By Marilyn Odendahl

The Indiana Citizen

December 1, 2023

Just as Americans like a variety of foods at their holiday dining table, they seem to have an appetite for variety in their electoral system, a new survey suggests.

The poll, conducted by Citizen Data on behalf of Protect Democracy, found Americans are pretty dissatisfied with Congress. In particular, less than half of those surveyed felt closely represented by their congress member and two-thirds did not feel represented by Congress as a whole.

As part of the poll, individuals in the survey group were introduced to the proportional representation electoral system. The poll recorded a rise of more than 30 percentage points in support once those surveyed understood how proportional representation works.

Protect Democracy is championing the poll results to advocate for proportional representation as a remedy to the political divisiveness tormenting the country. The nonprofit concluded the current winner-takes-all electoral system is creating dissatisfaction because it can result in underrepresentation in government, particularly of racial and political minorities. Along with fostering uncompetitive elections, it can also discourage citizens from voting, the group said.

“(The) hyper-polarization and loud, extreme factions in our politics might be obscuring the fact that there’s room for broad public agreement on a better way of doing things – even if only a better way to hash out our differences,” Protect Democracy concluded. “Americans are open to being persuaded in favor of proportional representation, they just need to be invited to engage.”

However, Chad Kinsella, associate professor of political science and director of the Bowen Center for Public Affairs at Ball State University, said proportional representation is not a guaranteed way out of gridlock. He was not part of the Citizen Data study and offered his insights only after reviewing the results.

How well a proportional representation system does – or does not – work depends on the coalitions, Kinsella said. Under a proportional representation system, the political parties running in an election rarely get a majority of the votes. So the candidates from the competing parties who are elected have to form coalitions in order to govern.

The different parties have to find common ground and compromise in order to make policy and pass laws, Kinsella said. This requires elected officials to work across party lines, which could push the government to the center and mute the extreme positions.

“It could moderate a lot of American politics, which is something lacking right now,” Kinsella said.

On the other hand, crossing party lines and ironing out differences might be too difficult, so a coalition is either not formed or is very weak such that any defections can cause the whole thing to fall apart, Kinsella said. Also, fringe parties, maybe even including Communists and Nazis, could get elected and, in exchange for helping form a coalition, make demands the other parties find problematic.

“You can ultimately face the same problems that you have with a two-party system in that it’s difficult to get things done and work together,” Kinsella said.

Bringing others to the table

To explain proportional representation, Citizen Data used the example of Thanksgiving dinner.

In a winner-takes-all system, only one dish could be selected. If, for example, mashed potatoes got the most votes, even if just by a handful, then that would be the only dish served at dinner.

But under a proportional representation system, the poll explained, more spots are available on the table, so the foods getting the highest vote totals could be served. If 10 spots were available and stuffing got 50% of the vote while pumpkin pie got 30%, then they would get five and three spots, respectively.

Only 24% of those polled supported proportional representation before hearing a generic explanation, a figure which rose to 52% afterward. However, when explained with the turkey dinner metaphor, Citizen Data found support for proportional representation rose even higher from 27.4% to 61.5%. The opposition rose, as well, from 7.6% to 18.7%.

The poll divided the country into different regions, asking residents of those geographic areas about their favorite Thanksgiving foods.

In the winner-takes-all scenario, turkey was the overwhelming favorite, despite garnering less than 50% of the votes in any of the regions. Moreover, in the east south central region that included Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee, stuffing won favorite dish with just 26.5% of the vote.

Turkey was also selected in the proportional representation scenario but was accompanied by a number of side dishes. The east north central region, which encompassed Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, voted stuffing, pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes onto the dinner table. Other regions made room for green bean casserole, macaroni and cheese, and cranberry sauce.

Kinsella is doubtful the United States will change from the winner-takes-all system it has used since the country’s founding. A major obstacle, he said, would be the Democratic and Republican parties. Currently, those two parties are dominant in Congress and state legislatures, so they have no incentive to give up their power to allow for a switch to a proportional representation system.

But, Kinsella said, even without upending the electoral process, individual Americans could improve the political climate by doing what naturally happens at many dinner tables – talking. He said he tells his students to have conversations with people who have different ideas and views from their own.

“It’s not easy but it’s something critical that, I think, should be done,” Kinsella said. “I think that is a responsibility that we have to talk to people that we think we disagree with. And I think a lot of times when, and if, we can do that, we find that we have a little bit more in common than we ever thought and, at least, if nothing else, it can create a little bit of empathy.”

Dwight Adams, a freelance editor and writer based in Indianapolis, edited this article. He is a former content editor, copy editor and digital producer at The Indianapolis Star and, and worked as a planner for other newspapers, including the Louisville Courier Journal. 

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