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Proportional representation.

In 1995, strong steps were taken toward more use of proportional representation (PR) voting systems for a range of U.S. elections, from elections to Congress to cities.

Nationally, U.S. Representative Cynthia McKinney of Georgia introduced the Voters' Choice Act (HR 2545), which would restore states' ability to use PR to elect their members of the House of Representatives. Representative McKinney's bill would amend a 1967 law that requires states to elect members from single-member districts. States instead could adopt one of three modified PR systems based on voting for candidates in multi-seat districts: limited voting, preference voting and cumulative voting. Newspaper reports came out strongly in support of PR and the McKinney plan (see notable quotes section).

State legislatures are also taking note of PR. The Center's Rob Richie and Advisory Board chair John Anderson led a special forum on PR at the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures in July 1995. The well-attended session drew a very favorable response. North Carolina created two commissions to study PR, while the California Constitutional Revision commission took a serious look at recommending PR for a state constitutional amendment, particularly after UCLA professor Kathleen Bawn's chapter in support of PR in the Institute of Governmental Studies' Constitutional Reform in California.


At a city level, activism increased and charter commissions showed greater interest in PR. A Seattle campaign to adopt preference voting for city council elections gained nearly 20,000 signatures, with a goal toward the 30,000 signatures necessary for a 1997 campaign. Led by city councilor Kevin Hornbuckle, a preference voting campaign in Eugene, Oregon, came close to gaining ballot status by initiative, but now may be placed on the ballot directly by the council. Activists in Santa Cruz, California, have begun collecting signatures for a November 1996 referendum for preference voting.


Force of San Francisco recommended in 1995 that the city's Board of Supervisors put a potentially historic referendum before the city's voters. Voters would choose among four alternative plans: (1) a single-member district system; 2) preference voting at-large; 3) cumulative voting at-large; 4) and preference voting in five, three-member districts.

In December 1995 the Board of Supervisors voted 5-5 on putting the four proposed amendments on the March 1996 ballot. Six votes were needed; a Supervisor was out of town who had pledged to support the vote, while two others changed their minds on the vote in the days before the vote. The two supervisors who changed their vote have indicated that they might support a November referendum.

Charter commissions in Cincinnati, Ohio; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Missoula, Montana; Schenectady, New York; and Oakland, California were among those that sought information on PR from the Center for Voting and Democracy in the last year. The Center's Rob Richie was flown in to speak at special sessions on voting system options before commissions in Miami Beach, Florida and Detroit, Michigan. The Oakland commission concluded in its September 1995 report: "The City Council should consider experimenting with proportional voting for the [current] At-large Elections (assuming that their are two at-large seats). ... In anticipation of the 2003 redistricting, the City Council ... should give further consideration to ... use of alternative methods of voting (such as proportional balloting). The consideration should begin not later than 1998."

Semi-proportional systems of cumulative and limited voting are drawing more attention. While flawed, these systems are important steps toward PR voting. Over fifty localities have adopted limited or cumulative voting to settle voting rights suits.

These developments are clearly only a beginning. Giving voters and legislators a chance to vote for PR is one step; persuading them to adopt and keep PR is another. In the first U.S. movement for PR earlier this century, two dozen cities adopted preference voting. Voters defeated 24 of the first 26 attempts to repeal it around the nation, but anti-reform forces - often using anti-minority scare tactics - wore down defenders of PR and nearly everywhere restored winner-take-all systems.

Nonetheless, the movement for PR has grown exponentially during this decade. With term limits, campaign finance reform, and race-conscious districting all running into Supreme Court roadblocks, and with many Americans dearly experiencing a deep crisis of confidence in politics, PR could become the centerpiece of a democratic reform movement as we head toward the next cycle of "re-gerrymandering" in 2001-2002.

This column features former presidential candidate John Anderson's call for an expanded "voters' rights" movement, Representative Cynthia McKinney's statement upon introducing her Voters' Choice Act, a series of short items relating to proportional representation and notable quotes from 1995.

Rob Richie is executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy.
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Author:Richie, Rob
Publication:National Civic Review
Date:Jan 1, 1996
Previous Article:Breaking the News: How American Media Undermine Democracy.
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