Synthesis/Regeneration 9   (Winter 1996)

The Electoral Challenge

Standing on the Threshold of a Third Party Dream

by Steven Hill, California Green Party, Center for Voting and Democracy

[Editor's note. The following is excerpted from a speech to the national gathering of The Greens/Green Party USA in Albuquerque on July 29, 1995, and to the annual convention of the National Lawyers Guild on August 11, 1995.]

# How It Could Work in California

This is an exciting time for the hopes of third parties. There is a window of opportunity presenting itself to third party efforts that we haven't seen in the United States since the early decades of this century.

We are facing a time of unprecedented voter apathy and alienation, even by the low standards of the United States and "winner-take-all" democracies. In the 1994 Congressional elections, eligible voter turnout was 36%—36%! That means two out of three people did not go to the polls. And despite what Beltway-myopic pundits like George Will says, that's not because people are satisfied. Studies overwhelmingly show that those not voting are those with the lowest incomes and the lowest educational levels. In other words, those that have the least reasons to be satisfied. These people have simply given up voting, because they don't like what either of the two parties is offering. But I also want to voice a word of caution. As I sat and listened to the previous panel of Green Party candidates for various elective offices around the country, I noticed a disturbing trend. Several of the candidates made exuberant statements such as "I received 5% of the vote last time I ran, and this time I received 7%;" or "9%;" or "Roberto Mondragon from New Mexico received 11%," etc. And while I want to heartily congratulate these candidates, and commend them for their initiative and commitment, I want to remind them and all Greens of a fairly obvious fact: they were still 40-45% short of winning!

I can assure you that when the Green Party of Germany gets together for their annual convention, the talk isn't about how individual Green candidates won 5 or 7 or 11% of the vote—they talk and strategize about how many legislative seats their party will win in the next elections! The German Green Party presently holds the third largest number of seats in their national legislature. The German Greens are successful in electing their members to legislatures, and the US Greens are not, because of one primary and fundamental difference: Germany uses a proportional representation voting system, while here in the United States we continue to use an antiquated winner-take-all voting system that most major democracies have long since abandoned because of its unrepresentative and undemocratic nature.

There is no other structural change—not campaign finance reform, not ballot access laws—that is as important to the success and longevity of third parties as proportional representation. There are states where the ballot access laws are not as Draconian as others—California has several ballot-qualified parties, the Greens being one of them—and we still can't elect anyone. At local and state levels of government, where the cost of running is not as high as running in high profile federal races, third parties still rarely elect anyone. That is because it is virtually impossible for minority parties or candidates to win a seat in a majoritarian winner-take-all system, no matter how small the district, since by virtue of our being a minority, we can not normally attract a majority of votes.

Out of 1935 state senate seats, how many are held by third parties? Exactly zero.

Let me run a few statistics by you. Anybody care to guess how many seats are held by third parties in the 50 state senates? Out of 1935 state senate seats, how many are held by third parties? Exactly zero. Out of 5440 state house seats, how many are held by third parties, anyone want to guess? Three. Out of 535 Congressional and US Senate seats, how many are held by third parties. One-Socialist Bernie Sanders from Vermont. Now, in case you're thinking-well, that's just how things are now, it wasn't always that way—here's the bonus question: anyone care to guess how many third parties there have been in the 200 year history of the United States? How many? Fifty? A hundred? Two hundred? The answer is over a thousand. And how many of these have you ever heard of? They are only a distant memory now, for trivia junkies and TV game shows. Need I say more? Winner-take-all voting systems are notoriously hostile to the success of third parties, as well as women and racial minorities. The Green Party USA, as well as the New Party, Labor Party, or any other third party, desperately needs proportional representation.

Proportional representation—or "PR," as it is called—is the most popular voting system in the world today. The world trend is toward PR and away from winner-take-all. In April 1994 South Africa became the latest nation to switch to PR. In 1993 New Zealand, Japan, Russia, Italy and Mexico adopted the German form of PR. Almost all of the countries of the former Soviet bloc chose PR over winner-take-all because they recognized what is obvious to all but those who have been steeped in the ideology of winner-take-all elections—that PR is a fairer, more democratic, more representative and more modern voting system than the antiquated 18th-century winner-take-all system. Under PR, representatives are elected from multi-seat districts in proportion to the number of votes received. So, for example, under one type of PR-there are several-if a party receives 30% of the popular vote in a 10 seat district, it receives 30% (3) of the seats. Ten percent of the popular vote gets you 10% (1) of the seats, and so on. A party or candidate need not come in first to get elected. PR assures that political parties or independent candidates win the percent of legislative seats that reflects their public support. For this reason, voter turnout in PR democracies is typically 70-90%, far higher than winner-take-all democracies. PR voters aren't stuck choosing between the "lesser of two evils." They know their votes count.

...under one type of PR...if a party receives 30% of the popular vote in a 10 seat district, it receives 30% (3) of the seats.

Besides low voter turnout, the results of our winner-take-all elections are appalling. Despite the so-called "Year of the Woman," our number of women elected is pitifully low compared to proportional representation democracies—11% in Congress and 8% in the U.S. Senate, compared to 25-40% women elected in most PR democracies. The election of racial minorities just took a severe direct hit at the end of June when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that race-conscious gerrymandering was unconstitutional, continuing the attack against communities of color and affirmative steps taken to remedy historical and current-day inequality. In fact, the only constituency receiving adequate representation today is the 32% of white males—they receive most of the representation! The demographics are astounding, when you stop and think about it, and depressing if you don't know how to interpret these numbers.

My interpretation is as follows. These are the seeds of the demise of the winner-take-all two party duopoly. But it's not going to happen by itself, the two parties are going to need a giant shove. And there's no better organization, no better group of individuals who stand to gain so much, or who are better poised to organize the grassroots to provide this shove, than the Green Party USA and other independent-minded voters.

To convert our antiquated 18th century winner-take-all voting system does not require any changes in the US Constitution. All that is involved is a change in applicable local, state—and to change Congress to PR—a single federal-law. Some communities, like San Luis Obispo, Calif., with 40,000 residents, only need 2000 signatures to put an initiative on the ballot to change their local city council to PR. Only 2000 signatures! Five people working three hours a week for ten weeks can put that on the ballot. By mounting local voter initiatives, we can build a groundswell of support. If we plant the seed of an idea, that seed will grow. Once we have built enough grassroots support by waging initiatives at a number of localities, then we start at the state level, using the mailing lists and names and contacts we collected from our local initiatives.

There is already some exciting local grassroots activity along these lines underway. There are currently voter initiative drives in Seattle and Eugene, Ore. In the past year charter commissions in San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Fe, Detroit, Miami Beach, Missoula (Mont.), and Cincinnati have given serious consideration to various proportional voting schemes. Pro-PR op-eds and articles have been popping up all over the place, in local and national newspapers and magazines, including USA Today, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, The New Yorker, and others.

The sparks for proportional representation are catching fire. We may soon have a full blown movement on our hands. There is something momentous happening in this country in the grass roots, and I hope you will be a part of it.

For more information, contact the Center for Voting and Democracy at 6905 Fifth St. NW, Suite 200, Washington DC. Phone (202) 882-7378 or email

A Model for Proportional Representation: How It Could Work in California

In the recent elections for California state assembly, 229,984 voters voted for parties other than the Democrats or Republicans-either the Green, Peace and Freedom, Libertarian, or American Independent Parties. If these third party voters had lived in the same district, they easily could have elected a representative. Because they are scattered throughout the state, they couldn't elect anyone.

But what if, instead of electing one representative from each district, we enlarged the districts so that we elected ten representatives from a super-district? And what if each party needed only 10% of the vote to win a seat, instead of the current 45-50%? This may sound odd to some readers, but in fact that is exactly how most of the democracies in the world elect their legislatures, including Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Norway, Spain, Brazil, and many more. Such a voting system, called proportional representation (PR), is what allows third parties like the German Greens to win seats.

Instead of electing 80 state assembly representatives from 80 districts, Californians could elect them from eight super-districts with ten representatives each. Now, if the Greens or the Peace and Freedom Party win 10% of the vote in one of these super-districts—drawing support from the whole area, not just one small district—they win one seat; thirty percent of the vote wins three seats, and so on. The Greens would decide who fills the seats by having a party caucus prior to the general election, in which they would elect their party's list. If the Greens won three seats, the top three names on their list would fill those seats.

Californians also elect 52 Congresspeople, one per "winner take all" district. Instead, they could elect thirteen Congresspeople from four super-districts. Each party would need 7.7% of the popular vote to win a seat (100% of the vote divided by 13 seats = 7.7% of the vote per seat).

A legislative body, either state, federal or local, could be elected by this method. How many seats should we have per super-district? The general rule of thumb is that the more seats you elect at once, the lower you make the "threshold of exclusion" and the more you end up with representative results. Most PR countries have thresholds of about 4-5%.

The "mixed member" PR system, which is used by Germany and some other countries, actually combines the type of scenarios explained above with a district election system. Half of the members of their national and state legislatures are elected via a proportional vote, and the other half by geographic districts. This may make a nice transitional system for the United States, since we have such a strong tradition of geographic based representation.

As voters realized that voting for third parties was not a "wasted vote," more of them might stop selecting the "lesser of two evils" and pick their top choice. Voila! The Two Party Monopoly would be over!

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