Proportional Representation: Definition, Example, Pros & Cons

Instructor: Erin Carroll

Erin has taught English and History. She has a bachelor's degree in History, and a master's degree in International Relations

This lesson will discuss the electoral system of proportional representation. We'll go over what it is and list a few countries who use it in their elections. Then we'll briefly discuss the pros and cons of using this kind of electoral system.

Majority Rules or Everyone Counts

How many times have you heard majority rules? America was built on majority rule, and when we have elections, we know that whoever wins the most votes wins the whole election. But sometimes that can be frustrating. In a democracy, you want a voice in government, but if your party loses the election, you may feel like your interests won't be represented. Many other countries use a different electoral system to try and fix this.

Proportional representation (PR) is an electoral system that tries to create a representative body that better reflects all of the citizens' interests in an electorate or voting district. In an election, political parties that earn votes win a number of seats in the representative body that are directly proportional to the number of votes they received in the election. For example, if a party earned 40% of the vote in an election, they would receive 40% of the seats in the House of Representatives.

This is a different electoral system than the U.S. system, which is a winner take all plurality system. I live in California's 38th congressional district, so when I vote for my representative in congress, my ballot lists a few candidate all competing for one seat. Whichever candidate wins a majority of the votes gets to be the representative for the 38th district. If a republican candidate gets 49% of the vote, and a democratic candidate wins 51%, the democratic candidate wins the seat. That means the 49% of people who voted republican will be represented by somebody for whom they did not vote.

In a PR system, the congressional districts are much bigger, voters focus more on political parties than on individual candidates, and there are multiple seats to be won. For example, a ballot will list several political parties. A voter chooses the political party they like the best, and when the vote is tallied the seats are given to the parties based upon the proportion of the vote they won. So, if the republican party won 49% of the vote, instead of winning zero seats, the party would get to put its candidates in 49% of the seats available in the voting district. All votes contribute to the outcome of the election because the minority still wins seats. Also, because no party needs to win a majority to win seats, more political parties can be represented in the house of representatives.

Bundestag vs. House of Representatives

Many nations around the world have adopted proportional representation, including Germany. The German Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, uses proportional representation to elect its members. There are currently five political parties represented in the Bundestag as you can see below.

representation in the German Bundestag

We can compare that to the United States House of Representatives, the lower house of congress. It's too difficult for a smaller party to win a majority of the vote, so only two political parties dominate the House.

representation in the U.S. House of Representatives
US House of Representatives

Advantages of Proportional Representation

The main advantage of PR is that it makes sure that all the views of the public are represented. In a winner take all system, there is no room for minority parties, so there are usually just two big parties, like we have in the U.S. Sometimes, these parties do not do a good job of representing the diverse interests of their constituencies. Supporters of proportional systems argue that it is more democratic and the legislation and policies will be more legitimate in that system because the representative body will embody the whole spectrum of public opinion, not just that of one party.

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