Proportional Representation Would Be a Boon for Labor

The US electoral system distorts the translation of political preferences into votes, diminishing the influence of working-class voters and labor unions. To build their political power, unions should support proportional representation.

By leading the fight for electoral reform, organized labor can forge a political system more responsive to the needs of working-class voters and thereby breathe new life into American democracy. (Téa Kvetenadze / New York Daily News / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

The labor movement has played a key role in fighting for democracy all around the world. The fight for greater democracy is especially important in the United States right now, as the US government continues to support Israel’s genocidal campaign in Gaza over the opposition of a majority of Americans. But congressional and White House support for the war on Gaza is just one particularly dramatic illustration of how our political system fails to represent the popular will, and in particular the interests of working-class voters.

According to V-Dem’s liberal democracy and electoral democracy indices (which measure factors such as the quality of countries’ legal systems and electoral processes), the United States ranks at twenty-third and twenty-seventh in the world on each measure respectively, and is considered to be an “autocratizer” that is in the process of democratic backsliding. In contrast, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway consistently rank the highest along those two indices. While a variety of factors feed into V-Dem’s qualitative measures of how democratic a country is, almost every country that ranks above the United States features electoral mechanisms involving proportional representation.

A supermajority of Americans feel exhausted and angry thinking about politics. It’s part of a broader trend of dissatisfaction among voters, and the share of voters who say they have an interest in the upcoming presidential election has hit a twenty-year low. Even despite a recent uptick, voter turnout in the United States continues to underperform with respect to its Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) peers.

Americans are unhappy with the two-party system, with up to 63 percent of Americans believing that the Democrats and Republicans are both doing such a poor job that a third party is needed. This desire for a third party is shared by Democrats, Republicans, and independents (although Republicans express the highest interest in a third party at 58 percent). And there’s no doubt that organized labor in particular and workers more broadly have especially suffered for the lack of their own party.

Yet although faith in our current political system is so low and interest in a third party is so high across broad swathes of the electorate, we have not seen a successful third-party effort. Why not?

The Lesser-Evil Trap

One major difficulty is that our first-past-the-post electoral system makes the emergence of third parties extremely difficult. This is due to a phenomenon known as Duverger’s law, which holds that party duopolies tend to emerge in first-past-the-post systems because voters are forced to choose “the lesser of two evils” to prevent their least-preferred party from getting elected. Opting for a third party in this system often has the dreaded “spoiler” effect, in which voting for one’s most-preferred candidate increases the likelihood of a candidate further from that preference being elected.

In instances where most of a political party’s likely voters are clustered in proximity to one another rather than dispersed homogeneously throughout every district, the first-past-the-post system leads to more “wasted” votes, of two kinds. On the one hand, any votes cast for the minority party in their opponents’ “safe” districts — districts that reliably vote for the opposing party — have no impact on the national seat share of the minority party in legislative bodies. Conversely, such a party will accrue no advantage to its overall seat count by racking up surplus votes in its own safe seats. It doesn’t help the Labour Party if it astronomically drives up its vote share in parliamentary constituencies in London, for instance, or the New Democratic Party (NDP) if it wins big in a Hamilton, Ontario, riding, or Democrats if they win an urban congressional district in California by a wide margin.

The result is a highly distorted translation of political preferences into legislative representation for political groupings that are more concentrated geographically: those groups will be systematically disadvantaged at turning their votes into seats in the legislature. In the United States today, this hurts working-class voters in urban areas, where union membership is highest, as well as the substantial minorities of Democratic-leaning voters who live in more heterogeneous rural districts, including public sector workers like teachers and nurses. Such workers make up a significant share of the population in those areas but don’t constitute enough of their districts’ population to win legislative seats.

This duopolistic system reduces the competitiveness of elections dramatically. In 2024, only forty-four seats in the House of Representatives, or about 10 percent of all House elections, are competitive. The lack of competitive districts, combined with very narrow margins of victory at the national scale, means gerrymandering and manipulative redistricting have an outsize impact on election results.

Because of all these factors, this system results in a disconnect between the vote share that a party receives and the number of seats it ends up with. Our system doesn’t have to work this way. Rather than electing one member of the House from a plurality of votes in a district, other democracies around the world elect multiple members per district, proportional to the vote share they receive above a certain threshold. This system, known as proportional representation, reduces wasted votes and enables voters to rank their choices.

A Shot at Proportional Representation

This may sound like a pipe dream, but the Fair Representation Act, recently reintroduced in the House, would create multimember districts across the country and enable ranked-choice voting within those districts. This means that rather than electing a single candidate in each district, multiple candidates are elected, with the winners determined by the number of ranked-choice votes each candidate receives.

So rather than having to vote strategically for the corporate Democrat in my district to keep out a Republican, I could rank a pro-labor candidate first, followed by the corporate Democrat. Provided that my labor-union candidate crosses the threshold of 17–25 percent of the vote in the district, they would get elected. Excess votes would then be distributed to my second-choice rankings, ensuring that far fewer votes are wasted and that, whether or not my candidate is elected, my vote would not contribute to the Republican being elected. Rather than voting tactically to keep out a candidate I don’t like, I can cast my vote for the candidates who most align with my ideological preferences.

The Fair Representation Act would be an electoral boon to organized labor. It would enable unions to run their own candidates in districts with corporate Democrats without worrying about playing spoiler in favor of Republicans. Unions today spend most of their resources on lobbying, rather than running their own pro-labor candidates, in no small part due to the risk of splitting votes. (This difficulty was one reason for the failure of the Labor Party effort in the late 1990s and 2000s.) From 2019 to 2020, unions spent $49 million from political action committees on Democratic Party candidates. This is a significant amount of money, but it is not significant enough to shift the Democratic Party away from its general subservience to the interests of corporations and the very wealthy.

Under proportional representation, organized labor would also benefit from the ability to translate pro-labor votes into seats in otherwise “red” states where new union organizing is taking place, like Tennessee, Alabama, and Texas. The workers who powered the United Auto Workers’ (UAW) recent victory in Chattanooga, Tennessee, are unlikely to have an outlet for their pro-union preferences in Congress, given that Tennessee’s 3rd District is safely Republican. By lowering the threshold to elect candidates to Congress, a UAW-backed candidate in Tennessee could get elected with only 17 percent of the vote. (Democrat Meg Gorman received 30.2 percent of the vote in 2022 in this district, and while a multimember district would mean this district is expanded, the increased ability to translate a significant minority of votes into seats would also be a boon for Democrats in red states.) The Fair Representation Act would in addition allow pro-union candidates to run in more competitive districts, in the South and elsewhere, without the risk of splitting the vote with a centrist Democrat and thereby handing victory to a Republican candidate.

Unions, the Left, and the Fight for Democracy

Around the world, unions and parties associated with unions have fought to deepen democracy through reforms including proportional representation. During the industrial revolution, the labor movement and its political wing adopted demands for electoral reform that would ensure representation of its urban-worker constituency in parliaments commensurate with its share of the vote.

Thanks in large part to their efforts, many European countries today such as Sweden and Norway have proportional electoral systems and rank among the most democratic countries in the world. More recently, in 1993, trade unionists and socialists in New Zealand won a referendum to switch their electoral system to a form of proportional representation. A plurality of countries around the world have now adopted a proportional-representation-based system.

This system provides tangible benefits to emerging left parties. The Labor Party of Belgium saw its seat share explode in the national parliament, from two in 2014 to twelve in 2019. This seat share was reflective of the party’s increase in its share of the popular vote, which grew from 3.2 percent in 2014 to 8.6 percent in 2019. In the absence of a proportional-representation system, the Labor Party would have been incapable of running its own candidates with any chance of victory and would have been forced to run candidates on more popular ballot lines instead.

Proportional representation can also play a key role in fighting the Right, and right-wing politicians in countries with proportional representation have attacked the system to increase their electoral prospects. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s far-right party Fidesz remodeled the electoral system to more closely match that of the United States, by allocating more seats with first-past-the-post methods. This change resulted in Orban’s party capturing 88 percent of single-member districts in 2014 despite only capturing 45 percent of the votes in these districts.

Some might argue that reducing the threshold to victory is as likely to help far-right Republicans as it is to help pro-labor candidates. But this worry overlooks the fact that left-wing voters are much more densely packed into cities, whereas right-wing voters tend to be more scattered geographically, as Jonathan Rodden points out in his book Why Cities Lose: The Deep Roots of the Urban-Rural Political Divide. In a first-past-the-post, single-member-district system, any excess votes received above the threshold of victory by political blocs whose voters are highly concentrated are wasted, and hence can’t contribute to electing more than one left-wing candidate. In a proportional multimember district, the excess votes of these political blocs would be transferred to the second-most-popular candidate in that district, providing more electoral representation to the Left. Conversely, in the United States today, the far right punches above its voting weight in winning seats. It benefits from the geographic dispersal of right-wing voters, which helps it win with generally smaller majorities in less-urbanized districts. Under proportional representation, left-leaning candidates would also be able to win seats in places they cannot obtain majorities in today.

While proportional representation is a crucial piece in the puzzle of democratizing our political system, it is by no means a silver bullet. It is just one part of a broader program that a movement to expand democracy in the United States will ultimately need. That would necessitate profound changes including abolishing the Senate, rolling back the right-wing capture of our judicial system, and replacing the Electoral College with a national popular vote. Much of this program points to the need to amend or replace the Constitution itself.

This broader democratization effort will require creative and coordinated organizing at all levels of our political system: local, state, and federal. But by promoting the Fair Representation Act at the federal level, labor and the Left can make a major advance for that project.

The rules of our political system have helped prevent the emergence of a progressive, working-class political alternative to the corporate-dominated Democratic and Republican parties. Consequently, labor unions have often found themselves supporting corporate Democratic candidates even when those candidates are indifferent or hostile to unions’ interests. By leading the fight for electoral reform, organized labor can forge a political system more responsive to the needs of working-class voters and thereby breathe new life into American democracy.