Can Proportional Representation Lead to Better Governance?

Policy Paper
May 8, 2024

This paper was originally published by Protect Democracy on May 2, 2024.

The American two-party system is not working in today’s highly polarized society and has resulted in a crisis of governance. Gridlock often paralyzes the policymaking process and when Congress does legislate, it tends to produce policies misaligned with public opinion. Politicians who don’t do a good job in office get reelected because partisan polarization makes the alternative candidate from the other party an even worse prospect. An unresponsive and unaccountable government has contributed to the erosion in the legitimacy of government, making American democracy unstable and vulnerable to authoritarianism.

Electing members of the House of Representatives with a proportional electoral system that facilitates the emergence of a multiparty democracy would address these governance challenges and represent an improvement over the country’s winner-take-all system. This proposal, however, is often met with apprehension that a multiparty democracy would be too chaotic and that it would make it harder to hold politicians accountable.

In an extensive review of the research on how electoral systems affect governance outcomes, John Carey, professor of government at Dartmouth College, and Oscar Pocasangre, senior data analyst at New America, explain that the choice of electoral reform is not a binary one between the two-party system that a winner-take-all system encourages in the United States and a system with an excessive number of parties, like in the Netherlands or Israel. Electoral systems can be designed in a way that strikes the right balance between too few and too many parties.

Focusing on three dimensions of governance—responsiveness, electoral accountability, and stability—the review finds that:

  • Proportional systems are better at promoting consensus—especially in polarized societies—and achieving public policies that better reflect what majorities of citizens want;
  • In polarized societies, some forms of proportional systems represent improvements over winner-take-all elections when it comes to holding politicians accountable at the ballot box by giving voters more choices within and across parties; and
  • Proportional systems that maintain the number of parties at a moderate level can reduce the risk of political instability currently posed by the winner-take-all system in the United States.

Achieving a multiparty democracy with proportional representation does not require constitutional changes, so it is a feasible and urgent reform that would enhance governance in the United States.