Proportional Representation: a boost to representation and turnout or a shift of power?

“Now if you think that proportional representation is boring, you are a very silly person because it’s about how we can run the country better.” John Cleese, Monty Python’s Flying Circus

Robert Latham wants to make our representative democracy–a.k.a. “republic”– more representative.

Instead of “winner take all” districts, where the candidate with 50.1% of the voting will end up representing all voters whether they voted for him or not, he has recommended “proportional representation” districts. In these, representatives would be allocated according to the number of votes their party gets in an election.

It would look something like this:

Figure 1 is what we do now. Figures 2 and 3 demonstrate how districts could be larger or smaller to allow for more or fewer representatives from each district.

Latham explains:

“Using multimember districts, say a five-member district, you might have Republicans get elected in Salt Lake City. They might win two” of the five seats by winning about 40 percent of the vote, Latham told the Redistricting Committee this week.

“You might get Democrats that are elected in downtown Provo,” or at least one member, by winning about 20 percent of the vote in a five-member district in that area, he added.

For a guy who lives on the east side of Salt Lake County and is represented by a very nice  but entirely ineffective Democratic Senator, something like this would be fantastic. I could be represented by someone who actually shares my political inclinations!

The Utah House of Representative's current district boundaries.

Another added benefit is that it minimizes several of the problems that our system faces during redistricting. For example, cities and counties would not need to be split as often to ensure that representation fits a “one person, one vote” standard. Gerrymandering would be less effectual since even minority parties would have a higher chance of obtaining representation. (No wonder that Latham, a Libertarian, finds this idea interesting…)

Interestingly, it’s something that the United States supports in foreign countries like Iraq and Afghanistan where US advisors have helped write constitutions that allow for minority participation in government.

“I have heard from soldiers returning from conflict zones saying, ‘Why are we fighting for these more representative governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and yet we don’t have that same kind of representative government here at home?’ ” Latham said in an interview.

Not only are we promoting it in other countries, but there is research that shows that proportional representation may actually increase turnout.

Looking at the election records of over five hundred elections in twenty countries, Andre Blais and R.K. Carty found that  systems with proportional representation actually showed higher turnout that could not be explained by other variables. As I’ve noted recently, our political systems could do with some innovation to increase civic participation and engagement. Perhaps allowing more people to be represented would encourage this.

The elephant in the room: will Republicans in Utah allow a system that that might provide for more representation of Democrats? As a Republican myself, I understand, and agree, that majority rule is important. However, I also believe in fairness, and I wonder how fair our current process is to areas of the state that are not dominated by one party or the other. We are left on the margins, unrepresented, at all. Further, not all issues are strictly partisan, but are often regional. Because certain areas of our state are represented by the minority party (cough, cough–Salt Lake’s east bench), representatives from my own party are more inclined to look out for their own constituents rather than those of a Democrat, even to the detriment of Republicans in the area. As a result, I remain unrepresented.

But will Republicans give up absolute control of the legislature? My guess is that it is not likely. And, to be honest, I can’t blame them. They’ve done a better job managing our state than Democrats in California, New York, or New Jersey have with theirs. Why allow them to mess up a good thing here?

(h/t Salt Lake Tribune’s Lee Davidson)

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