Proportional representation, sometimes called simply “PR,” is defined as an “electoral system in which parties gain seats in proportion to the number of votes cast for them.”
This is different than a direct system of representation, where each seat is put up to a vote for a specific candidate, regardless of what party to which they associate.
In a proportional representation system, if the party wins 50% of the vote over 12 districts, then 6 seats would be awarded to them from the election results.
Here are some of the key pros and cons of proportional representation to think about and discuss.
List of the Pros of Proportional Representation
1. It allows different voices to be heard.
As long as a party receives enough of a proportional vote to equal one seat, they will be represented within the government at some level. The structures behind proportional representation allow independent candidates and minority parties an opportunity to be elected, which can end the dynasties of the major political parties in that country. With more voices heard, there is a better chance that real action can be taken within the government.
2. It provides a system of true representation.
In the United States, where there are two major parties in a winner-takes-all format, each elected representative only represents a simple majority of the population. In some instances, it may not even be a true majority if a third-party candidate performs well in a specific election. Under proportional representation, everyone would have an opportunity to have their views represented in their government in some way.
3. It reduces the idea of a wasted vote.
In traditional elections, there are “safe” seats present for incumbents. There may even be “safe” states in U.S. presidential elections since most states award all electoral votes to the majority candidate. If a voter knows that their candidate is polling 20 points behind, then voting for that candidate is essentially a wasted vote. They have no way of having that vote be represented. Proportional representation removes this obstacle, allowing real issues to be debated instead of trying to woo swing voters that could provide a simple majority vote.
4. It conforms to what the rest of the world is doing.
Just 5 countries in the world today use a system that is based on plurality voting. Canada, France, and India join the U.S. and the United Kingdom as being an alternative structure. Other nations experience higher levels of voter turnout than these 5 nations because their vote really does count on some level. That creates two unique advantages in this category: people have more influence over the structure of the government and become more invested in domestic issues.
5. It reduces the effects of extremism in politics.
Any system of government can fall victim to extremism. Several countries, since 2016, have elected representatives and leaders that have promoted isolationist views. It is more difficult to have extremism in government when proportional representation is in place as a full majority is more difficult to achieve. That means the representatives are required to build consensus through compromise, which results in moderate, centrist policies instead of sliding to the left or the right.
6. It encourages a coalition government.
The party which receives the most votes in a proportional representation structure will work with other parties to form a full majority. Different from an absolute majority, a full majority brings more voices into each debate, allowing for a diversity of opinions to be heard. More people feel like they are adequately represented under this type of structure.
7. It allows for multiple candidate preferences.
Under a standard system of proportional representation, voters are able to cast a single transferable vote, or an STV. In this system, the voter would rank the candidates on their ballot based on choice. They would indicate a first choice, a second choice, a third, and so forth. Until a candidate reaches more than the set share of votes, no one is declared a winner. That prevents incumbents from staying in office, even if 60% of the population has voted against them.
List of the Cons of Proportional Representation
1. It makes things easier for extreme parties to gain representation.
Under the system of proportional representation, any party with a high enough percentage of the vote will receive a seat in the government. That structure makes it easier for extremist views to find official representation. The seldom receive access to the majority coalition and rarely earn an absolute majority, but there is always the possibility that their voiced opinions will gain traction with the general population.
2. It can create political gridlock, just like in any other system of government.
Coalition governments are encouraged to compromise and pursue centrist views. The reality of this type of governing, however, is that each party wants to have its own way with things. That creates a system of government that tends to be indecisive and weak because everyone argues for their own best interests. More gridlock, instead of less, can be created, especially if more than two parties are involved in the coalition.
3. It does not provide direct representation to specific communities.
Under the system of proportional representation, seats are not awarded based on community or district voting. That means those who serve in the government are less likely to focus on local issues as they have no local representation responsibilities. It creates a system of government where more voices can be heard, but fewer actually receive a listening ear. Many communities under this system can come away feeling like they don’t matter to the governing coalition.
4. It is not always wise to compromise.
Even in countries that have encouraged proportional representation, some of the largest changes that have occurred in those societies happened when an absolute majority was present within the government. There are times when a strong majority in the government is required to push through needed reforms.
5. It can be an unstable form of government.
Italy has proportional representation built into their government structures. Over the last 4 decades, the government has been forced to dissolve its parliament 8 times. In Belgium, the negotiations required after their 2010 election to form a governing coalition took 18 months to complete, leaving a crippled government in its place where nothing got done. Having more voices can be a good thing, but it can also create a discord that makes it impossible to government.
These proportional representation pros and cons have certain benefits that allow for greater inclusion and variety. At the same time, greater inclusion can also lead toward higher levels of extremism within the government, while encouraging more gridlock if the political parties are unable to find a pathway toward compromise.