Questions for Krist Novoselic, political activist
1. What is proportional representation and why do we need it in the U.S.?
Proportional representation (search) is a way of electing our representatives according to the proportion of votes received. In the United States, we have a system called the first-past-the-post or sometimes it’s called the winner-take-all system. Effectively, the candidate with the most votes represents the whole district or the whole state, and in a three-way race they wouldn’t even need a majority. Like, you win 33 percent of the vote, you represent 100 percent of the district. In a proportional system, if you were to win 33 percent of the vote, 33 percent of that district would get represented. And another 25 percent, 25 percent would get represented and so on. It’s also referred to as full representation.
2. Tell me a little about your organization, and what it is doing to enact proportional representation in the U.S.?
Well, I really don’t have an organization, but I have been working with The Center for Voting and Democracy (search). And it's basically what I, and people who are advocating full representation, are doing is an educational process. It’s about awareness. We’re talking to people. What we’re doing, basically, is addressing the cynicism, the apathy, people being disaffected, disenfranchised, and we're offering solutions to those problems. Because, you see, in places like Germany and Switzerland they enjoy voter turnout of like 85 percent. Where in 2002 in the United States our turnout was at 37 percent.
3. How would third parties benefit from PR?
Well, a third party could benefit from proportional representation if they happen to cross the threshold of votes needed to gain a seat, they could gain a seat in the legislature. What happens right now is when you have a first-past-the-post or winner-take-all system it basically all boils down to a two-party system. And it’s hard for third parties to overcome many of the obstacles. Like, the first obstacle is districts are usually drawn by either Republicans or Democrats. So they gerrymander them to benefit their own parties. And third parties don’t have a say in that process. It would be very inclusive for third parties.
4. What other countries are already using proportional representation?
A lot of countries are using proportional representation. Most modern democracies use proportional representation, countries like Japan, Norway, Switzerland, and Germany. In fact, in Northern Ireland, as part of the peace process there, they agreed to have a legislature. They used a proportional representation system in their legislature because if they were to use a first-past-the-post, people start to feel like their getting excluded, they could possibly go back to fighting.
5. What are the obstacles to PR in the U.S.?
The biggest obstacle to proportional representation in the U.S. is the lack of awareness. People lament the apathy towards democracy, they lament the cynicism towards our democracy but really there's no discussion about looking around the world and seeing how modern democracies function and how modern democracies enjoy such a high turnout. Another obstacle is just, you know, incumbent lawmakers survival skills make the path to true electoral reform difficult, to put it lightly.
In Washington State, one-third of the races were uncontested in 2002. So why would a legislator want to have any competition? In fact, with the idea that I am proposing in Washington State, my idea will make every House seat competitive. And I think that if competition serves our economy, competition can serve our democracy.
There’s proof if you look at the Democratic presidential primaries. It was a very competitive primary. People were enthusiastic about it and people participated because they felt like they could make a difference. Where in 2002, our legislative races weren’t very competitive, in fact, in the U.S. House of Representatives out of 435 seats only 10 were deemed competitive. So that’s why we only have a 37 percent turnout. Why vote?
6. How is it that you became involved with PR and politics in general?
Well, I became involved with proportional representation and politics because they both went hand in hand. I was advocating on behalf of the music community in Washington State in regards to censorship legislation and music ordinances. I discovered early on, that to be an effective advocate I needed to speak on behalf of a constituency. And you have to remember that lawmakers don’t really have to care what people think, they only really need to care what voters think. So I would go around, to really anybody who would listen, and say "Hey you gotta vote, and you need to participate." People would say "Well, I really feel like my vote doesn’t count, or I would be wasting my vote if I vote my conscience." And I looked into the system and said, "Hey you know what? These people are right." For the most part, their vote doesn’t count. Maybe they are a Republican in a Democratic district, where effectively for a Republican to win in a Democratic district, the Republican would need a super-majority to win, and vice-versa for Democrats in Republican districts. Or you can be a Democrat in a Democratic district and your district is so overwhelmingly Democratic, it’s just like "Why should I vote? My person is uncontested." And so, effectively, the elections are uncontested.
So I started to look online, and started to research electoral methods and I found out that there's different ways to elect our representatives, and there's better ways. It's a real testament to our Constitution that for over 225 years it's served us, and it serves us really well. But as far as our elections go, they're really not serving us anymore. Basically, we've crossed the bridge to the 21st century in an 18th century horse and buggy. What I would like to see is a discussion where we could talk about an electoral system that could reflect our values and our needs as a nation and as a democracy. It's not about my idea for proportional representation, and it's not about a German system or a Swiss system, it's about an American system. We could look abroad and find the best attributes of all these democracies and use that to build the best one here in the United States. Because I’ll argue with anybody that, right now, the United States is not the best democracy in the world.
7. Why are you fighting for PR as a Democrat and not as part of a minor party?
I advocate proportional representation as a Democrat because that is my affiliation, but democracy is non-partisan. I know and respect and love quite a few Republicans and independents and Greens. My party tag is just my personal preference, but democracy is everybody’s business.
When we talk about democracy and the values our founders bequeathed us, then we go to a higher level. It's above partisanship. It’s about having a vital democracy, it's about inclusion, it's about fairness, and that's what I mean about those American values. I think that a proportional system would benefit everybody. With the super-district plan for Washington that I am advocating, every Republican and Democrat in the state of Washington would carry the actual weight of being a constituent.
8. Do you have anything to say to people who think voting for a third party is throwing away your vote?
This is what I have to say to people who believe they are throwing their vote away when they vote for a third party: under this system, they’re right! I believe, that as Americans, if we think that's wrong, that we have too many wasted votes, that we are throwing our vote away, that we are making our voting booth sound like a garbage can, if we think that's wrong, then we have to do something about it!
We need real electoral reform in the United States, and we need to find consensus on how we are going to do that. It doesn't matter if you're Republican or Democrat or an independent or a Green or Libertarian, we’ve got to put our eyes on the prize. And that’s moving our democracy forward.