Tuesday, February 05, 2008

How does proportional representation in delegate selection for the presidential campaign work?

Today is the nation's biggest exercise in using a modern election system -- proportional representation -- in recent political history.

It's a fantastic day for people who believe that our politics suffer from using winner-take-all elections for most of our government, as millions of civic Americans for the first time are coming to understand how proportional representation works.

Let me try to explain some of the nuances.

The Democratic National Committee (the organization that runs the Democratic Party) decides every year how they are going to nominate their candidate for President of the United States. This is not a government decision. Neither the Constitution nor Congress decide how nominations work (unlike elections in November to actually elect the leaders of government where laws structure the entire process). The Democratic National Committee (and the Republican National Committee) are private, non-profit organizations and they get to decide how to run their own affairs.

The DNC has decided that every state will use proportional representation. The RNC has decided that each state can use whatever system they want.

Some state Republican parties have decided to use the winner-take-all rule. That's the way most states award their electoral votes in the Electoral College: whichever candidates gets the most votes in that state gets all of those delegates (or electors).

And *that* means that a state is fiercely contested between candidates if it happens to be close. If it isn't close (like Idaho isn't close in the general presidential election, or Illinois isn't close in the Obama-Clinton campaign), then the candidates basically ignore it because the result is a foregone conclusion. The winner will take all the delegates, whether he or she wins by 65% of the vote or 75% of the vote, and that will be that. There is no incentive to bring out more voters in a winner-take-all state and there is no incentive to increase the margin of victory.

That's the experience of every non-battleground states in November during the presidential election (no one cares if you vote in Texas or in Rhode Island, everyone cares if you vote in Missouri or in Pennsylvania) because only those winner-take-all states that are close count.

Because we only elect one Member of Congress per district, that means every congressional election is winner-take-all. And that means most congressional elections are also forgotten and foregone conclusions. No one cares if you vote in San Francisco or in the Republican small towns of Wyoming, because with winner-take-all rules, those Members of Congress are going to win their November elections no matter the ratio.

Because the presidential nominating content is about electing delegates who support Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton at the Denver convention (and not about actually voting for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton), we are using multi-member districts.

This is key.

For Congress, we use single-member districts. That means we elect one person per congressional district. And it is inherently winner-take-all (because only one person can win, the minority must lose out and gain nothing but the vain hope that the winner will return their phone calls).

For the primary elections, we elect several delegates per congressional district. If we elected just one, then we'd be stuck with winner-take-all. Because we elect several per congressional district, we can use proportional representation.

That's the rule that the Democrats use for every state and territory in the nation: proportional representation.

So consider every congressional district a pizza. And all the Democratic voters in each congressional district getting together to decide what they want on that pizza.

If half the people in a congressional district vote for Obama and half the people vote for Clinton, then that pizza will be half Obama and half Clinton. Half the delegates from that congressional district will go to the Denver convention ready to vote to nominate Obama and half the delegates will go ready to nominate Clinton.

But it doesn't have to be an even split. If three-quarters of the voters in a congressional district vote for Obama and one-quarter vote for Clinton, then 75% of the delegates will be pledged to Obama and only 25% of the delegates will be pledged to Clinton.

That's why bringing out more voters matter, because in your congressional district, more votes for Obama can mean the difference between a 50-50 split and a 66-33 split.

Let's take Illinois as an example.

On page 5 and 6 of their Illinois Delegate Selection Plan, the party decides how many delegates are elected from each of Illinois' 19 congressional districts. In my congressional district (#7, proudly represented by Danny "The Voice From Heaven" Davis) there are 8 delegates to be selected.

That means for (roughly) every 1/8 of the vote earned, Barack or Hillary will get 1 of the 8 delegates from the 7th congressional district.

Now that matters for turnout!

Barack is clearly going to get a majority of the vote in my congressional district. But Hillary supporters have a chance to win 1 or 2 or maybe even 3 of those delegates. So get out the vote! And similarly, Obama supporters (like me) want to keep Hillary from getting even 1 of those delegates, so get out the vote and increase Obama's percentage victory!

The difference between earning 50% of the vote and 62.5% of the vote isn't that much in a primary (and thus the difference between earning 4 of the 8 delegates or 5 of the 8 delegates from that congressional district), so that's why every vote counts.

This battle for a higher proportional share of the delegates in each congressional district is happening in every state and caucus in the nation.

Turnout is encouraged and people are coming out -- because they know that their vote can count whether they are in the majority or minority.

This is how we should elect the Congress of the United States. We should use multi-member districts -- and elect 3 or 4 or 5 Members of Congress from larger districts -- so that turnout matters and so that the majority and the minority have representation.

For more on proportional representation, see FairVote, a great organization I represent in Illinois as part of my advocacy firm's lobbying practice.

Think about your city council or library board or school district. Maybe that's a place where you already use multi-member districts. And maybe that's a place where the winner takes all. So maybe that's a place that can use proportional representation instead.

Keep in mind, most democracies in the world already use proportional representation. Most democracies don't use single-member districts like we have been doing for a long time.

If you're interested in seeing how proportional representation could apply to the governments where you live, or have any other questions, post a comment.


FightforJustice said...

How would proportional rep work in nonpartisan school board and village board contests?

a said...

Interesting conclusion, but I don't know if I follow the logic.

A quality post anyway. The caucus system is such a patchwork, its surprisingly tough to get concise explanations anywhere on the web.

Reed said...

Funny, as I read your post, I thought to myself, "Hey, we only got four delegates over here on the west side." Of course after another second's thought, I realized that it's all proportional and our actual votes count equally. This certainly seems like a more fair system.

I think a lot more people understand the electoral college simply because they've given it more thought. It's akin to republican primaries' version of "winner take all", but even more potentially skewed. Because the "chunks" aren't appropriately reflective of the population in each state. That two elector bump given to every state delivers a disproportionate amount of votes to country mouse...

After reading this, I wondered, "How has Democracy been implemented in Iraq?" Proportional representation seems more confusing, but at its core, it certainly has to be considered more fair, especially in the short run.

Dan Johnson-Weinberger said...

The way that proportional representation would work in a non-partisan election like school board or village board can vary but the principle is the same: to win a particular share of the seats (like 65%), the candidate (or slate) has to get that share of the vote.

If there are slates, it's easier to figure out. Then it's just like the allocation of delegates among the two slates of Obama and Clinton.

If there are not slates, then it gets more complicated but the concept is the same. If there are 4 seats up for election, then a candidate has to earn 1/4 of the vote to get that seat.

Proportional representation is more confusing, especially at first, but creates a fare more representative government (or group of delegates) than winner-take-all elections.