Economies across North America are supposedly doing well, yet lots of people are still feeling the pinch. Many Americans and Canadians are part of a trend of widening inequality. It might not be intuitive, but updating their electoral method could help. Countries that use proportional representation (ProRep) have less inequality and more equality-enhancing policies compared with winner-take-all countries such as Canada and the United States.

In the winner-take-all systems, many voters’ voices are excluded. Voters who aren’t in the plurality in their local district might get no representation at all—it’s democracy 1.0. Legislators can afford to cherry pick who to represent, and many choose more powerful, higher-income people. They leave huge groups underrepresented, including women and low-income people. So it should come as no surprise that winner-take-all countries protect the wealthy at the expense of lower-income people, while ProRep countries spend more on public education, health care, and other policies that reduce inequality. If BC voters choose ProRep in the referendum happening right now, it could drive stable, long-lasting policies to reduce inequality.   

ProRep countries have a steadier governing hand. The governing coalition has to represent the majority of voters, not just a plurality.
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Better representation for lower-income people

A recent analysis of 24 democracies found that proportional electoral rule reduces underrepresentation of the poor. The authors found that more parties generate more competition for voters, compelling parties must pay more attention to voter concerns. In particular, large parties maintain a duopoly in winner-take-all systems so they can ignore smaller groups of voters, such as lower-income voters.

Multiparty systems yield legislatures that mirror the preferences of citizens more closely and can narrow the representation gap between high- and low-income voters.

ProRep countries also ensure continuity of representation. Winner-take-all countries often lurch back and forth between two dominant parties, and the governing parties may end up spending their time undoing the past government’s policies. Even if low-income voters gain a voice and a government passes policies such as old-age protection, health care programs, and pathways out of poverty, the next government may simply revoke them. ProRep countries have a steadier governing hand. The governing coalition has to represent the majority of voters, not just a plurality. Lower-income voters therefore stand a better chance of winning representation in the majority coalition, so their policy preferences are more likely to prevail.

Less inequality

Better representation leads to better outcomes.

  • Professor Arend Lijphart’s 2012 landmark book Patterns of Democracy studied 36 democracies over several decades and found ProRep countries were more economically equal than winner-take-all countries. Salomon Orellana’s 2014 book Electoral Systems and Governance confirmed the findings: proportional countries are 18 percent more equal than winner-take-all countries. A 2005 study of 28 democracies showed that not only are proportional countries more equal than winner-take-all countries, the more proportional the country’s electoral system, the more equitable its income distribution. As proportionality increases, inequality falls.

    More equality-enhancing policies

    When lower-income voters have representation, governments are more likely to pass equality-enhancing policies. For example, ProRep countries are more likely to have higher top tax rates, whereas winner-take-all countries such as the United States have lower top tax rates, which correlate with increases in inequality.

    ProRep is associated with more progressive tax policies, more aid for lower-income families, more investment in institutions that decrease inequality (such as public education), and decreased inequality, according to a 2006 statistical analysis of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development member states. Why? Partly because center-right governments tend to dominate in winner-take-all countries, whereas center-left governments fare better in ProRep systems. But regardless of party control, the analysis found, ProRep fosters greater equality. ProRep center-left governments are simply more ambitious in their policies to enhance equality than center-left governments in winner-take-all countries, probably because coalition dynamics in ProRep countries give more power to low-income voters.

    ProRep countries spend more on reducing poverty and public health. Public health scholars have pointed out that “poverty rates and government support in favour of health—the extent of government transfers—is higher when the popular vote is more directly translated into political representation through proportional representation.” In 2008, scholars concluded that the lack of proportional representation in Canada “is associated with higher poverty rates and less government action in support of health.”

    Multiparty systems yield legislatures that mirror the preferences of citizens more closely and can narrow the representation gap between high- and low-income voters.
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    Electoral systems matter for inequality

    Electoral systems that translate the will of the people to representatives, as ProRep does, pass policies that people want. When voters want a more equal society, ProRep countries deliver. Winner-take-all countries, with their distorted electoral results, also pass distorted policies that exacerbate inequality.