IT is autumn in an even-numbered year; the onslaught of negative campaigning has returned. Politicians, journalists, commentators, and voters all complain, but the trend continues, each campaign more vicious than the last.
After all, negative campaigning passes the only test that matters: It works. It works to get politicians elected. But it doesn't work to give them a mandate or to give voters a clear sense of what to expect or demand of them. And it certainly doesn't work to restore people's faith in the political process. All of which means that the next election will be even more negative, more vicious, and more removed from the nitty-gritty of solving actual problems.
There is an alternative, a way to vote for a candidate we choose, rather than against the one we momentarily hate or fear the most.
Proportional representation is a voting system first introduced in 19th-century Australia (along with the secret ballot) that allows politically cohesive groups to elect their own representatives. In the United States, district-based, geographical systems represent us together with our neighbors - those who live near us. Proportional representation would represent us together with our friends - those who think like us. That is its simple genius.
Representatives for a geographical district face an impossible task: representing many conflicting interests and points of view. Representatives for a self-selecting portion of the population represent a shared point of view or set of interests, giving new resonance to the term ``representative'' democracy. Important differences are then deliberated in the legislative body with able and articulate advocates representing a wide range of views and interests.
We are accustomed to electing representatives with a majority vote in a small geographical district. In California, for instance, there are 80 state Assembly districts, meaning that a successful candidate must get just one more than 1/160 of the total California vote.
Under proportional representation, we would elect representatives who win a sufficient portion of the entire vote. A successful candidate would have to receive just one more than 1/81 of the total California vote - almost twice as many votes as a majority candidate in our present system. (Or, to put it another way, the 80 top voter-getters statewide are elected to the 80 Assembly seats.)
Under this system, voters frustrated with negative campaigning and vague promises can vote specifically for someone they actually want - from a large field of candidates - rather than voting against the greater of two evils.
In addition, the number of people actually represented - those who have voted for a successful candidate - increases dramatically, from the 50 to 55 percent who vote for the winner in a typical district-based election to more than 98 percent in a proportional representation plan. With increased odds of casting a meaningful vote, we can expect increased participation and trust in the system over time.
These results are astonishing, but surprisingly easy to understand. In district-based elections, there are many wasted votes. All the votes for a losing candidate are wasted, but so are all the extra votes the winning candidate receives beyond the 50 percent plus 1 needed for election.
Thus, only 51 votes out of 100 are effective in electing a representative. By allowing the 49 wasted votes to be redistributed - which can't be done in a geographically limited race - a much larger pool of effective votes is created. Because more votes are effective, more votes are needed to elect a single representative.
The purest and simplest form of proportional representation is called the single transferable vote. Each person receives one vote, but the vote is transferable. If the person voted for doesn't need it to win, or can't use it to win, the vote is transferred to the second-choice candidate marked by the voter on his or her ballot. If that candidate doesn't need it or can't use it, the vote is transferred again. Transfers continue until all seats are filled. There is no limit to the number of candidates who can enter, and no need for a system of primaries. Attack ads are virtually futile, since both the attacker and the person attacked will lose votes, while candidates running positive campaigns will pick up votes.
Of course, this is not a panacea. First, it would cause some problems in legislative bodies, especially at first. A wider variety of representatives will get elected, so more points of view will be heard from. The process of governing will require more complex negotiations. Sometimes this will seem terribly inefficient and slow - but given the status quo, who would notice?
The difference in quality, however, would be noticeable. Following much more careful integration of diverse concerns, the legislative results would probably enjoy more support for a longer period of time. Politicians will have to develop a different set of skills from those they currently cultivate. There will be a premium on creative solutions that satisfy specific, seemingly incompatible interests. It will take time to adjust and find representatives who can operate in such a system.
Second, proportional representation would not affect how we elect executive offices: mayors, governors, and the president - or how we elect senators, since the US Constitution requires them to represent states, which are arbitrary geographical districts. The high-profile races would not be changed, the noxious big-ticket television-ad campaigns would continue, at least for a while.
But over time the change in political culture would certainly affect these races as well. Voters would see the difference made by proportional representation and would begin to demand creative remedies for single-seat elections - perhaps putting the choice ``none of the above'' on every ballot, with public financing tied to a system of mandatory televised debates and financed by a graduated tax on campaign contributions. There are solutions, but our current system of electing representatives stands in the way of finding them.
If these proposals still sound like an impractical, utopian scheme, consider this: In all the world, there is one textbook test of the value of proportional representation. Following the division of Ireland in the 1920s, both North and South had hostile, bitterly divided loyalties, though in opposite proportions. Both were required by law to use proportional representation for a brief period before they could choose another method. Southern Ireland never changed its system. Northern Ireland got rid of proportional representation at its first opportunity and elects its representatives to Westminster by winner take all.
It is up to us to choose which example we think has worked best.