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Proportional representation and the Pursuit of Happiness
New research measuring levels of “life satisfaction” suggest that certain political institutions such as PR result in more individual happiness
[DemocracySOS welcomes political scientist Douglas Amy as a guest contributor. Amy is Professor Emeritus of Politics, Mount Holyoke College, where he has been a leading expert on electoral voting systems, including proportional representation, redistricting issues in the United States, and the plight of third-party candidacies. His books on this subject include “Behind the Ballot Box: A Citizen's Guide to Voting Systems” (2000) and “Real Choices, New Voices: How Proportional Representation Elections Could Revitalize American Democracy” (2002), which won the George H. Hallett Award from the American Political Science Association. Amy's most recent effort is a web project, “Second-Rate Democracy: Seventeen Ways America is Less Democratic than Other Major Western Democracies and How We Can Do Better.”]
Can a nation’s voting system contribute to its citizens’ happiness? This is not a question usually addressed by scholars or activists interested in voting system reform. But due to recent research, this may very well be a question we can actually begin to answer.
There is a growing interest in voting system reform in the United States. Many critics of our current winner-take-all voting system – which elects legislators by plurality (highest-vote getter) vote in single-member districts – argue that it should be replaced by the system now used by most advanced industrial democracies: proportional representation elections. These “PR” systems use large multi-member districts where seats are allocated according to the proportion of the vote each party receives. So in a five-seat district, for instance, if the Democrats received 60% of the vote, they would receive three of the five seats. A Green Party that garnered 20% of the vote, would get one seat.
Those advocating this reform usually focus on the many well-documented political advantages that would come from adopting a proportional representation system:
No redistricting abuses. PR’s multi-member districts would be immune from gerrymandering. No matter how district lines are drawn, every party gets their fair share of seats.
Multi-party representation. Third party supporters would not be denied representation, as they are in our current voting system. PR allows them to win seats.
No spoilers or split votes. Since third party candidates can be elected to legislatures, they would no longer act as spoilers.
Broader representation. The multi-party legislatures of PR would better represent the variety of political views in the electorate.
Higher voter turnout. Since there are few wasted votes in PR and nearly everyone’s vote helps to elect someone, more people would have an incentive to turn out and vote.
But there is also another good reason why we Americans should be interested in embracing PR elections: this reform could help to make us happier. As the authors of one study have found: “citizens report living more satisfying lives in countries … with a proportional representation electoral system.”
This is a fairly audacious claim. But there are reasons to believe it is true. To begin with, this claim is supported by what the authors call “robust evidence.” This evidence comes from several advances in scholarship. First has been the growth and maturation of “happiness studies” over the last three decades. Researchers have developed increasingly rigorous and reliable ways to measure levels of “self-reported life satisfaction,” both within countries and between them.
This data is now being put to various uses. Every year, the United Nations publishes an eagerly awaited World Happiness Report that ranks countries by level of happiness. This report always generates some public discussion about why some nations are happier than others (What is it about Finland that puts them at the top, and why does the U.S. only rank 16th?). Also, there are some leading economists like Joseph Stiglitz who have argued that countries should use measures of happiness and well-being alongside measures of economic growth to guide economic policies – something Great Britain has been exploring.
Which political institutions foster greater life satisfaction?
Meanwhile, some political scientists have been using these comparative measures of happiness to determine what kinds of political institutions tend to promote more life satisfaction for citizens. Advanced industrial countries do democracy differently, utilizing various kinds of legislative, administrative, and electoral institutions. For example, some use parliamentary systems, while others use presidential separation of powers systems. Some use winner-take-all elections, others proportional representation. It turns out, in the words of Benjamin Radcliff, a leader in this research, that these “differences in how democracy is institutionalized affect life satisfaction across nations.”
Radcliff and his colleagues did a study using data for 21 advanced industrial countries from 1981 to 2008. Among his findings are that countries that use PR elections show significantly higher levels of life satisfaction than countries that use winner-take-all elections. Of course, the next question we should probably ask is: why would that be so? What is it about PR elections that would make people happier?
There are several theories about why PR has these beneficial effects on life satisfaction. One focuses on the tendency of PR to be more inclusive and ensure that more people are represented in government. In winner-take-all elections, many people’s votes are wasted and they gain no representation in government. In fact, if there are more than two candidates, the winner in a district may only represent a plurality – leaving the majority of voters with no political voice in government.
Under PR arrangements, many more people are represented, including supporters of minor parties, independents and members of racial and ethnic minorities. Moreover, the fact that legislative majorities under PR rules are usually larger and represent coalitions of several parties means that more of the public see themselves reflected in the makeup of the ruling government. As Radcliff suggests, perhaps “people are more satisfied with their lives because they believe that the political system represents them.”
A second theory has to do with tendency of PR to be better at producing policies supported by the majority of citizens. This is the conclusion arrived at by G. Bingham Powell in his book Elections as Instruments of Democracy: Majoritarian and Proportional Visions. He studied 36 countries that used either PR or winner-take-all election systems. Somewhat to his surprise, he found that there was a closer agreement between the political views of politicians and citizens in PR systems. In general, policymakers in PR countries had policy positions that corresponded much more closely to that of the majority of citizens. And as Radcliff argues, “an institutional arrangement that better represents citizens’ interests and preferences will be more consistent with human well-being.”
So when the government not only looks like us, but also thinks and acts like us, we tend to be happier.
Better democracy = greater well-being?
Another way to think about these arguments is that PR tends to produce more democratic governments – governments that are more representative of the public and more responsive to their political demands – and that satisfaction with the workings of democracy has an impact on people’s feelings of subjective well-being. There is some evidence for this.
A study by Anderson and Guillory found clear evidence that satisfaction with democracy was higher among citizens of PR countries. And while there is not a consensus among scholars about this, several studies have found that the degree to which people are satisfied with their democracy is one of the factors affecting their feelings of general wellbeing. One found that “Countries where the quality of democracy is high also tend to have citizens who are more satisfied in general with their lives.” Another, that there is “a significant positive relationship between democracy and happiness, even when controlling for income and culture.”
We know that many Americans are distressed about the quality of our democracy. A 2020 global survey found that the U.S. now ranks 34th in public satisfaction with our democracy, trailing most other advanced Western democracies and even some countries in Africa and Latin America. Of course, there are many reasons Americans are discouraged about our democracy – including Trump’s attacks on democratic institutions and Republican efforts to suppress voter turnout. But it seems reasonable to believe that part of the problem may be located in our voting system. Winner-take-all systems are prone to all sorts of problems – like gerrymandering and wasted votes – that tend to make large numbers of voters feel left out of government.
In addition, Americans routinely fail to see themselves in the policies pursued by their government. Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens have shown that in the U.S., national government policies have ignored the views of a majority of Americans on a whole range of key issues, including campaign finance, a higher minimum wage, gun control, paid parental leave, affordable health care, abortion, environmental and climate policy, raising taxes on the rich, stronger regulation of Wall Street, and more affordable higher education.
In short, in PR countries, more people are politically effective, feel a part of government, see themselves in the government’s policies, and feel that their democracy is working well – all of which would most likely have positive effects on feelings of well-being.
Another theory about how voting systems affect happiness has to do with the ideological effects that PR has on public policy. Studies show there is a link between voting systems and the amount of government management and spending on the social welfare system. Countries with PR tend to have more extensive and better funded programs like social security and health care. While there is an ongoing debate between the liberals and conservatives about the desirability of social welfare policies, happiness studies have made it clear that, in the words of Pacek and Radcliff, “citizens find life more rewarding as the generosity of the welfare state increases.”
Why does PR encourage larger social welfare expenditures? Some believe that it is a by-product of PR’s larger multi-seat districts. Unlike single-seat districts, which encourage candidates to focus on small, local constituencies, PR’s larger districts encourage candidates and parties to seek support from broader coalitions of citizens, which lead them to emphasize broader social programs that benefit larger populations.
Another factor may be the propensity for PR to better allow for the representation of leftof center parties in government – such as socialist, labor, social democratic and green parties – even when they are minor parties. In many European PR countries, these progressive parties have at times been parts of ruling legislative coalitions and have garnered appointments to cabinets, where they have pushed for the passage of universal social welfare policies that benefit everyone in society, including the working class and poor. As a result, citizens in PR countries are more likely to have low-cost or free higher education, affordable universal health care, low-cost day care, well-funded retirement programs, and more effective anti-poverty policies.
Weak democracy = anxious citizens
In contrast, in the winner-take-all voting system in the U.S., these kinds of smaller progressive parties are unelectable and have been shut out of any role in governing. During the Progressive Era of the early 20th century, and the tumultuous political times of the 1930s and 1960s, there was significant public interest in left-wing political movements – but these movements could not produce parties that broke the duopoly of the Republicans and Democrats. This absence of any progressive parties in government has produced a much more limited and underfunded social welfare system.
This means that many Americans lead lives that are often plagued with persistent worries about how they will pay for their kids going to college, whether they can afford all the health care they need, who will take care of their kids when they are working, how they will be able to live comfortably in retirement on the small benefits from Social Security, and whether the loss of a job or a spouse will plunge them into poverty.
It doesn’t take much of a leap to see that people who have all these worries weighing on them will tend to report lower levels of well-being. And it also seems plausible that citizens in PR countries with more generous social welfare systems – who do not have these worries, and who find life more comfortable and economically secure – will tend to report higher levels of life satisfaction.
In conclusion, it is understandable that advocates of voting system reform in the United States – like those promoting proportional ranked choice voting – usually tend to focus on the considerable political advantages that proportional representation has over our traditional winner-take-all system. And obviously it would be desirable to get rid of gerrymandering and to have legislatures that accurately represent the diversity of political views in the electorate. It is often assumed that such institutional advantages are goals in and of themselves.
But we need to remember that the ultimate bottom line for political reform is whether the change will make people’s lives better. And there now seems to be reliable evidence that a reform like proportional representation not only would make our political system more democratic, but would also increase the life-satisfaction of our citizens.
In the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers boldly asserted that it was a self-evident truth that Americans had the “unalienable right” to “the pursuit of happiness.” We know now that part of that pursuit can involve adopting a voting system that can contribute to Americans’ ability to lead more satisfying lives.
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