Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg of the Moderate Party meets with representatives of her Labour and Green Party coalition partners in the Danish political drama Borgen
Supporters of proportional representation claim that first past the post is defective because it allows gross disproportionality between the popular vote and the distribution of seats in the legislature. As I discussed in my last post, defenders of FPTP may reply that under FPTP there is no such thing as the popular vote, because FPTP only allows for the tabulation of votes by candidate. What supporters of PR mean by “popular vote”, however, is just the share of all votes cast for candidates from each party. The existence of those numbers is undeniable. Of course those numbers are not tabulated for the purpose of determining winners, but that’s precisely why supporters of PR object to FPTP.
Defenders of FPTP may respond that the composition of the popular vote does not provide a straightforward accounting of people’s considered preferences. This is partly because many people are so-called strategic voters. But even the choices of “sincere” voters are shaped by the political environment of which the electoral system is a part. PR supporters assume that the popular vote is a closer approximation of people’s considered preferences than the resulting distribution of seats. But this assumption is unwarranted. Change in the electoral system is likely to cause change in the popular vote. And if the popular vote changes because the rules for translating votes into seats change, this suggests that the popular vote has no special claim to be the authentic expression of the people’s collective will. And if the popular vote lacks this special claim, then it is unclear why we should find disproportionality especially troubling.
In my view, this defence misconstrues the significance that supporters of PR attribute to the popular vote under FPTP. In order for the defence to work, PR supporters must be pointing to the discrepancy between the popular vote and the distribution of seats because they regard the popular vote as democratically authoritative; because the distribution of seats fails to reflect the democratically authoritative popular vote, the mechanism for translating seats into votes must be defective. But PR supporters are not committed to the view that the popular vote alone is democratically authoritative; they are only committed to the view that disproportionality is democratically defective. The challenge for the supporter of PR, then, is to supply grounds for thinking that disproportionality is a defect without attributing special democratic significance to the popular vote.
One possibility is that under any electoral system, both the popular vote and the resulting distribution of seats are democratically authoritative. If an electoral system does not take the popular vote into account in translating votes into seats, it fails to respect the popular vote’s equal democratic authority. FPTP is such an electoral system; thus, it is democratically defective, By definition, only a proportional electoral system can respect both expressions of authority. So if more democracy is better, all things being equal, then proportional representation is preferable to FPTP.
Another reason why disproportionality might be a defect is that it makes cooperation between voters much more difficult. This feature of FPTP is sometimes obscured by critics’ fondness for the argument that FPTP encourages strategic voting. The irony is that although FPTP may very well encourage strategic voting, it also makes “strategic voting” an almost useless strategy. Voters simply do not have sufficiently reliable information about each other’s intentions at the riding level (the only level that counts under FPTP) for strategic voting campaigns to work. However, voters do have sufficiently reliable information about each other’s intentions at regional, provincial or national levels for more limited kinds of strategic voting to succeed — provided that aggregate votes at the regional, provincial or national levels are electorally significant (as they are under PR). This means that under PR, people may vote strategically to ensure a breakthrough for a minor party, boost the standing of a preferred party’s prospective coalition partner, or block an especially disliked party from gaining ground. If the possibility of this kind of cooperation between voters translates into more popular self-government rather than less, then PR is again preferable to FPTP.
Finally, disproportionality might be a defect because it gives voters fewer choices. Defenders of FPTP have argued that this can be a virtue, because disproportionality encourages the formation of ideologically moderate and inclusive big-tent parties. But supporters of PR may respond that the need to form multiparty coalitions in order to win power under PR encourages ideologically moderate and inclusive governments, mitigating the advantage claimed by FPTP. If PR and FPTP both encourage moderate, inclusive coalitions (albeit by different mechanisms), then the fact that PR offers voters more choices can act as a tie-breaker.
At this point, FPTP’s defenders can ask why more voter choice is all that important if it just leads to the same kind of compromises we see in the big-tent parties under FPTP. One reason is that more voter choice means more, smaller political parties. Smaller political parties are likely to be more internally democratic. More internally democratic political parties operating under the discipline imposed by the necessity of interparty coalition-building create more opportunities for meaningful political participation. Increased opportunities for meaningful political participation will improve the quality of our democracy. So, if PR increases voter choice, PR is likely to improve the quality of our democracy.
So as it turns out, one can make a case for proportional representation without mistakenly assuming that the composition of the popular vote is unaffected by the electoral system or that the popular vote is a uniquely authentic expression of the will of the electorate. Concern for proportionality is justified as long as the popular vote has some normative significance. It is further supported by other considerations such as the value of a wider array of choices for voters and a better climate for informed decision-making. And although they are not conclusive, these reasons are at least sufficient to establish a presumption in favour of proportionality. It is therefore incumbent upon defenders of the status quo to provide equally compelling reasons to prefer a system that allows such extreme disproportionality as FPTP.