In Wednesday’s gubernatorial debate, among the many ideas proposed by Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins was a system of proportional representation. Needless to say, neither the other candidates nor the press asking the questions picked up on Hawkins’ proposal. Yet, the idea deserves serious discussion. A proportional representation electoral system could be an antidote to the growing mistrust of our government and other public institutions. Part of that mistrust surely stems from a feeling shared by many that their elected representatives from the two major parties do not speak to their interests and needs.
An electoral system based on proportional representation, while it can take many different forms, differs from our system of plurality voting. In our system, looking at the New York State Assembly for example, the state is divided up into election districts. Each district is represented by the winner of a plurality of the votes in that district, usually either a Republican or a Democrat. Such a system leaves members of the losing parties with the feeling that their views are not represented in the legislature. In a proportional system of representation, a party would get seats in the Assembly in proportion to the percentage of the vote it receives in the election.
Let’s take the upcoming election. If we had a proportional system and the Green Party gets 10 percent of the vote, they would be given 10 percent of the seats in the Assembly. Having those seats would provide those who voted for the party with a voice. In the case of the Greens, that would mean that ideas like a ban on hydraulic fracking, a single payer universal health care system, a 15 dollar minimum wage, an end to high stakes testing and the Common Core State Standards and other progressive ideas would be part of the public political debate. The presence of Green legislators, even though not in the majority, would influence members of other parties and would likely bring about the incorporation of at least some of their ideas in exchange for their votes. Most importantly, the people who voted for them would feel represented, even though they are in the minority. They would be less likely to be disengaged from the process. Proportional representation is inherently more democratic. In a proportional system working people could be relieved of the fear that in voting for smaller party candidates, they are wasting their vote. They could more comfortable vote for candidates who express their ideas and ideals, knowing that the odds that their views will receive at least some representation. Bravo to Hawkins for raising this important issue.