S.

list voting would be a major change for American voters, said Mark Rush, professor of politics at Virginia’s Washington and Lee University.

“You literally pick up a list of your party’s candidatesÖ” he said. “You don’t get to pick and choose among the candidates.”

Rush also said the independently elected U.S. president would be problematic for a Congress divided among several parties.

“You can imagine, if you had a very diverse legislature, it’d be that much more difficult to get the two-thirds majority” to override an independent president’s veto, he said.

Proportional representation is usually found in “fused” parliamentary systems, Rush said, in which the parliament elects executive officers, such as the prime minister, from among its members.

Shively said the presidency is the most significant factor keeping the United States a two-party system and could continue to anchor the two major parties even under proportional representation.

“The elected presidency is a hugely non-proportional representation,” Shively said. “A party that can get 45 percent of the vote gets nothing.”

Similarly, University DFL Chairman Andy Pomroy said proportional representation for Congress would be unworkable in a state such a North Dakota that elects only one congressional representative.

“I don’t see any kind of way to make a fair system under proportional representation,” he said.

Last year’s Minneapolis City Council elections showed third parties do not need PR to be elected, Pomroy said. The City Council’s 13 members are elected by ward in winner-take-all races, but voters last year elected two Green Party candidates and an independent.

“Proportionally, most people are still interested in the major parties,” Pomroy said, noting that more voters turned out Tuesday for Republican and Democratic primaries than for Independence Party or Green primaries.

Tom Jestus, state chairman of the 10-year-old Constitution Party, said third parties are hindered by limited time windows to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot and by minimum percentage requirements to become major parties, not the winner-take-all election system.

“The difficulty for third parties is the doorway in,” he said.

Proportional representation would hurt third parties in the long term, Jestus said, by giving someone in the government the power to set the minimum percentage of the vote a party must receive to win legislative seats.

“Because then you’ve got the top down dictating what the percentage would be. It should be from the bottom up,” he said. “Once you get your foot in the door, you kind of want to exclude the others.”

Jestus said third parties would be helped more by different standards than the current percentage cutoff for determining which parties are major parties.

“If you have 200 members in a convention, should that not make you a major player?” he said.


Andrew Pritchard covers state politics and welcomes comments at [email protected]