Proportional Representation: The Libertarians’ Dream
It’s a poor political system that effectively disenfranchises millions of its citizens. Yet that is exactly what our first-past-the-post (FPP) electoral system does. Because individual candidates run in each constituency, and because they only need a plurality of the vote, there is a powerful impetus for the creation of “big tent” parties. Smaller parties, even if they have quite widespread support, will often see themselves underrepresented, or not represented at all, in the corridors of power.
Libertarians, independents, and Greens have all captured remarkable percentages of the vote in various races over the years, yet have had little or nothing to show for it. The result has largely been the exclusion, or severe watering down, of the policies these groups promote. All too frequently their fresh ideas are shut out of the high-level discourse altogether.
But there is a better way. That better way is proportional representation and party lists.
Wow, the Europeans Actually Have a Good Idea
Sometimes it feels like no one in America pays any attention to what happens beyond our borders. It is a huge country, so it’s understandable that it is more inward-looking than the small and interconnected European states, for example, but nonetheless that navel-gazing has led to a certain degree of American chauvinism. It is a general belief that we do it better here and that we don’t have anything to learn from other countries.
And that sentiment seems to go double for the political system. Americans of all political stripes are proud of our constitutional structure, even the ones who hate a certain amendment with a fiery passion.
Of course, as libertarians, our natural attitude is to be wary of ideas imported from continental Europe. And rightly so. Those countries’ proclivity for socialistic economic policies are anathema to our sense of justice and sense. Yet we could do with an injection of continental European ideas when it comes to electoral policy.
The German system in particular is a creditable example. Elections to the Bundestag combine the FPP system and proportional representation. Half the seats are elected in much the same way as we elect our representatives, with single-seat FPP-based constituencies. The innovation is in how the other half of the seats are allocated: Party lists.
The way this works is quite simple. Each of the registered political parties draws up a list of candidates, and these are elected on the basis of their party’s overall popular vote performance. So if a party wins 30% of the popular vote, it gets 30% of the proportionally elected seats.
The Germans temper the risk of the Bundestag being overrun by tiny parties by also including an entry threshold of 5%. This means that only parties that win 5% or more of the popular vote will win seats.
As a system, the German model is excellent because it maintains the important character of directly elected representatives as well as providing representation to a far wider range of political ideology and opinion.
A country of 300 million people can’t be legitimately governed by just two political camps. The American people deserve a more accurate representation of their opinions and ideologies, and a German-style hybrid list system is the way to do it.
A Way to Make Libertarians Matter
How a list system would help Libertarians should be obvious. Libertarians already frequently hover around 5% support when the country is polled. And Gary Johnson has been polling around the 10% mark in recent polls as well. If these numbers held to election day, it would get the Libertarian Party nowhere. But under a list system, the Libertarians would actually have a shot at breaking into Congress and state legislatures across the country.
Even with a 10% threshold it would be reasonable to predict that the Libertarians would get in, as their poll numbers have always been depressed by a generalized sentiment that a vote for them is a wasted vote. A list lowers the threshold so significantly that many of the Libertarians’ philosophical
The idea of implementing party lists in federal elections for either house won’t get a hearing in Washington, at least not right away. But there could be room for a gradualist approach: By pursuing reform state by state, the effort might very well succeed for state-level offices. A proposal to change the lower house of the state legislature to a party list system would be a reasonable compromise position to present, for example.
In the second half of this article, I make the case for how this latter strategy could bear real and lasting fruit for the cause of democracy, and libertarianism.
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