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Proportional Representation: Making It Happen

australian-election-2010-polling-boothsIn the first installment I discussed the value of replacing first-past-the-post elections with proportional representation. With a party list system, libertarians and other smaller parties would at long last be able to make actual inroads into the halls of government.

In this article I explain how a party list policy could actually be successfully implemented in the United States.

Sounds Great, But Can It Be Done?

As with all practical proposals, the proof is in the doing. There’s little point in proposing policy change if it’s never going to get anywhere. So can party lists find a home in the US?

At the national level, probably not. There are far too many entrenched vested interests who would never give a hearing to alternative voting systems and, even if there were such true public servants in Washington the barriers to constitutional reform are virtually insurmountable.

But the states are a different matter altogether.

All too few people realize that the particular electoral system, and indeed the shape of government, of the various states are their own to decide. The only constitutional requirement is that the states be democratic in character. The three branches of government, all with the same name and general functions, is largely the product of convergence to best practice and the fact that newer western states just copied the systems of the biggest states. But there’s nothing that says they have to be the way they are.

Indeed, some aberrations do persist. New Hampshire has its Executive Council, an elected five-person committee that shares the authority of the executive branch with the Governor. Nebraska is also an oddity, with its unicameral legislature.

So difference is not an issue. Nor is the task nearly so daunting when broken into parts. States are much smaller bodies and generally attract far less political funding that the federal government. Many states will reject the idea all at once. But there are some where the idea could fly.

And, of course, a fundamental shift in voting system will raise concerns among citizens in any state. People tend to be conservative about such changes to the underlying fabric of their governing systems. But this natural skepticism can be combated. With enough money and effort, even absurd propositions can get a hearing. Even the Six Californias movement, financed by venture capitalist Tim Draper, managed to get over 700,000 signatures, very close to reaching the actual ballot. A proposal to make elections fairer and give citizens more choice ought to meet far less resistance.

So the challenge then is to find states that might be receptive and that have the constitutional tools available to act on that impulse.

Our Weapon of Choice: The Direct Initiative

Americans are generally no fans of entrenched power. A concerted campaign would inform citizens of the benefits of proportional representation, and could produce the voter-led pressure necessary to create change. The problem is that many states make it hard for citizens to push for constitutional amendments from the ground up. Yet many others allow direct ballot initiatives. These states are:

  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Illinois
  • Michigan
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • South Dakota

Other states permit indirect constitutional initiatives, meaning they need to be proposed by the legislature first. For the most part, these states can be lumped in with those that don’t allow it at all – few legislatures, given the choice, would opt for a system that could threaten their hold on power. Colorado should also be toward the top of the list, as citizens have proven.

So which of these states might be amenable?

Western states like Montana and North Dakota stand out for their small size (which makes the cost of a state-wide campaign low) and their friendliness toward libertarian principles. Nevada, too, has its libertarian streak, though it is bigger.

Colorado should also make the list, even though it is a bluer state. Its citizens are extremely open to initiatives and have proven themselves perfectly happy to amend their constitution regularly.

We May Even Be Able to Co-opt Officeholders

There may even be times when entrenched political elites could be convinced to try party lists.

In states where a single party dominates the legislature, majority leaders often have more difficulty controlling their own party’s rank-and-file members than with the opposition. In states like Hawaii and Illinois the Democratic Party is very thoroughly entrenched. In such states, even when a Republican manages to ride the occasional wave of disgust and exhaustion to the Governor’s mansion the legislature’s composition remains deeply blue.

And that’s where the opportunity may lie. Party lists could be seen as valuable to legislative leaders in the doling out of patronage that is their stock in trade. Controlling who gets to be on the ballot where would have a disciplining effect on the party and allow it to act as a coherent body. That prospect could really get party bigwigs salivating.

On top of that, the prospect of having the Libertarians in the race would also be seen as a boon. Politicians tend to look only a cycle or two ahead, and the Democrats in Hawaii and Illinois might see the splintering of the already anemic Republican coalition as a great opportunity to further solidify power. Sure, there might be a smaller left wing party to siphon off some support, but the Democrats’ majorities are sufficiently large as to not have to worry much about that.

By playing these benefits up when lobbying members of government, the cause might actually find some receptive ears. That would certainly make the task of pushing constitutional change forward far easier.

The Way Forward

This should be a top policy priority of the Libertarian Party. If they can get it done in just one state, it would be able to show the value of opening up the political process to new ideas and voices. States tend to imitate things that work and, though many legislatures will fight tooth and nail against it, some may see the benefits.

Getting people elected to state office, even if they continue to be a minority of 5-10% would go a long way to legitimizing the party.

There are numerous wealthy libertarians out there who could be prevailed upon to give to these efforts. People like Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and Tim Draper would all be prime targets. And they would likely be more willing to give than to Libertarian election campaigns because electoral reform is something that might actually succeed in a single big effort, rather than the iterated challenge (with little payoff) that is supporting a minority party in a hostile electoral environment.

And the Libertarians would not be alone. The Green Party is another group in the political wilderness that would like nothing better than to see the electoral system changed. Working with them, liberal donors and activists could join a broad coalition to force the issue.

Proportional representation would revolutionize the politics of the states, and revitalize the hopes of the Libertarians. That’s something worth fighting for.

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John Engle

John Engle is a merchant banker and author living in the Chicago area. His company, Almington Capital, invests in both early-stage venture capital and in public equities. His writing has been featured in a number of academic journals, as well as the blogs of the Heartland Institute, Grassroot Institute, and Tenth Amendment Center. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland and the University of Oxford, John’s first book, Trinity Student Pranks: A History of Mischief and Mayhem, was published in September 2013.

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