What is Proportional Representation?
“Proportional representation” describes a class of voting methods that allows groups of voters to elect candidates in proportion to their overall share of votes cast. In contrast, winner-take-all methods award every seat in an electoral district to the candidate or candidates who win the most votes, allowing a single party or group to win all the representation in that district. Under a purely proportional system, for example, a party or group of candidates who win a third of the total votes cast in an election would win about a third of the seats up for election. Under a winner-take-all method, however, that same party or group of candidates could end up with a majority of seats or even no seats at all, depending on how (and if) that jurisdiction is split into districts and what the vote breakdown is within each district.
While most American elections use winner-take-all voting methods, there is a history of proportional and semi-proportional voting methods at the local and even the state levels. In the early 20th century, two dozen American cities adopted the proportional form for ranked choice voting, including major cities like New York, Cleveland, and Cincinnati.13 Illinois used cumulative voting, a semi-proportional voting method, to elect its House of Representatives for over a century,14 and Puerto Rico uses another semi-proportional method called the single non-transferable vote, which is a form of limited voting, to elect some seats in both chambers of its legislature.15
…in many states adopting proportional representation for state legislative elections is a more difficult process than doing so for local elections, often requiring an amendment to the state constitution.
Why are we tracking it?
Reformers have become increasingly interested in proportional representation voting methods because of their potential to produce elected bodies that more closely reflect voter preferences, lead to more competitive elections, and reduce or eliminate the impact of gerrymandering. Proportional representation has been used to elect some local offices in places like Minneapolis, MN and Cambridge, MA16, for decades, but voters in Portland, OR’s approval last year of a ballot measure to adopt proportional RCV to elect its entire city council has sparked greater national interest in proportional methods.17 Many proposals for state voting rights acts include provisions for using proportional and semi-proportional voting methods as potential remedies due to their ability to secure representation for minority communities when those who draw electoral districts can’t (or won’t) create a majority-minority district.
Categories and definitions:
- List systems are proportional representation methods that award seats to political parties or slates of candidates based on each party or slate's voteshare.
- In closed list systems, voters vote for a party or slate.
- In open list systems, voters vote for the individual candidates who are each identified with a particular party or slate and whose combined votes are used to determine the vote share of their party or slate.
- Proportional ranked choice voting (proportional RCV), also known as “the single transferable vote,” is a form of ranked choice voting used to proportionally elect multiple candidates. Instead of electing the candidate who receives a majority of votes, proportional RCV elects candidates using a threshold determined by the number of people who will be elected. An election to fill two seats requires each winning candidate to get more than a third of the votes to win, one to fill three seats requires each candidate to win more than a fourth of the votes, and so on.
- Semi-proportional methods are voting methods that can allow groups of voters to elect candidates in proportion to their vote share under certain conditions but do not necessarily guarantee a proportional outcome. Like proportional RCV, semi-proportional methods allow voters to vote for individual candidates and do not require candidates to run as part of a slate or party list. Most semi-proportional methods elect the individual candidates with the most votes (e.g., In an election to fill three seats, the three candidates who receive the most votes win). Types of semi-proportional methods include:
- Cumulative voting – A voting method that provides voters with as many votes as there are candidates to be elected and allows voters to give multiple votes to the same candidate. In an election to fill three seats, for example, a voter could vote for three different candidates, give one candidate two votes and another candidate one vote, or give three votes to the same candidate.
- Limited voting – A voting method that allows voters to vote for fewer candidates than there are candidates to be elected. In an election to fill five seats, for example, a voter might be able to vote for up to three candidates.
States with the most proposals:
Proposals passing only one chamber:
Most of the proportional representation proposals introduced this session (17 out of 19) would have affected local elections, either by allowing local governments to adopt them or allowing courts to use proportional and semi-proportional methods as remedies to voting rights violations. The fact that only two of the ten proposals would have applied to state governments could be a sign that legislators are generally more willing to consider changing the process of how other people are elected than they are making changes to their own elections, but it could also be due to the fact that in many states adopting proportional representation for state legislative elections is a more difficult process than doing so for local elections, often requiring an amendment to the state constitution.
➤ Proportional Representation by the numbers:
- 17 of the 19 bills had all Democrat sponsors. 2 bill had bipartisan sponsorship (CT’s SB 1226 and MA’s H 711).
- All 7 states where bills were introduced have Democratic trifectas.
- 5 of the bills (including, CT’s HB 6941, the only bill that passed) were state voting rights acts that would allow proportional and semi-proportional voting methods to be used as remedies for voting rights violations in local elections. (See the State Voting Rights section for more information).
- 2 of the proposals would have applied to state legislative elections. The other 17 would apply to local elections.
- The 2 proposals applying to the state legislature would have adopted a form of list proportional representation, with one that would adopt closed list (OR’s HJR 25) and one that appears to adopt open list (CT’s HJR 17).
- Of the 17 bills proposals that would apply to local government elections, 1 was for closed list, 11 allowed for proportional RCV, and 5 allowed for proportional RCV and semi-proportional methods such as cumulative and limited voting.
- 5 of the proposals would allow the use of proportional RCV in specifically named cities (all of which are in MA).
Massachusetts was, by far, the leader with nine proposals introduced this legislative session. In part, this is probably due to the state’s long history with proportional representation (particularly proportional RCV) at the local level and an active and well-organized community of reformers.
While local government election methods can usually be changed by an ordinary bill in the state legislature, many state constitutions effectively require winner-take-all elections for the legislature through requirements that each legislator be elected in a single-member district. This is why both proposals affecting state legislative elections (OR’s HJR 25 and CT’s HJR 17) were resolutions to amend the state constitution.
The most popular method was proportional RCV, followed by cumulative and limited voting (which were included with proportional RCV in five of the proposals, all of which were state voting rights acts), and then closed list with two and open list with one. The fact that both proposals affecting state legislatures would adopt a list system could be a sign that state legislators would be more amenable to running in that kind of system rather than another method, such as proportional RCV. But the small sample size makes it difficult to draw hard conclusions. Finally, semi-proportional methods were only included in state voting rights acts. This is probably because there is a long history of federal courts using various semi-proportional methods as remedies in federal Voting Rights Act cases, but there doesn’t seem to be interest in using them in any other context.18
➤ Full list of Proportional Representation bills we tracked:
State Bill Number Category sub-category Final Disposition Last Action # of sponsors partisanship
13 The Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center, The History of RCV
14 Illinois Periodicals Online, History of cumulative voting, 1870-1970: Three is better than one.
15 Manuel Álvarez-Rivera, Elections in Puerto Rico, The Puerto Rico Legislative Assembly Electoral System.
16 FairVote, Where is Proportional Ranked Choice Voting Used?.
17 Voters in Portland, ME also adopted proportional RCV for the at-large seats on its city council on the same day, making Nov. 9, 2022 the single most successful day on record for proportional representation in cities named “Portland.” See FairVote Action, Ranked Choice Voting Just Had Its Biggest Election Day Ever.
18 Richard Engstrom, “Cumulative and Limited Voting: Minority Electoral Opportunities and More,” Saint Louis University Public Law Review: Vol. 30 : No. 1 , Article 7 (2010).