PR vs. Single-Member Districts in States

Testimony before the California State Legislature

Arend Lijphart

In 1995, the California state legislature held hearings on a proposal to amend the state constitution to change from a gubernatorial system to a parliamentary system. On March 8, 1995, Arend Lijphart testified before the Senate Committee on Constitutional Amendments and argued that the proposal for a parliamentary system could be greatly improve by adding a provision to elect legislators by proportional representation.

Warning: Lijphart later changed his views and still later his studies were attacked by Anderson. That is discussed here.

I very much appreciate the invitation to appear before your committee today. I have devoted a major part of my professional career to the study of democratic institutions, and I believe that the two most important institutional differences among democracies are the differences between parliamentary and presidential (or, at the state level, gubernatorial) forms of government and between plurality elections in single-member districts and elections by PR (proportional representation). I have gradually become convinced that, on balance, parliamentary government works better than presidential (or gubernatorial) government, and that PR works better than plurality.

PR vs. Plurality

In this prepared statement, I shall focus on the advantages of PR. Before I do so, however, I should like to state three important disclaimers. First, the advantages and disadvantages of PR and plurality should not be exaggerated, as the proponents of the two alternatives tend to do. In my opinion, the relative merits are matters of degree, not absolute differences.

Second, although it is possible to make general statements about PR, we must keep in mind that there are many different forms of PR. The most important difference here is the difference between highly proportional systems, which pose few barriers to small parties, and more moderately proportional systems. The latter limit the influence of minor parties by such means as applying PR in relatively small districts and/or requiring parties to receive a minimum percentage of the vote in order to gain representation, such as the 5-percent threshold in Germany.

Third, the effects that the different electoral systems have depend not only on their own characteristics but also on whether they are used in conjunction with presidential or parliamentary systems, with or without direct primaries, with a bicameral or unicameral legislature, with large or small legislatures, under different forms of voter registration and so on.

Democratic Equality and Effective Decision-Making

The key arguments about electoral systems revolve around the questions of democratic quality and the effectiveness of decision-making. By "quality" I mean the degree to which a system meets such democratic norms as representativeness, accountability, equality and participation. There is general agreement that PR systems yield greater proportionality and minority representation, but that plurality systems promote two- party politics and one-party executives in which accountability can be clearer than in multi-party systems.

As far as government effectiveness is concerned, advocates of plurality claim that one-party executives promote firm leadership and effective policy-making. PR supporters, on the other hand, argue that effective policy-making requires not so much a strong hand as a steady hand, that alternation in office between two parties leads to too frequent and abrupt changes and that multi- party coalitions are better for long-term policy-making and, as a result, tend to have greater stability, continuity and moderation in policy.

In order to sort out these claims and counterclaims, I did a comparative study of 13 democracies with parliamentary systems over a roughly 30~year time span, from about 1960 to the late 1980s: four that used single-member district elections (Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) and nine that used PR (Germany, Italy, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Finland and three Scandinavian countries).

PR Has an Edge in Both Equality and Effectiveness

I found a clearly superior performance of the PR systems with regard to "quality" factors: generally better minority representation, a much higher representation of women in legislatures (about four times more women in the PR parliaments), a much higher voter turnout (a difference of about 10 percentage points) and greater income equality.

In order to measure the effectiveness of policymaking, I analyzed the relative success of the different countries with regard to maintaining public order and peace and with regard to the management of the economy: stimulating economic growth, and combating inflation and unemployment. Contrary to the claims of the plurality advocates, I found no significant differences except on unemployment: and, in this one respect, it is the PR countries that actually have the better records.

The important conclusion that we can draw is that there is no trade-off between democratic quality and effectiveness. We can enjoy all of the advantages of PR, such as better minority representation -especially important in California as our state is becoming more and more diverse -- increased representation of women and higher voter turnout. And we can enjoy these without having to pay the price of less effective decisionmaking. It seems to me that this is a very strong argument in favor of PR.

Other Advantages for PR

PR has several other major advantages. One is that drawing election districts becomes an easy task. For its districts, PR can use natural areas that do not have to be equal in population; all districts are multi-member districts, and the number of members assigned to each district depends on the district's population. This means that it is no longer necessary to draw more or less artificial districts in order to satisfy the equal- population criterion.

Similarly, under PR, gerrymandering is no longer a problem. When districts elect more than about five representatives each the minimum number that I believe PR needs partisan gerrymandering becomes impractical and there is no incentive to engage in it. And affirmative gerrymandering -- creating districts in which African-American, Latino or other minorities are in the majority -- is no longer necessary, because PR takes care of the need for minority representation.

Another characteristic of PR is that it stimulates parties to conduct active campaigns in all areas of a country or state. This is in contrast with plurality systems in which parties tend to concentrate on the relatively few districts that are competitive and tend to neglect districts in which they are either very weak or very strong.

This, incidentally, is one of the explanations for why PR systems have higher voter turnouts: parties make more of an effort to mobilize the voters regardless of where they live. And, of course, voters have more choice and are also more inclined to vote because their votes are less likely to be wasted either on a hopeless candidate or on an overwhelmingly strong candidate. Because there is more choice under PR, the tendency to engage in negative campaigning is also less strong: tearing down one's opponent does not necessarily help a candidate.

Advantages for Politicians

For the individual voter, PR is clearly the more attractive system. But from what I have said so far, it is also clear that PR has great benefits for politicians: less worry about gerrymandering and other districting problems; less need to engage in negative campaigning; and better opportunities to focus on long-term policy-making.

In addition, successful politicians have the moral satisfaction that under PR, the voters that they represent have all voted for them -- in contrast with district representatives who have to represent usually between one-third and one-half of the district's voters who have voted against them. Another source of moral satisfaction is that politicians can spend more of their time on matters of broad general interest instead of having to pander to the narrow interests of their districts.

In conclusion, let me make the following observation. I know of no democracy that uses PR elections in which there is a strong movement to drop PR and to adopt plurality. (The only exception appears to be Italy, but the recent change in Italy was not a move from PR to plurality but from extreme PR to a mixed system that retains an important element of PR.)

In sharp contrast, in all of the major countries that use plurality (or similar majoritarian systems) -the United States, Canada, Britain, France, India and Australia -- there are active and vocal organizations that are campaigning for PR. Such a movement was successful in New Zealand when, in 1993, the New Zealanders voted to switch from plurality to PR. In PR countries, voters vote more and complain less, and politicians enjoy greater popular respect and more satisfying professional lives. Perhaps this contrast between plurality and PR countries is the most convincing evidence in favor of PR!

Arend Lijphart is a leading scholar on electoral systems and the author of several books on this subject. He is also a past-president of the American Political Science Association.

Here is a list of books Lijphart wrote prior to giving the testimony above:

And here are some more (written after):