The Limits of Single-Winner Elections:
Single-winner elections are a great option for electing a single candidate who best represents the electorate as a whole, especially if a good voting method like STAR Voting is used that allows voters to express their full honest opinion, and that gets accurate and representative results. Single-winner STAR Voting is ideal for electing executive offices like a mayor or governor, as well as for higher offices like the presidency, but if we need to elect multiple people to fill seats on a council, committee, or legislative body, going with a multi-winner STAR Voting electoral system is worth considering.
The Round Table Model:
Governing by council is probably one of the oldest methods in existence and the round table model can mean that diverse factions within the population can still have a voice, even if they don't have a majority. The idea is that if there are 4 seats on the council a candidate representing a 1/4 of the population should have a seat at the table.
The Three Options:
1. District Based Equal Representation and Single-Winner STAR Voting:
Splitting the electorate into 4 districts (for example) and electing one representative from each is a simple way to accomplish fair geographical representation. District based elections are well suited for situations where the council will be focused on local issues, and less on bigger picture ideological decision making. Districts are an especially good fit for situations where different ideological factions are clustered in different areas, and they maximize accountability, but alone they don't ensure ideological diversity.
For example, let's consider a city where 1/3 of the people belong to a minor political party or cultural group, but where there is a strong majority group who is evenly spread out around the city. With a district based election method the majority party or group would win every single seat, and the other 1/3 of the population would be left with nothing. Since there are 4 seats up for election in this example, 1/4 of the population should be enough for them to earn representation, but that doesn't happen here.
Another major problem with district based representation is gerrymandering. There are a number of ways to eliminate gerrymandering without getting rid of single-winner districts (such as measuring efficiency gap, looking at district compactness, and having independent redistricting boards), but when gerrymandering is a reality, proportional representation can at least help to mitigate it's impacts.
Lastly, some geographical areas or groups just can't or shouldn't be subdivided. Neighborhood associations and corporate boards are two examples where single-winner, district-based elections aren't an option.
2. Multi-Winner Districts and Multi-Winner Bloc STAR Voting
For elections where some geographical representation is important, but where a larger pool of candidates would be beneficial as well, simple multi-winner (aka bloc) STAR Voting is a great middle ground, offering the advantages of multi-member districts while still ensuring majority preferred winners. This option is not recommended for at-large elections where a minority group or population is clustered in one section of a multi-winner district.
At large plurality bloc voting has historically been used to deny representation for people of color in cases where they would have otherwise been able to win. Multi-winner bloc should only be considered as an option when a population's distribution of minority voters is quite homogenous, where sub-diving a district further wouldn't make sense, and where those types of racist outcomes would be impossible.
3. Proportional Representation and STAR Voting:
Proportional Representation (PR) voting methods aim to elect representative councils and allow minority factions to have a seat at the table without dividing up the area into districts. A number of situations call for a multi-winner election, but in order for these elections to elect a representative council we need to use a Proportional Representation voting method.
There are a number of ways to tabulate a 5 star ballot to produce a proportional result. The mechanisms which can be used are all shorter and simpler than that used by Single Transferable Vote and do not waste votes. Proportional STAR pairs well with single winner STAR Voting, so voters can have accurate elections for both single, multi-winner bloc, and proportional representation races using the same ballot.
Read more about what type of STAR Voting is right for each election here.
Are multi-winner elections in the US and Canada currently proportional?
With one exception, no. Though it was once more common, in the U.S., Cambridge, Massachusetts is the only place which still uses Proportional Representation for governmental elections. Canada has had a number of referendums to consider moving to a proportional representation system in recent years, but to date none have passed.
There are a few different types of multi-winner and at-large elections used in North America, but aside from a few exceptions, these elections don't result in proportional representation. The problem is that with standard multi-winner elections where the election is conducted at-large, the majority faction generally will win every single seat and everyone else ends up with no representation at all. This is especially true because of our current "Choose-One-Only" voting method. At-large plurality voting is actually the worst method for electing diverse councils, and in terms of diverse representation it's significantly worse than single-winner plurality voting using districts, where at least each district is accurately represented.
Which option is right for my community?
Choosing the right reform for a specific community should be an inclusive process. In our experience, most communities include advocates for a number of proposals and most advocates will be well-versed in the reasons to support their proposals but may not be aware of the full list of pros and cons that should be considered, or may not be aware of other proposals that should be considered as well.
We believe that any of the options above, implemented with a star ballot, would lead to much better representation. Any of the above options meet our five core criteria for voting systems: Equality, Accuracy, Honesty, Expressiveness, and Simplicity. Each option has pros and cons which are worth considering carefully.
If you or your group is working to choose a voting reform for your community, or to help facilitate an inclusive conversation to get everyone educated on the options, we are available to help consult, present, and facilitate the process. Please send us an email at [email protected] and let us know more about the reform efforts in your area.
Is proportional representation right for statewide and national elections?
Most countries which use proportional representation are geographically much, much smaller than the USA and Canada. This is relevant because almost all proportional representation systems aren't batch summable, meaning that tabulation can't begin until all ballots have been returned, and ballots have to be centralized in a single location. For large countries this presents some major logistical hurdles and even potential security risks around chain-of-custody for ballots. Luckily this can be overcome by breaking larger areas into smaller local district clusters which tally their ballots independently, and which elect a set of representatives to specifically represent their cluster. For geographically large countries, states, and provinces we recommend this approach so as to not trade off election security in the name of better representation.
If local clusters were used, proportional recommendation could be a great option for statewide or provincial level elections such as the state legislature's House of Representatives.
Unfortunately, incremental or staged adoption of proportional representation for national or federal offices raises other issues. The current Choose-One Plurality system consistently delivers extra representation to the majority in each state or province. In some states this bias favors the left, in others it favors the right, and nationally, to some extent, it balances out. This means that if a left or right leaning state were to go first and adopt proportional representation for their national offices it would upset the balance and could backfire, leave them underrepresented as a consequence. If proportional representation were adopted for federal offices, that would need to happen nation-wide. This isn't a concern for swing states, so they could be a good choice to go first to model proportional representation for federal elections.
Politics presents another key barrier. Because the two parties hold all the political power in the USA, passing a system nationally that would re-distribute that power would be next to impossible. in the United States, doing so would require a super majority to change the constitution.
Why not use other proportional representation systems?
Many countries across Europe, Latin America, and Africa use various proportional systems where voters essentially vote a party line to varying degrees. These methods are built from the Choose-One ballot, and as such don't empower voters to express their preferences or opinions on multiple candidates or parties. In the USA nearly 1/2 of voters don't identify with a political party, so those voters wouldn't be well represented by a Party List or MMP type system. Proportional representation in general does have a positive impact on partisanship, encouraging parties to form that better represent the political spectrum, but many people are concerned that these systems encourage voters to pay less attention to the issues and to the individual candidates while potentially increasing polarization between factions.
Australia and Ireland use Single Transferable Vote (STV) for parliamentary elections. STV uses a more expressive ranked ballot, which would be a step in the right direction compared to Choose-One, and the system isn't as reliant on partisanship, but STV's runoff and elimination method is based on Instant Runoff Voting (the common single-winner Ranked Choice method) and as such suffers from the same flaw in the elimination process where some rankings that should have been taken into account can be ignored.
Proportional STAR Voting presents an alternative which addresses these concerns. The five star ballot shows not only a voter's preferences, but also how much or how little they like each candidate- regardless of the candidates' political affiliations. Despite the fact that a star ballot contains more information than a ranked ballot, the math required to tally five star ballots is much simpler.
The good news is that single-winner, multi-winner, and proportional STAR Voting would all encourage and allow the formation of more representative political parties!
Proportional Representation is the cutting edge of voting science and we are excited to be on the forefront.
In 2018, the Equal Vote Coalition convened a team of interested citizens, international voting scientists, and researchers to evaluate the proposals on the table, to develop better methods for comparing and testing proportional voting methods, and to consider and study new proposals and innovations in the field. The goal was to definitively determine the proportional method that is the most equitable, accurate, fair, simple, and resistant to strategic voting.
In late of 2020 the committee concluded Phase Three of the project, studying, simulating, refining, and vetting the proposals, and came to consensus on a recommendation for Proportional STAR Voting. The proposal was presented to the Equal Vote Coalition and was approved by the board in December 2020.
The committee's final recommendation was presented over a video conference on February 25th, 2021, and you can read the through the presentation report as an e-book here. The committee is now launching into phase four. When the project is complete we'll be writing up findings for an academic audience and publishing our findings.
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