Mulroy: Proportional Representation Through The Single Transferable Vote

The following is the third of three guest posts by University of Memphis law professor Steve Mulroy, sounding some themes from his fascinating new book, Rethinking US Election Law: Unskewing the System:

This is the 3rd of a series of blog posts discussing key arguments from my new book, Rethinking US Election Law: Unskewing The System.  This post advocates proportional representation.

In our winner-take-all election system, 51% of the vote controls 100% of the power.  A consistent, repeated, politically cohesive minority of 40% gets 0% of the power. Over time, they tend to realize the futility of engagement, and drop out, alienated.

Far more intuitive is a system in which 40% of the vote controlled 40% of the power, and 60% of the vote controlled 60% of the power. Instead of winner-take-all, it’s “majority takes most, and minority takes its fair share.”  This is of course proportional representation (PR).

PR is by far more common globally than winner-take-all.  Outside North America, almost every industrialized democracy uses some form of PR at the national level.

Most PR systems have voters vote for parties rather than candidates, eschew primary elections, or foster the instability of parliamentary systems, making them unsuitable for America.   But there is a way to achieve PR without these problematic features: multimember districts using the Single Transferable Vote (STV).

STV allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference.  It fills seats with candidates meeting more than a quota, based on the number of seats to be filled.  For example, if 5 seats are to be filled in an election, any candidate with at least 1/6  1st-place votes gets seated.  Any “surplus” votes over that minimum quota are redistributed to remaining candidates based on voters’ 2nd-choice votes in  a subsequent round.  If no candidate meets the quota in a round, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and votes for that candidate are redistributed to remaining candidates based on their 2nd-choice votes.  Each time a candidate meets the quota, a slot is filled.  The rounds of redistribution of “surplus” votes and votes from eliminated candidates continues until all seats are filled.

STV has been used for over 70 years in Australia to elect the national Senate. It’s used in the U.S. at the local level in Cambridge, Mass., and Minneapolis, Minn. Wherever it is used, it leads to proportional results.

STV could easily be used at the state and local level, where it is not uncommon to see at-large elections or multimember districts.  States and localities could also convert single-member district systems to at-large or multimember systems for this purpose. This would eliminate, or at least minimize, gerrymandering by eliminating (or minimizing) districting.  It would also eliminate or minimize redistricting, preventing the current cycles of blood sport politics and litigation which begin every 10 years.

How could we adopt STV for Congress? One pending bill, the Fair Representation Act (FRA), illustrates.  Under FRA, states could choose to adopt STV for House elections.  States with 5 or fewer House members, the state would hold statewide at-large STV elections.  Other states could choose to carve the state up into multimember districts 3-5 seats in size, drawn by nonpartisan redistricting commissions.  The FRA is just one example of a variety of STV approaches.

As an example of Ranked Choice Voting, STV brings all sorts of advantages, including making elections more competitive, giving third parties a realistic chance to influence elections and policy, and discouraging negative campaigning.  As an example of PR, it brings the potential to make elections more truly reflect popular will, ease gridlock, and decrease polarization.  It is the most undervalued of all current proposals for election reform.


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