Few nations are in need of the benefits of PR as much as the United States.
Gerrymandered single-member districts have reduced legislative competition to historic low levels. In three national elections for the U.S. House since 1996, fewer than one in ten races were decided by less than 10 percent, more than 98 percent of incumbents were returned to office. State legislative races are often even less competitive, with both major parties fielding candidates in fewer than 60 percent of state legislative elections since 1996.
Policy-making and majority interests can sharply diverge. More than 40 million Americans do not have health insurance, and a majority of American workers now make less income in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars than they did 20 years ago, even as they work 160 hours more a year. By one estimate, Congress is now on the same page as the American people only about 40 percent of the time, when it comes to issues of health care, crime, welfare and social security (Jacobs and Shapiro, 2000: 4-5.
Private sources supply nearly all campaign funds, with less than one percent of Americans giving the great bulk of funds to candidates. Given that money’s impact is very important in primaries and in tipping close winner-take-all races, candidates in turn spend a great deal of time and energy cultivating the support of these donors.
National voter turnout is among the world's lowest: 139th in the world in average turnout since World War II, according to the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, and startlingly tilted in its class and race bias, with big drop-offs for racial minorities, the young, less well-educated, and lower-income. Voter turnout declines have been even more pronounced in local and primary elections, many as low as single digits.
The United States' increasingly complex racial and ethnic diversity is poorly represented. Under-representation can be measured at all levels of government, but perhaps most starkly in the powerful Senate. In the past century, there have been a grand total of two black U.S. Senators and one black governor elected from our 50 states – who collectively served a total of four terms. Currently the U.S. Senate has no black or Latino members, despite those Americans making up more than 25 percent of our national population.
The relative strength of the American women's movement is poorly reflected in Congress, where women's representation is 14 percent and where fewer states have female U.S. House members than a decade ago. Women hold barely 20 percent of states legislative seats, and their numbers have declined in recent elections.
Polls generally show that a majority of Americans would like to see an enduring national third party, but only five of more than 8,000 state and federal elected representatives were elected on third party tickets. When third party candidates, like the Reform Party’s Ross Perot and the Green Party’s Ralph Nader run, their supporters usually not only fail to elect their preferred candidate, but in effect help elect their least favorite candidate.
Yet each of these conditions also creates barriers to PR:
The lack of competitive elections, combined with generally weak party leaders and out-of-control campaign financing, make each incumbent legislator nearly invulnerable to defeat and able to wield power in their constituencies through patronage and pork barrel politics, directing government money and campaign contributions. Unless willing to look beyond their own short-term self-interest, they cannot be expected to support reforms that would undercut their power.
The divergence of policy from majority interest creates a class of special interests which have every incentive to thwart reform and which typically have won over allies in position to do their bidding.
The disparities in campaign financing, which also tie into grave concerns about income disparities overall, draw the great bulk of charitable contributions for reform work. Campaign finance reform and modest steps to expand the franchise through changes to voter registration and expanding the voter pool receive far more than one hundred dollars for every dollar given to supporters of changing winner-take-all elections.
Low voter turnout means that those who potentially might benefit most from reform usually aren't at the polls to support reform. Even if they are, their distaste for politics makes it hard for them to grasp the potential of reforms that typically aren’t discussed in major media.
Our racial and ethnic diversity means that the white majority can feel more threatened by the potential electoral success of racial minorities than anxious to allow it – and quick to ascribe racial motivations to any concept of “minority representation”, especially as most success for PR has come from the protections for racial minorities found in the Voting Rights Act. At the same time, court rulings against some district plans designed to enhance minority voting rights have contributed to leading civil rights groups being more defensive of district plans and more wary of showing openness to non-winner-take-all systems.
The absence of elected third party representatives, and correspondingly a votes to seats ratio like that of Canada or the United Kingdom that illustrates the problems of disproportionality, means that the multi-party argument for PR appears abstract. Majorities of votes for a party often produce a majority of seats in the legislature, particularly in the U.S. House (though not always in state legislatures, and rarely in the U.S. Senate where the Republicans enjoy a sizable "representation subsidy" resulting from equal representation regardless of population) and minor parties are not visibly deprived of many seats due to the absence of PR.
Reformers must confront other daunting challenges as well. No other nation comes close to having both federalism and the extreme presence of checks and balances at each level of government found in the United States. In Congress and in nearly every state legislature, legislation has to pass through two separate legislative houses that have essentially equal powers and then be approved by a separately elected executive. Within each legislature bills must pass through a number committees chaired by entrenched incumbents who have the power to kill or refine the legislation.
More than one level of government and one branch of government addresses nearly every major policy area. Voters in Takoma Park, Maryland, which is home base of our Center for Voting and Democracy, have a typically complex array of elected representatives. They include: a city council and separately elected mayor for the city of Takoma Park; a county commission, school board, county executive and several other county officers such as sheriff, district attorney and judges; three members of the lower house of the state legislature and one state senator; a governor and several other separately elected statewide officers, such as attorney general and state comptroller; a U.S. House Member and two U.S. Senators; and a President. These elected officials have overlapping powers and responsibilities, and are often elected at different times of the year, with separate primary elections as well.
Beyond these elected offices, there are non-elected government positions and bureaucracies that often have their own independent sources of power. Non-elected individuals with significant power can range from Takoma Park’s city manager, who makes most day-to-day decisions about city policy, all the way to Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve who sets monetary policy, and the Supreme Court and federal judiciary who serve life terms after their appointments and frequently reject or re-define laws. This high number of offices cheapens the value of any single office, even the American presidency, and the many overlapping and competing levels of government muddy citizens' perceptions of what difference PR could make in elections. When individuals do focus their attention, it is far more likely to be on executives than on legislatures. In the past two years, more than half of the states holding elections for governor have changed which party holds the office, but barely a handful of state legislative chambers have changed hands. The U.S. House of Representatives has changed party control just once in 50 years, even as the White House has changed parties six times.
Within this massive and complex governmental structure, the two major parties operate as umbrella entities through which politically ambitious individuals operate. Party primaries are open to all comers in most states – at least those with personal means and connections --, and a charismatic, well-financed individual can come to represent the party without the blessing of current party leaders. The parties are vehicles, but the drivers are individuals with their own interests and their own set of private allies and funders that they develop over time. The parties have taken on clear definitions in the current political climate, but those definitions are quite different from what they were not long ago --- particularly in the South, where white voters have swung sharply from being heavily Democratic to heavily Republican - -and can be very different in different regions of the nation. As a result, the idea of “party fairness” in representation is less than meaningful to many Americans who look at parties with distrust.
Voter distrust of parties makes party list systems of PR a particularly hard sell in the United States. But the candidate-based PR system, choice voting (the American name for STV), presents a sizable educational challenge, as its ranked ballot mechanism for producing fair representation is less transparent. Furthermore, ranked ballot, candidate-based PR systems typically require changes to voting equipment that is widely used to count ballots in the United States. Developing and certifying new voting equipment around the country is a byzantine, decentralized process dominated by a handful of for-profit companies that typically refuse to add public interest features like the capability to count ranked ballot elections unless specifically paid for by a county or city. Even then, they typically overcharge for building this capacity. More than one very promising reform effort in the United States has been shot down by the likelihood of the new system costing unknown amounts of money to implement.
A final challenging reality of the American political landscape is the difficulty in drawing on international examples when making the case for reform in the United States. Most Americans have an unquestioned belief that their democracy is the envy of the world. However unfounded, and whatever frustrations they might have with their own government, does not mean that they look to examples from other nations for improvement -- quite the contrary. Furthermore, the particulars of other nations’ elections held under different rules are rarely tracked and understood as they typically are viewed to have little impact on Americans. (The exceptions typically are when the results seem “bizarre”, such as the fragmented party systems of Israel and Italy.) Highly educated Americans, sadly often including political scientists, typically believe that PR inevitably results in unstable governments, that PR is the same as parliamentary government, and that single-member districts are the basic method of election all over the world, a belief reinforced by Congress in 1967 requiring single-member districts for U.S. House races.