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October 27, 2012

Nonvoters are trying to tell us something

(Continued)

WASHINGTON —

By contrast, systems based on proportional representation offer much more precise opportunities for the expression of political preferences. If you're a German, for example, you can cast a vote for the Free Democratic Party or the Greens, knowing that one of these relatively marginal parties might very well end up forming a coalition with the more popular Christian Democrats or Social Democrats and thus influencing the formation of the government. "Even minority parties are going to get seats," says Jeffrey Green, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. "There's a motivation for everyone to turn out even when no one gets the winner." It should come as no surprise that participation in German elections tends to be higher than in the U.S. (The world champions, perhaps, are the Swedes, who vote at a rate of about 80 percent of the voting age population.)

Proportional representation has many problems, of course — most notoriously, fragmentation and chronic instability. See, for example, Israel, where tiny, radical parties often end up exercising power disproportionate to their actual electoral strength. One solution is to stipulate that parties have to get a certain minimum percentage of the overall vote in order to enter parliament. (In Germany, the threshold is 5 percent; in Israel, it's only 1.5 percent.) And, to be fair, it's worth noting that voter participation is trending downward in just about every established democracy.

That said, though, almost all of the countries that have achieved democracy over the past 30 years have adopted parliamentary systems based on proportional representation, approaches that are much closer to the German model than the American one. It's easy to imagine why. People who have finally obtained that cherished right to choose their leaders would like to think that their votes actually count. Like it or not, the institutions of American democracy just aren't a model for the rest of the world anymore.

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