Is It Time for "Proportional Voting?"

Canada's Liberals Won only 32% of the Popular Vote on Monday But Nearly 50% of Seats in Their 338-Member Parliament. Would "Proportional" Voting Make It Fairer? Would It Work in the US?

Canada’s federal election on Monday featured what they call a “first past the post” election - whoever gets the most votes in a “riding” (what they call parliamentary districts) wins the election, even if no one receives a majority of the vote.

The U.S. is also mainly “first past the post.” But in some states, it’s “first past the post after the second lap.” That’s a mouthful.

That’s because most of our elections work differently here. Under the Constitution, states generally decide how elections are conducted and how congressional district boundaries are drawn. Federal law determines basic qualifications (age) and the date of the election (states get to decide when polls are opened, voting methods, early voting, etc.). The House and Senate are the ultimate judges of their respective election outcomes, and a few have been overturned over the years. Unlike Canada, we have only two major parties; Canada has at least four and arguably 5, maybe 6.

While most elections for Congress - House and Senate - are “first past the post,” we’re similar to Canada in that way. But some states are different.

Remember Georgia? Control of the Senate for the 117th Congress wasn’t decided until January 5th this year, when a runoff election for both its Senate seats was held. In Georgia, if no candidate wins a simple majority of the vote on election day, a runoff is held with the two top vote-getters, knocking out minor party candidates. Democrats Ralphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff narrowly defeated incumbent Republicans David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, giving Democrats nominal control of the U.S. Senate.

Louisiana also operates differently (in many respects). Every candidate, regardless of party, runs on a single ballot. If no one wins a simple majority, a runoff is held, usually in early December. California, too.

And then we have the “winner take all” Electoral College for electing Presidents and Vice Presidents. You know how that works; whichever candidate wins the popular vote wins all of the state’s electoral votes, with two exceptions: Maine and Nebraska. Each state allocates two electoral votes to the statewide winner and one each for its respective congressional districts. Both states have split their electoral votes in recent elections.

But make no mistake, the “fairness” of Canada’s and our electoral systems are being questioned.

Most of the attacks here center on the Electoral College, which is designed to preserve the states’ role in our nation’s chief executive election. Why? Direct popular election of the President and Vice President would severely favor more populous states over smaller ones.

Others go so far as to attack the composition of the U.S. Senate, where each state gets two senators, whether you’re California with a population of 52 million or Wyoming, population 750,000. Again, we’re called the “United States” of America for a reason. As Ronald Reagan said during his first inaugural address, states created the federal government; the federal government did not create the states.

Trying to talk historical sense to the “direct election” or rule-by-popular-vote crowd is like bees trying to explain to flies why honey is better than. . . you know the thing. Bees don’t bother, so neither do I. They want to eradicate our carefully designed system of checks and balances to secure power and other people’s money for themselves. People like us are just in the way.

Are our (Canada and U.S.) elections fair? Is it time to consider reforms like “proportional voting,” “ranked-choice voting,” or a combination? No, but the debate is here. Proponents fear Republicans winning another election in the Electoral College without winning the popular vote (see: 2000, especially 2016). They also fear Republican control of the U.S. House or Senate despite the possibility that Democrats may win the “national” vote. Especially after a handful of congressional seats are being reallocated from “blue” northern states (and California) to “red” sunbelt states (Texas, North Carolina, and Florida) after last year’s decennial census.

Just ask the folks in Maine who instituted “ranked-choice” voting for the 2018 congressional elections. Or Virginia Republicans, who used a similar system to nominate their statewide candidates for the November 2nd elections.

During the 2018 elections in Maine, four candidates were on the ballot - Bruce Poliquin, the incumbent Republican; a Democrat, Jared Golden; and two independents. Let the former Congressman tell his story:

In 2014, I won ME-02 as the first Republican in twenty years, since the former Senator Olympia Snowe represented it. During my last two years in Congress, I was the only GOP Member in the U.S. House. This, now, highly competitive swing district is a perennial battleground for control of Congress.

On Election Day 2018, I won my second re-election by receiving 2,200 more votes than any of my three liberal opponents, one Democrat and two Independents. After nine days of vote counting chaos, the Maine Secretary of State awarded the seat to the Democrat candidate who came in second place in the only federal election in the nation subjected to the unfair rank voting scam.

Rank voting has proven to be the biggest voter rip-off in Maine history. For nearly 200 years, we have elected our federal, state, and local officials by each voter casting one vote, with the candidate receiving the most votes on Election Day the winner.

The confusing rank voting process is not a Maine idea. It was brought to our State by liberal out-of-state political activists wanting to game our system in order to win more elections. After 40 years of Democrat control until 2010, they were searching for a way stack the deck and return their majority. Funded in part by Texas billionaire John Arnold, formally an Enron executive before its bankruptcy, and billionaire George Soros, liberal activists took advantage of our lenient referendum process and collected the necessary signatures to put rank voting on the ballot. Then, they swamped the public discussion with tv and radio ads, robo-calls, mailers, yard signs, door knocking, and so on in order to fool enough Mainers to abandon our Constitutional one person, one vote system.

The Maine State Legislature tried to stop the imposition of rank voting but was overwhelmed by the big-money out-of-state special interests. In the end, Maine’s 2nd Congressional District voters rejected rank voting twice, but statewide it passed with only 26% of registered voters – hardly a majority endorsement.

As Poliquin further outlines, Maine’s Supreme Court ruled ranked-choice voting illegal for state offices but not for federal ones.

Ranked-choice voting works like this. Your ballot contains, say, five candidates. Instead of just voting for one, you “rank” your candidates from your first preference to last. If your “first” place candidate comes in last, but no one wins a simple majority, your votes are reallocated to your “second” preference. They will go through as many rounds as possible until someone wins with a simple majority. The last-place candidate is eliminated each round.

After six rounds of counting and reallocating votes from other candidates, Glenn Youngkin was nominated Virginia's GOP gubernatorial nominee.

What are the basic principles of “proportional voting?”

The basic principles underlying proportional representation elections are that all voters deserve representation and that all political groups in society deserve to be represented in our legislatures in proportion to their strength in the electorate. In other words, everyone should have the right to fair representation.

In order to achieve this fair representation, all PR systems have certain basic characteristics — characteristics that set them apart from our current election system. First, they all use multi-member districts. Instead of electing one person in each district, as we do here in the U.S., several people are elected. These multi-member districts may be relatively small, with only three or four members, or they may be larger, with ten or more members

Is it possible for states to create multi-member congressional seats? It’s never been done, and no one I know is proposing it. While I can’t find a specific constitutional or legal prohibition against it, I can’t imagine it ever happening. Congress certainly has never envisioned or planned for it. The ultimate issue is whether it would meet the Constitution’s one-person-one-vote principle. At this point, however, it’s all academic.

I could see an effort to dilute the Electoral College by introducing “proportional” voting for President and Vice President in each state. That is, awarding electoral college votes based on the percentage of popular votes cast for candidates. That would better mirror the popular vote without eliminating the Electoral College. Apportioning electoral votes by Congressional district is not dissimilar, as Nebraska and Maine have done.

Some states, like New Jersey’s lower house, have multi-member districts for the state legislature. Lots of localities have “at large” representation involving several county offices and school boards. Proportional representation here is likely to happen only at the local level, if at all.

Is it a good idea? Not in my view. First, it complicates and confuses things for everyone, especially voters. Ranked-choice voting may work for most party primaries but is not a good bet for general elections; it gives voters preferring minor candidates a “second vote” for a major party candidate when no one wins with a simple majority. I’ve not seen a successful challenge to ranked-choice voting at the federal level, but it strikes me as a likely violation of the one-person-one-vote principle.

It seems unfair that nearly half of Canada’s federal parliamentary seats are awarded to a party, the Liberals, who won with barely 32 percent of the popular vote. There are reasons for that, given regional voting patterns and demographics across Canada. But complicating elections, at least at that level, doesn’t seem worth the effort.