As proportional representation attracts more interest—like in British Columbia, where voters will soon decide by referendum whether to adopt proportional representation (PR) for provincial elections—commentators like David Brooks trot out the false belief that proportional representation “allowed an extremist named Adolf Hitler to rise to power with the initial support of a tiny fraction of Germany’s voters.”
But contrary to Brooks’ claim, Germany’s PR system actually kept Hitler out of power.
Hitler seized power through un-democratic means because PR blocked him
Hitler gained control of the German government through subterfuge and a quasi-coup, not through proportional representation. In February 1933, someone set fire to the German parliament building, the Reichstag. The government declared a state of emergency and suspended all civil freedoms. Hitler blamed the Communists for the fire and used the state of emergency and public panic to expel all Communists from parliament, enabling the Nazis to seize control without an election.
Germany’s proportional representation system, though it may have been flawed in other ways, constrained the Nazis to their proportional share of seats in the government, blocking Hitler from taking control. It’s hard to imagine this today, but in 1932, the Nazi Party was the most popular in Germany. The National Socialist German Workers’ Party—the Nazi’s formal name—promised employment and pensions to the economically devastated German people facing 33 percent unemployment.
The Nazi Party therefore had a strong voice in the government, but it did not have majority control. Nazis had three of the eleven seats on the Cabinet (Hitler plus two others). The proportional system worked to give a voice to the 37 percent of voters who marked ballots for Nazis, but it blocked them from taking majority power.
Under a winner-take-all electoral system like those in Canada and the United States, the Nazis could have won control of government outright. Again, the Nazis got more votes than any other party. But in Germany’s proportional system, because Hitler and the Nazis lacked majority support, they could not take control of Germany’s government.
Trump rose to power through democratic means
In contrast, the current American electoral system does not prevent a party from taking control without majority support. The antiquated Electoral College gave Trump the presidency although only a minority of American voters supported him. But it isn’t just the Electoral College—single-winner elections always distort election results, often giving a minority party more power. In the United States today, if the mainstream right-wing party won more votes than other parties as the Nazi Party did in 1932, it could win outright control of the government without having to burn down DC buildings and declare a state of emergency. Indeed, in several US elections the Democrats have won a majority of votes but the Republicans have nonetheless controlled Congress. The party with majority control of US Congress usually wins about 25 more seats than its popular vote share warrants.
BC parties often take control without majority support
Just look at recent elections in BC. In five of the past seven elections in BC, a party with less than a majority of votes took control of the BC government.
Winner-take-all gives extremists an opening
Here’s what you should be worried about: the winner-take-all electoral method that we use in the United States and Canada for our national and state or provincial elections. Unfortunately, the American and Canadian systems don’t guarantee that a party has majority support before it wins near-total control of the government. Once a party gets close enough to winning, it wins it all—100 percent of representation in one district, and often complete control of the legislative agenda. A party with that much power can run amok, without having to listen to other viewpoints. Our outdated single-winner systems don’t even guarantee the party in charge got more votes than the other party. Often they don’t.
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America and Canada’s winner-take-all electoral system works if you happen to like the side that has power. But it can also flip and give minority, sometimes even extreme, parties complete power.
In contrast, proportional representation guarantees majority rule while allowing for minority voices. It calibrates control, giving each party as much power as voters wanted them to have, with the result that they must work together to come up with final policy solutions that are nuanced and broadly acceptable. No party can seize power without support from a majority of voters or being part of a coalition with majority support.
BC’s referendum would keep out truly fringe parties by setting a minimum bar that a party would need to win at least five percent of the vote in the province and the region to win any seats. Parties with support from more than five percent would have a voice in parliament. But they would not be able to gain control without majority support. This moderated approach ensures that even a relatively popular party like the 1930s National Socialist German Workers’ Party can’t gain control of the country without majority support from voters. Proportional representation protects governments from getting taken over by a Hitler who does not have majority support.
Minority voters have a voice, but the majority rules. Although David Brooks was wrong about Hitler, he ends up being right about proportional representation. He correctly points out that proportional representation means that “people with minority views in their region have a greater chance to be represented in Congress. … There’s a reason voters in proportional representation countries are less disenchanted with politics than we are. Their systems work better.”