Proportional elections are not like district elections

For voters, the proportional system is very simple: if you know which candidate you like best, you vote for that person; but if ideology is more important than a specific person, you vote for number one on that party's list. Very close to each and every voter gets the representative they voted for.

The mechanism behind the system that provides equality to all voters in the outcome is more complex. Proportional means the outcome is not forcefully based on the winner of a geographical location. But if you want to vote for someone based on geography, you can most certainly do so in proportional elections. But possibly you want to vote for someone based on their ideology, their gender, or because of their comprehensive ideas about car use and transit. What you consider the most important issue will certainly help you determine who you are going to vote for. How would your individual choice make the outcome different in proportional elections? Let's take an example and see what happens.

First of all, you can cast a vote for one candidate only. In this example (image reappears below) their are seven parties in total, and ten candidates per each party; so we have 70 candidates but only a total of 31 available seats. Let's say that 3100 people cast a vote, which brings the average required votes per seat to 100.

The first party, Party A, received 870 votes in total. Please note that the candidate in first position got 570 people casting a vote for that candidate. The candidates in positions 2, 3, and 7 each received 100 votes. In this example, the other candidates of Party A received no votes. With this party getting 870 votes in total, we can immediately give them 8 seats (marked in red). We'll get to the remaining 70 votes later.

The exact same visualization as above that shows how proportional elections function.

Party B received 560 votes, so they get at least 5 seats. What is interesting, however, is that for Party B preferential votes were cast outside the first 5 seats, so the people in positions 1, 2, 3, 9, and 10 each get a seat. The candidate in first position received 260 votes.

For party C the first 7 seats are elected. For party D only number 5 gets a seat, and for party E their seats go to numbers 1, 2, and 4. Party F gets one seat, Party G gets four. The total number of seats filled this way is 29 out of 31 seats.

Residual votes

As you can see in the image, the 29 seats in red in the image are taken; two out of a total of 31 seats available are not yet appointed. It is up to the Elections Commission to decide what to do next. If the system is set up in such a way that parties are not allowed to affiliate, then the two remaining seats go to party A and B (extra seats are colored green), because they have the largest residual of votes (70 and 60 votes respectively).

But, if parties are allowed to affiliate — for instance parties E, F, and G affiliated themselves — then the two extra seats go to: one to the affiliation and one to Party A. The affiliation has among themselves 120 residual votes, the largest number of residual votes. Of the three affiliated parties, party F has the largest residual of votes (45), so party F would get the extra seat, giving them a total of two seats. Therefore, the option to affiliate does change the outcome slightly: instead of parties A and B getting a seat extra in the non-affiliated version, party F and then party A are getting an extra seat in the version with the option to affiliate.

The exact same visualization as above that shows how proportional elections function.

It is ideology why parties would decide to affiliate themselves, so if three right wing parties affiliate themselves and together they have more residual votes than any other party or affiliation, it would make sense that one of these three parties would get the extra seat — and not a single left wing party with more residual votes than any of these 3 separately, but not as many residual votes as these three combined.


Your personal choice matters in proportional elections

You can vote for your candidate — or you can vote for your party by casting a vote for number one on the list — and you have an excellent chance that your desired representative is on the board or council. It also takes the financial disadvantages we currently have out of the system, because the candidates really only need to fit the population's wishes. They do not need to be first in buying television airtime. This way, equality — with all voters finding themselves represented by their actual choices — is achieved better than any other way.

What if a candidate does not want to belong to a party, rather wants to be all alone and non-affiliated, and then receives votes for more than one seat? The answer is simple: this person has wasted the extra votes! If not on a list or in an affiliation, then nobody can get hauled in. So, that is quite wasteful if that person didn't think of that option before (and by itself a good reason not to vote for someone who cannot look ahead into all future possibilities).

Preferential votes can and do influence the outcome. Parties do not have full control over who gets elected from their own party; they can only create the order of the list. If they don't like someone very much, they can put that person in a position that appears to be a non-electable position. However, if they really don't like a certain person of their own party, they can decide to not put that person on the list at all. And that may not be a smart thing to do, because if people want to vote for that person, and that person is not on the list, the voters can very well decide to go for another party. There is a lot of freedom in this system, and the parties truly jump for the voters' wishes, because it is so easy to vote for another party.


Number of seats

While the number of seats do not need to get changed to 31 before you can feel your choice translates into a representative, the number of seats on the board or council does matter. If you are living in a small place with a small council, say with just 5 seats on the council, then the outcome in proportional elections would still be different, but not the same as in the above example. With 31 seats, each seat translates into a threshold of as little as just above 3% of all votes. But, if your council has 5 seats, then each seat translates into something close to 20% of all votes. That is a major difference to the example above. And that is still better than getting a representative through district elections.

Small towns with small boards still gain from proportional elections. Each seat is based on the population at large, like cutting up a pie into honest pieces. And that is truly different from winner-takes-all, because first the pie is cut up in pieces before you cast your vote, and then they let you fight over your piece of the cake. In proportional elections they let you fight over the entire pie right away.

So, if you have a council with just 5 seats, it takes about 20% of the votes to win each seat. If you have a council with 8 seats, it takes about 12.5% of the votes to win each seat. If you live in a place where there is a board with 20 seats, each seat gets elected by just 5% of the total number of votes. And that is a world of difference from voting in districts where all 20 seats would collectively need 50% of the votes, and just a majority of all voters end up getting all 20 seats. Proportionality is a great way to have the population decide who will sit in the seats. District elections is a great way to decide who the population will put in the seats (and we hope you catch the difference by now).

San Franciscans take democracy to a new level. 


example of proportional voting

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