Saturday, January 19, 2013

Electoral reform needed at the state legislature

Current electoral outcomes yield unrepresentative control

More citizens in Wisconsin voted for Democrats than Republicans in Assembly races. Yet Republicans have a significant majority in that chamber.

The same is true on the national stage: more voters across the country endorsed Democratic candidates, and still the House of Representatives has a Republican majority.

The way our elections are set up enables each district to have a single representative, someone who is meant to represent a single geographical area in the legislature. Which is what we want -- people in the state and national legislatures representing our concerns, understanding the challenges that their constituents have.

But at the same time, it’s possible for a minority to reign over the will of the majority -- and that’s indeed what’s happening within both the state and national stages.

To help explain how this is happening, consider a small example involving three representatives and three districts, each with 15 people residing within them. Let’s say District A votes 8 in favor of a Republican candidate and 7 in favor of a Democrat. District B votes 7 to 6 in favor of another Republican over a Democrat, with two votes abstaining. And District C has all votes 15 votes going towards a Democratic contender, with no other candidate receiving a portion of the vote.

The total votes, over all three districts, would be 15 in favor of the Republicans, 28 in favor of Democrats, and two citizens not voting. To be representative of the whole, the Democratic candidates should receive the majority representation. But because the districts are split from each other, and each district is meant to receive a separate representative, the Republicans actually get the majority.

This sort of system isn’t entirely unfair -- it’s important that each district, which may have different concerns and priorities, receive representation that matters most to them. But when it comes to the citizenry overall, the system is mightily unrepresentative, granting the minority party significant advantages.

This is precisely why, in Wisconsin, we’re seeing an entire legislative body represented by a political party that garnered less votes than the other. Couple this problem with recent redistricting, which heavily favored Republicans, and there’s little recourse for fixing what happened.

Except, perhaps, instituting electoral reform that could make things more representative of the people at-large.

Proportional representation (PR) is such a system. Rather than conducting races at the local geographic level, PR asks voters to cast their ballots based on what parties they prefer instead of individual candidates. The result is that the legislative body in question is more representative of the people’s desires -- giving even those who would ordinarily lose in geographical representative races a chance to have a voice in the legislature.

The obvious drawback of this type of electoral system, however, is that localities don’t get the attention that they deserve. An election based on a party list may not allow people in remote areas to have a member of their own communities play a role in voicing concerns over matters important to them.

Both systems of elections present beneficial outcomes as well as issues that are difficult to overcome. The best solution? Put them together.

Create an electoral system that allows individual geographical areas the ability to choose one of its own to represent them. But also place on the ballot a list of parties to choose from that would instill greater representation of the whole, to help deter “minority rule” at the legislative level.

If Wisconsin instituted such a system -- say, by either adding 33 more Assembly officeholders or taking 33 from the current makeup and keeping the numbers the same -- it could have both forms of representation included. Districts based on geography could still retain their place in the legislature while still allowing the voices of the majority of the state to be heard, from representatives elected by a party list.

It wouldn’t be a perfect system, to be sure. But neither is the current system, which has allowed more Republicans to be in office than Democrats, despite the latter party being the preference of the majority of voters. A mixed system, of representation by district voting AND proportional representation, would be more fair, allowing the concerns of all to be considered when the legislature takes on bills that affect the entirety of the citizenry.

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