Proportional Representation: The Urgency of Real Reform

Against the Current, No. 65, November/December 1996

Gerald Meyer

THE UNITED STATES’ low rate of voter participation and the absence of an organized political left are related phenomena: Both are linked to the single-member plurality electoral system.

The introduction of an electoral system based on proportional representation would allow the left to be represented in government, because it allows for representation without requiring a majority vote. From 1937 to 1949, when the New York City Council was elected by proportional representation, the left had its most remarkable electoral successes.

The presence of voices beyond the political center would encourage those natural constituencies of the left–the poor, the young, racial and ethnic minorities<197>who presently account for a vastly disproportionate share of the abstentions.

Growing discontent with the existing two-party system is totally frustrated by the existing electoral system. The June 29 Supreme Court decision, nullifying electoral districts based on race as the “predominant factor,” could potentially increase interest in proportional representation as the solution to the under-representation of minorities.

The 1994 midterm election allowed 39% of the potential electorate to produce federal, state, and local governments–an absence of political representation that calls into question the distribution of wealth and power.(1)

All the most natural constituencies for the left are vastly over-represented among the abstentions. Voter turnout is not random: For example, the richest 20% of the population is nearly twice as likely to vote as the poorest 20%. Americans from eighteen to twenty-nine years of age are two-and-one-half times less likely to vote than Americans from sixty to sixty-five years of age.(2) These sectors, of course, don’t inevitably vote left, but they tend to be most receptive to a left-wing alternative when one exists.

The median citizen is not the median voter: The typical voter is richer, whiter and much more likely to speak English without any trace of an accent than the average American. The United States electoral system is deeply flawed by a series of profoundly antidemocratic practices, which in every case–either disproportionately or almost exclusively–reduce voter participation among those groups most likely to vote for the left.

The 600,000 residents of Washington, D.C., 70% of whom are African Americans, are disenfranchised from congressional representation and denied home rule.(3) In Phillips County, Arkansas, where voter registration takes place in the county courthouse, 42% of Blacks own no vehicle as compared to 9% of the whites.(4)

This country’s daunting naturalization process also decreases by many millions the voter participation of groups who will naturally identify with political agendas for social justice. Only five percent of the legal immigrants from Mexico, by far the largest immigrant group, and only 15% of legal immigrants from the Dominican Republic are citizens. (To be sure, a massive wave of naturalizations has followed the recent legislative threats to legal immigrants receiving public assistance and social services. It remains to be seen how many of these new citizens will register and vote–ed.)

This list would be incomplete without mentioning the extreme obstacles to minor party ballot access,(5) the Electoral College, and the role of money in political campaigns,(6) all of which individually and collectively contribute to low voter turnout and the absence of the left from the political process. All of these undemocratic characteristics of this country’s electoral practice receive considerable ongoing attention.

This paper, however, will explore a factor of equal or, in this author’s view, even greater significance–this country’s almost exclusive practice of electing public officials by the Single Member Plurality system.(7) This method is based on the creation of separate districts for each political office from which the candidate who gains a plurality, that is the largest number of votes, wins.(8) (This paper will utilize the more familiar term–“winner-take-all” system.)

The major defect of the winner-take-all system is that large numbers of voters come away from elections with no representation. Fifty percent plus one of the voters can amass 100% of the power, while the rest of the electorate attains absolutely no political representation.(9) This system (combined with other factors) creates larger and larger numbers of discouraged voters.

The alternative is some form of proportional representation (PR) where the range of political sentiments expressed in the polling booth–right, left; majority, minority–are reflected in the outcome. There are various systems of proportional representation, having in common the creation of multimember districts where all parties that achieve a threshold vote (that is, a certain minimum percentage) receive the share of the representatives from that district corresponding to the proportion of votes they received.

Proportional representation encourages voting and encourages voters to express their political consciences, because voting for a candidate from a minority party will not mean a wasted vote. PR consequently tends toward a multiparty system. Despite a widely noted tendency for European politics and parties to become “Americanized,” it remains true that in those countries where PR exists, vastly larger percentages of the population vote and the left maintains a presence in political life and in parliament. (In Austria almost 93% of the electorate votes, in Germany 89%, in Portugal 79%, in Greece 80%.)

Today the exclusively winner-take-all electoral system exists only in Great Britain and Canada (where significant movements call for its elimination), and of course the United States, as well as many former British colonies, such as India.(10) However, on November 6, 1993, more than 53% of New Zealand’s electorate replaced its winner-take-all electoral system with a Mixed Member Proportional representation system, which elects half the members of parliament by district and half by party list. This hybrid electoral system responds to the criticism that proportional representation eliminates the link between the office holder and the district.(11)

The winner-take-all system produces increasingly noncompetitive elections. There are many fewer districts in the United States where the two major parties are more or less evenly matched than districts where one or the other major parties has hegemony. The great unlikelihood of winning causes the weaker party to offer a sacrificial lamb as a candidate, later perhaps to be rewarded with a judgeship or other patronage plum.

Increasingly, however, the weaker of the two major parties places no candidate at all on the ballot. In this way, the two-party system is becoming throughout much of the United States a one-party system. New York City’s 1994 state senatorial elections illustrate this process: in its twenty-five districts, seven had no Republican and four no Democratic Party candidate.

Thus 40% of the city’s state senatorial seats went officially uncontested. In the 60% of districts where both parties forwarded candidates, there was little to contest. Democratic candidates won by as much as 95% of the vote. In the most closely contested state senatorial election, there was a spread of fourteen percentage points.

This leads the voters from the majority party to assume that their votes are superfluous, and those from the weaker party that their votes are irrelevant. This is the unacknowledged variable of the lengthy equation presented in explanation for the extremely low voter turnout in New York City.

Let us compare the actual results of the 1994 election for the Bronx’s ten state assembly people under the present winner-take-all system and the results were PR in effect:

Democrat 130,469 81%

Republican 25,338 16%

Conservative 2,508 2%

Liberal 1,615 1%

Independent 209

Total 160,139

The winner-take-all district system produced ten Democratic assembly persons. Under proportional representation, the Democrats would have won eight seats, the Republicans two. The other parties would have received no seats because they failed to garner the 10% threshold.(12)

On the face of it, awarding 20% of the representation to the party that attracted 16% of the vote is fairer than awarding 100% of the political power to the party that earned 81% of the votes. Yet this simple calculation masks the extent of the undemocratic results of the current system.

In one district, the Repubican Party failed to place a candidate on the ballot. In four other districts, the Democratic vote ranged from 90 to 93%, thereby evidencing the failure of the Republicans to conduct any campaigning. Under PR not only would the Republicans have received two seats, they would have an incentive to increase their attention to the entire Bronx electorate.

For the left, the institution of PR–given the demographics and political history of the Bronx–would create the potential of electing at least one assembly person from an avowedly left party. The winner-take-all system insures the permanence of a two-party monopoly, which in the United States excludes the left. At least since the consolidation of the Cold War, there exists no region or political district where the left has been able to become the majority.

Before McCarthyism, the Bronx was a bastion of the American Labor Party (ALP), sending “Red” Mike Quill, the leader of the Transport Workers Union, to the City Council and Leo Isacson to the House of Representatives from the South Bronx.(13) Although the ethnic and racial mix and the politics of the Bronx have radically changed since the heyday of the ALP, it is still overwhelmingly a dormitory district for blue and white collar workers and their families.(14)

Within the existing structure, an insurgent movement must urge its supporters to cast ballots for candidates who have no real chance of winning–or relinquish their chance of influencing the electoral process by voting for the lesser of the two evils.

In 1948, former Vice President Henry Wallace’s presidential campaign for the Progressive Party witnessed a projected five to ten million votes dwindle to little more than one million votes actually cast. In large measure, this occurred because his left-leaning supporters feared that by voting their consciences they would help defeat Harry Truman (who had moved verbally to the left in order to attract these voters) and ensure the victory of a conservative, Thomas Dewey.

Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that voting for a third party candidate in the United States has been described as an extraordinary act where the voters “must repudiate much of what they have learned and grown to accept as appropriate political behavior … endure the ridicule and harassment from neighbors and friends.” And perhaps most pertinently, “they must accept that their candidate has no hope of inning.”(15)

While proportional representation can’t be used to elect a President (since there’s only one), a “preferential voting” system–where voters for losing candidates get their votes transferred to second or third choices–would greatly facilitate the viability of third-party and independent campaigns.

In order to amass a majority both parties focus on “winning over the center,” largely by obscuring the issues, focusing on personalities, jettisoning principles, and perhaps most importantly by taking for granted their core constituencies while they pursue voters in the supposed center of the political spectrum. U.S. politics operates within an amazingly narrow range, while those whose concerns are not voiced in this limited dialogue disproportionately abstain from the vote.

In recent years, the major electoral reform in the United States was the creation of Black-majority voting districts. These districts, resulting from federal court decisions interpreting the 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, increased the number of African-American Congresspeople from twenty-three to thirty-eight–all of whom survived the 1994 Republican landslide.

Although these special districts have provided a partial solution to African Americans’ political disempowerment, this remedy except in rare cases is unavailable to Latinos, Asians, gays/lesbians, women and other under-represented minorities–who, unlike African Americans, are insufficiently residentially concentrated.

Moreover, the concentration of the Democratic Party’s most loyal voters (African Americans, by averages that hover at and frequently exceed 90%, vote Democratic) brought about an unanticipated outcome, as decreases in African-American voters in the surrounding districts led to the defeat of white liberals. Thus the gain of increasing the number of African-American Congresspeople has been offset by a decrease in the numbers of Congresspeople with whom they would likely ally.(16)

In any case, by a five to four vote the Supreme Court on June 29 decided that the use of race as a “predominant factor” in drawing election district lines should be presumed to be unconstitutional. This decision should contribute to increased interest in considering the implementation of an electoral system based on proportional representation. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, the Congressperson from the Black-majority district abolished by this decision, announced that she would introduce legislation to allow states to use PR systems for Congressional elections.(17)

The best known and articulate critic of the single-member plurality/winner-take-all system in the United States today, Lani Guinier, almost entirely focuses on its disempowerment of Blacks. Moreover she does not present proportional representation as the alternative. Instead, she advocates cumulative voting–where, for example, in the elections for ten state assembly persons from the Bronx, voters would have ten votes, to be cast entirely for one or distributed among as many candidates as they wished.

Cumulative voting systems have been imposed by federal courts in only a handful of local elections in order to satisfy the Voting Act’s requirement of minority representation. This unusual voting system–which is practiced nowhere else–offends a sense of fairness, because it appears to violate the principle of one person, one vote.

Guinier sails forward with the cumulative-voting remedy, heedless of its negative implications, because of her background in corporate law: In corporations cumulative voting is the normal way to protect minority shareholders’ interests. Guinier also advocates supermajority voting systems. Here the goal of providing minority representation appears to clash with the concept of majority rule.(18)

Most pertinent to the left is the now all-but-forgotten history of its single most sustained electoral expression, the American Labor Party. From its founding in 1936 until its last significant electoral challenge in 1950, the ALP averaged almost 15% of New York City’s vote.(19)

The ALP provided a critical ingredient for the electoral successes of its outstanding vote-getter, Vito Marcantonio. It significantly advanced the political representation of African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Italo-Americans.(20) These successes in part depended on the replacement of New York City’s Board of Aldermen in 1937 with a City Council elected by a system of proportional representation.(21)

The first election for City Council using proportional representation in 1937 (which followed the founding of the American Labor Party in 1936 and coincided with the re-election of Fiorello La Guardia) saw the election of thirteen Democrats, two Insurgent Democrats, five members of the ALP, three Republicans and three Fusionists.

Whereas in the previous election based on the winner-take-all system the Democrats with 66.5% of the vote elected 95% of the aldermen, proportional representation translated the Democrats’ 47% of the vote into 50% of the seats. The number of seats won by members of the other parties also closely corresponded to the actual number of votes the party received. So, for example, the ALP won 21% of the votes and gained 19% of the seats.

In all five elections for the City Council held under PR, the proportion of votes actually cast for a party closely matched the number of seats the party won. Thus in 1945, the last such election, nine percent of the electorate voted for the ALP, which received 10% of the seats; and nine percent of the electorate voted for the Communist Party, which received nine percent of the seats.(22)

The election of NYC’s City Council by proportional representation allowed the left to have a consistent presence in a legislative body where it could establish and propagate a program that entered into everyone’s home, albeit in the somewhat distorted versions of the commercial radio and newspapers. It meant the first city-sponsored public housing program forwarded by the ALP member Charney Vladek; it meant resolutions against Jim Crow housing in Stuyvesant Town and professional baseball by Communist City Councilmen Benjamin Davis and Peter Cacchione.(23)

It is no coincidence that under this system the left achieved its most outstanding electoral successes, as when in the 1943 City Council elections, the left–that is, the ALP and the Communist Party–garnered 25% of the city-wide vote.(24)

PR also had everything to do with the election of New York City’s first African-American City Council person, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who won his seat in 1941 with the support of the ALP, as well as increased representation of other under-represented groups, specifically women and Italian Americans.

Proportional representation was yet another casualty of the domestic Cold War. From pulpit and press, as well as from both major parties, a campaign that linked proportional representation with Communism led to its abolition. Its extinction meant that in 1949, the first election for City Council to be held under the restored winner-take-all system, every single city council person except one was a member of the Democratic Party.

Thereby the City Council returned to almost the exact situation predating PR, a Board of Aldermen that consisted of sixty-two Democrats out of total membership of sixty-five. And so the greatest metropolis in the world once again slipped under one-party rule.

Cincinnati began electing its city council by proportional representation in 1925, which encouraged the creation of a local third party, the Charter Party. Proportional political representation also allowed Blacks to achieve representation in 1931, almost uniquely early.

The possibility of the election of a Black mayor–the first for a major United States city–led directly to a referendum in 1957, which ended PR. In 1994, 44% (including 65% of the vote from the African-American community) of Cincinnati’s voters supported a referendum to restore proportional representation.(25)

A modified PR system already exists in the primary elections for the selection of delegates for the Democratic Party presidential conventions. This allowed Jesse Jackson to arrive in San Francisco in 1984 with 465 (that is, 12%) of the delegates. Although this represented considerably less than his 19% share of the popular vote, in a winner-take-all system Jackson would have garnered only seventy-two delegates (the delegates from the two places where he obtained a plurality, Louisiana and the District of Columbia).(26)

Hence, even this limited system of proportionality permitted Jackson to reach a nation-wide audience with a platform calling for a major cut in military spending and a new surtax on upper-bracket incomes to create a new source of revenue to fund expanded social programs and a revitalization of urban infrastructure.(27)

Third-party sentiment is evidenced by the ever larger numbers of candidates running as independents or on third party tickets. A recent New York Times survey reported that 53% of people age eighteen and older favor a third major political party. Support for the existence of a third party registered especially high among those forty-nine and younger and among those who identified themselves as liberal.

Another survey indicated that 27% would vote for an independent candidate for Congress if they had the opportunity, which was only two percent points lower than those who said they would vote for a Democrat and four percentage points greater than the 23% who said they preferred to vote for a Republican.(28)

To date, the most visible manifestations of this sentiment have come from the so-called “political center,” meaning middle- class groups who are socially liberal but fiscally conservative.(29) Nonetheless, the presence in the House of Representatives of Bernard Sanders, an avowed socialist elected as an independent from Vermont, and the successes of many local candidates of the New Party demonstrate some willingness to vote for the left even within the existing electoral arrangement.(30)

The unlikelihood of any sustained electoral successes will almost certainly cause most expressions of third party activity to evaporate. Yet even if by some presently inconceivable set of circumstances a third party arises, it would almost certainly in time replace one of the existing two major parties, thereby simply recreating yet another version of the two-party system.

All of this vastly contrasts with a multiparty system, based on proportional representation, which would reflect a spectrum wide enough to include a revitalized political left.(31)


  1. Alexander Cockburn, Beat the Devil,” The Nation Dec. 5, 1994.
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  2. M. Margaret Conway, Political Participation in the United States (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1991), 162. Primary elections ostensibly mitigate the undemocratic effects of this one-party monopoly by permitting candidates of somewhat differing ideological positions to contest for the right to carry the banner in what is often a no-contest general election. But primary elections–a system unique to the United States–confound much of the electorate, thereby leaving the electoral decisions to yet fewer voters.
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  3. In 1961, the Twenty-Third Amendment allowed the residents of the nation’s capital to vote in presidential elections (allotting the District of Columbia three electoral votes), but made no provision for congressional representation or home rule.
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  4. Lani Guinier, The Tyranny of the Majority: Fundamental Fairness in Representative Democracy (New York: Free Press, 1994), 10-11.
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  5. In New York, for example, in order to obtain ballot status a new party must file a total of twelve thousand signatures of registered votes, including at least fifty from each of the state’s sixty-two counties. Even more onerous is California’s requirement–petitions signed by registered voters equal to 10 percent of the vote in the last general election. Court challenges by Eugene McCarthy and John Anderson running on third-party tickets resulted in overturning numerous obstacles to third-party ballot access.
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  6. The expenditure of $26 million for Michael Huffington–and $18 million for Ollie North–can only benefit the right. Stephan Labaton, “Big Business Is Shifting Donations to Democrats,” New York Times Oct. 21, 1994, A25. “New Life for Campaign Reform?” New York Times editorial, Dec. 1, 1994, A32. Electing the entire House of Representatives in 1992 cost more than $300 million. Max Frankel, “Election Day Fantasy,” New York Times Magazine, Nov. 6, 1994, 26-28.
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  7. For one example of the left’s failure to incorporate proportional representation into its critique of the electoral system, see the otherwise incisive comments of W.E.B. DuBois in “The Theory of a Third Party,” National Guardian, March 26, 1956, 4.
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  8. The leading example of PR in the United States is its use in Cambridge, Massachusetts to elect citywide candidates. It is also employed in New York City’s community school board elections. “After the Vote Is Cast, Where Does It Land?” New York Times, Nov. 4, 1987, A14. “Dr. George Hallet of Citizens Union,” New York Times, July 4, 1984, A12.
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  9. In some elections, especially Democratic Party primaries in the South, the failure of any candidate to achieve a majority (50% plus one) not a plurality (simply the largest number of votes cast) necessitates a run-off election between the two top vote-getters. Jesse Jackson moved the abolition of this system to the top of his political agenda in 1984. He insisted that in multicandidate races the Black candidates rarely achieve a majority and then lose in the runoff elections, because the white voters coalesce behind the remaining white candidate.
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  10. The sole exception to the tendency to replace single member plurality systems with proportional representation is Italy, where in 1993 the voters decided by referendum to replace proportional representation for the two-chamber legislature with a system that provides for three-quarters of the members to be chosen by plurality in single-member districts and one-quarter to be elected by proportional representation. The switch, which was intended to undercut the continued electoral strength of the left, accomplished its goal: In the 1994 national election, the political right gained a much larger percentage of the seats than it would have under a system of complete proportionality. (To be sure, the resulting right-wing Berlusconi coalition collapsed under the weight of its own corruption.) See Douglas Wertman, “Italy: The Right Break with the Past?” Italian Journal, VIII 1994, 9-13; Luciana Castellina, “The New Right Victory in Italy,” New Politics, (Summer 1994), 27. In France, despite its winner-take-all system, a unique system of runoff elections has led to the maintenance of a multiparty system where election results take into account minority political opinion. However, a major demand of the left and others in France is the introduction of proportional representation.
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  11. “Taking the Next Step,” Socialist (July/August), 4-5; Interview by telephone with Ms. Virginia Ng, Director of Public Relations, New Zealand embassy, November 17, 1994. New Zealand’s electorate took this step because in the 1978 and 1981 national elections, the party that polled the second largest popular vote won more seats than the party that polled the largest number of votes. In Germany, a mixed-member proportional representation system enabled the Party of Democratic Socialism to win thirty seats: four by winning pluralities in districts and the balance to reflect its garnering nearly 5% of the total vote. Stephen Kinzer, “Germany’s Ex-Communists Promise to Behave in Parliament,” New York Times, Oct. 19, 1994, A5.
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  12. “Citywide Results in Races for State Senate and Assembly,” New York Times, Nov. 13, 1994, 13.
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  13. Gerald Meyer, Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician, 1902-1954 (Albany: SUNY Press, 1989), 25-31.
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  14. East Harlem’s unbroken radical history–from the election of Socialist State assembly persons in 1920 (they were denied entry), to the Congressional elections of Fiorello La Guardia from 1920 to 1932, to Vito Marcantonio’s fourteen-year stint in the House–resulted from the fairly even match between the two major parties–a highly unusual situation for a big-city working class district. See Meyer, op. cit., passim.
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  15. Richard Berke, “From Not Quite Acceptable to Maybe Even Electable,” New York Times, Oct. 2, 1994, 46.
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  16. Peter Applebome, “Fitting Designer Districts into Off-the-Rack Democracy,” New York Times, Sept. 25, 1994; Steven A. Holmes, “Did Racial Redistricting Undermine Democrats?” New York Times, Nov. 13, 1994, 32. Newt Gingrich’s district lost many of its Black voters when a bordering district was redistricted to create a Black majority. As a result, his margin of victory increased from 974 votes in 1990 to a landslide. Steven Holmes, “Civil Rights Group Disputes Election Analyses on Black Districts,” New York Times, Dec. 1, 1994. Lani Guinier, “The Representation of Minority Interests: The Question of Single-Member Districts,” Cardozo Law Review April 1993, 1135-1174.
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  17. Center for Voting and Democracy, letter from its National Director, Rob Richie, to its members.
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  18. The Tyranny of the Majority, 14-17. Interview with Mr. Ted Westergard, Feb. 26, 1995.
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  19. Through its “fusion” strategy, the ALP was instrumental for the re-elections of La Guardia, who maintained his ALP registration from its founding until his death in 1947.
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  20. Meyer, op. cit., 25-31.
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  21. Belle Zeller and Hugh Bone, “The Repeal of P[roportional] R[epresentation] in New York City–Ten Years in Retrospect,” The American Political Science Review (Dec. 1948), 1136-1148. See also Martin Gottlieb, “The `Golden Age’ of the [New York City] City Council,” New York Times, Aug. 11, 1991, E6. The strongest impulse for this innovation came from good-government forces seeking a means to replace the one-party rule of Tammany Hall, in the Board of Aldermen.
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  22. The single-transferable-vote (STV) system (otherwise known as preference voting, the Australian system, or the Hare system) is the most complicated system of PR as well as the one which results in the closest match between the number of votes cast for a candidate and the actual electoral outcome. Under STV the city’s voters listed numerically their preferred candidates from a borough-wide list, by placing a #1 next to their most favored candidate, #2 next to their next favorite candidate, and so on. Those candidates who reached the 75,000-first-vote threshold on the first round were awarded seats. Any votes in excess of this number were transferred to the voters’ second preference. Candidates who did not achieve a threshold vote (12,500) were eliminated, but the second preference vote listed on their ballots was transferred.
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  23. See: Simon Gerson, Pete: The Story of Peter V. Cacchione, New York’s First Communist Councilman (New York: International Publishers, 1976); Benjamin Davis, Communist Councilman from Harlem: Autobiographical Notes Written in a Federal Penitentiary (New York: International Publishers, 1991).
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  24. Zeller and Bone, op. cit., 1132.
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  25. Douglas Amy, Real Choices/New Voices (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 133-36.
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  26. Lucius Barker and Ronald Walters, eds., Jesse Jackson’s 1984 Presidential Campaign (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 66.
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  27. Thomas Landess and Richard Quinn, Jesse Jackson and the Politics of Race (Ottawa, Il.: Jameson Books, 1985), 223.
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  28. “Survey: Dissatisfaction with the Major Parties,” New York Times, Sept. 21, 1994, A21. A similar poll conducted by The Times a few days before the election revealed that 57% of the electorate thinks the country needs a new political party. “Voters Disgusted with Politics as Election Nears” (Nov. 2, 1994, A28).
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  29. “Government Garners Low Marks in Poll,” New York Times, Aug. 21, 1994, 35.
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  30. David Herszenhorn, “To Vermont’s Voters, What’s Out Is In,” New York Times, March 12, 1995, E16.
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  31. It is appropriate here to note that, though modest, the largest expression of third party activity on the left, the New Party, has placed proportional representation at the very top of its statement of principles. See “New Party Principles,” New Party News, Winter 1996.Equally significant, there now exists an organization, The Center for Voting and Democracy, which is dedicated to the goal of replacing the winner-take-all system with proportional representation. Center for Voting and Democracy, 6905 5th Street NW, Ste. 200, Washington, DC 20012.
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ATC 65, November-December 1996