Maybe you believe that in a democracy, the majority should always rule.
Well, if that means absolutely, even when a majority is only a plurality, Robert Richie might argue: That's no democracy; that's tyranny.
Richie heads the Center for Voting and Democracy, based in Washington, D.C., which seeks to educate the public about the impact that our current voting systems have on such things as political representation and voter turnout.
Richie, who has spent nearly a decade advocating reform, brought his message to Buffalo on Tuesday as the guest speaker during a luncheon sponsored by the League of Women Voters and a coalition of other local groups.
Our current election system, he said, shortchanges minorities and breeds voter apathy.
"The fundamental part of our democracy that we're questioning is winner-take-all elections in which 51 percent of the vote wins but 49 percent of the vote wins nothing," Richie said.
Supplanting that would be a collection of voting systems that Richie thinks would result in a "proportional representation" of the broad range of viewpoints in our elected legislatures. Richie, an expert on both international and domestic electoral systems, said proportional representation ensures that political parties or candidates will have the percentage of legislative seats that reflects their public support. In other words, a party or candidate need not come in first to win a seat or seats.
As Richie explained it, under a voting system that incorporates proportional representation, representatives are elected from multiseat districts in proportion to the number of votes they receive. Such a system was used in South Africa's recent national elections, where they had nearly a 90 percent voter turnout. In contrast, U.S. voter turnout for last year's national congressional races was less than 33 percent.
Richie said part of the difference was in the range of choices offered to South African voters, as many as 16 candidates for one election that covered the full political spectrum.
By contrast, our single-seat district, winner-take-all voting system limits choices, Richie argued, guaranteeing that votes going to the losing candidate will be "wasted," even if that candidate gains 49 percent of the vote.
"So even though in South Africa you have one vote and in the U.S. you have one vote, a vote in South Africa is a lot more likely to count," Richie said. "That's the principle behind proportional representation. The idea behind it is that as many people as vote should have their vote count. Otherwise, you don't have full representation; you have half-representation."
There are other methods that help ensure fairer results, Richie said, including cumulative voting that allows voters in at-large races to cast multiple votes for one candidate. If such a system had existed in, say, the recent Democratic primary for three at-large seats on the Buffalo Common Council, voters could have opted to cast all three votes for one candidate, if none of the other six running seemed appealing. Under the current system, such a voter would have to "waste" the other two votes or select two candidates whom the voter may not necessarily like, but feels have the most realistic chance of winning, Richie said.
They are just two examples of the kinds of voting systems used in countries such as Germany, Sweden, Portugal, Poland, Spain, Greece and Mexico. The winner-take-all method is most commonly employed in the United States, Canada, India, Britain and many of its former colonies in the Caribbean, according to the Center for Voting and Democracy.
Richie said that such a collection of alternative voting systems, while not a panacea for some of the problems -- such as voter apathy and big-money election campaigns -- would go a long way to rejuvenating our democracy.
Richie said voter turnout in countries that use proportional representation typically tops 70 percent and results in more women and minorities being elected. He said it also leads to clearer campaigns that are waged more on issues than on mudslinging.
In the last decade, about 70 U.S. localities have gone to cumulative voting, mostly in Texas.