Could Proportional Representation Save French And American Democracies?
If he wins the upcoming presidential election, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, known as France’s Bernie Sanders, hopes to change French politics for good by moving his country to proportional representation from an electoral process that resembles the American system and leads to gerrymandering. This would allow for a greater variety of political parties to be represented within the French Parliament.
In a piece for The Intercept, Zaid Jilani explains how proportional representation works and considers whether Mélenchon’s proposal would work in the United States:
The alternative is called proportional representation (PR). Under a PR system, the electorate casts its votes nationwide for whatever political party they choose, and then seats are distributed by percentage. You don’t have to win the majority of votes in any one geographically-bound district to enter the parliament. This allows for the rapid growth of minority parties, and more political diversity. So, for instance, in PR-using Israel, there are 10 political parties in the Knesset. PR-using Sweden has eight parties represented. … It’s impossible to know exactly what would result from, for instance, converting the U.S. Congress into a proportional system. But we do know that the current system is far from popular, while also very hard to dislodge. In 2016, members of the U.S. House had a 97 percent re-election rate; and yet the latest Gallup poll puts Congress’s approval rating at 24 percent.
A shift like the one Mélenchon is proposing in France would also require Constitutional changes, which are very difficult to implement. But the same could be said for many of the ideas Sanders ran on, like a Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.
Both Mélenchon and Sanders understand that the ideas circulated in political discussion should not be limited to what can be immediately implemented — and that introducing and advocating for radical ideas is one way to move the center of political gravity. After all, there was a time when being a democratic socialist, like Sanders is, would banish you from national politics. Today, he is the most popular serving politician in America.
And big changes often come where you least expect them. Just ask the people of Maine. The sleepy state, not known for its radicalism, was the first in America to adopt a ranked-choice voting system after a referendum in November 2016. Under this system, voters will now be able to rank their preferences among various candidates and parties, rather than simply casting one vote for each office. If no candidate receives a majority of first-preference votes, then second-preferences are accounted for, and so on, until one candidate has a majority. It’s not a proportional system, but it’s a step towards empowering minority parties and breaking up the traditional two-party monopoly.