Mixed-member proportional (MMP) representation is an electoral system in which voters cast two votes for one body, the first for a candidate, the other for a party. The first set of seats goes to the winning candidates, same as what happens in a normal election. But the second set of seats are given to political parties, who fill them with pre-announced party members so that the final composition of the legislative body is proportional to the outcome of the election.
This system of voting for parties might sound strange, but it actually has a number of advantages over simple winner-take-all voting. It prevents gerrymandering, as the proportional side ensures the legislature’s composition mirrors the election results, and you can’t play with the districts to ensure you get all of the seats while only getting half the votes. It promotes third-parties because I can vote strategically (for the candidate I like most who can actually win) in the candidate election and vote ideologically (the party I most align with) in the party election. When votes are given proportionately, they cannot be “wasted”. It also leads to stronger political parties, as members will occupy their seats thanks to being loyal to the party. This might seem like a drawback, but I consider it a strength, and I’ll explain why in a minute.
This is how Germany elects members to the Bundestag, their popularly elected national legislature. There are 598 seats in the body, half occupied by the winning candidates in 299 constituencies, the other half filled by party members in proportion to each parties’ support nationwide. Currently, six parties hold seats in the Bundestag, from the governing center-right party, social democrats, socialists, Greens, liberals (in the European sense), and nationalists, a much wider array than Republicans and Democrats.
My guess is that in an MMP system in America, you could see the rise of a leftist party filled with people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a nationalist party with a face like Tom Cotton, a small government party filled by people like Rand Paul, a center-left party of people like Chuck Schumer, and a “values” party, socially conservative but more economically left, led by a guy like Mitt Romney. That’s way more exciting, and representative of American voters, than the Democrat and Republic bind. And since it’s unlikely one party could dominate the system, compromise would become essential to doing any business at all.
Also, while the US House of Representatives is currently proportional to the vote each party got in the 2018 elections, there’s no guarantee that is the case. In 2016, Republicans won 49% of the votes nationwide for the House but got 55% of the seats, while the Democrats got 48% of the vote but just 45% of the seats. Meanwhile, the one million Americans who voted libertarian got 0% of the seats (a number of voters that would likely go up if people were freed from having to vote strategically.) The situation is even worse in Britain, wherein the 2015 Parliamentary elections the Conservatives won 36% of the vote and got 50% of the seats, and the nationalist UKIP party won 16% of the vote but got just one seat in the 650 seat House of Commons. Under MMP, that is guaranteed not to happen.
There are some kinks in how MMP would actually function in America. The “districts” from which party members would be “elected” could probably not be nationwide like in Germany, as it would prevent intra-party diversity necessary for a national party to succeed in a country as large as the United States. A moderate in Massachusetts is not going to vote for the Republican party if he knows the party’s appointed seats are going to be filled by hard-liners from the Deep South (and vice versa). (Then again, you could see the parties fracture on regional lines, which happens in Germany). But the districts would need to be large enough so that parties with 10% of the vote can actually hold significant power, and they need to be drawn objectively enough to prevent the re-introduction of gerrymandering.
There’s also the question of how many seats are going to be appointed in this way. If the number of seats given to party officials is too small, the system is no good. But we probably cannot do what Germany does, in which half the seats are allotted proportionately, especially if we are already increasing the size of the House to 590. But even with the problems of size and districting, MMP presents the best chance to free America from the trap of gerrymandered districts and the two-party system.
One possible objection to MMP is that it marries political parties to the legislative process, which seems like an odd solution for our hyper-partisan times. However, this is to miss diagnose the problem. Our problem isn’t that the parties are too strong, it is that they are too weak, too weak to check the most passionate and uncompromising members of the parties.
Parties don’t nominate candidates, and they have come to function more like brands than institutions in the business of winning elections. Enterprising politicians, such as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, know this, which is why they can take control of the party without actually being loyal to it themselves. Parties are tools to be used, not an institution you must submit to in order to succeed. Historically speaking, the parties have never been weaker, yet your politics seem to be more partisan than ever. Giving parties, institutions more willing to compromise and less concerned about ideological purity than their voters, more role in governance is not an unwise idea.
This was the second part in a two-parter about electoral reform. To read the first part, click here.