Let’s Start Bringing 80 Million Americans Back Into the Political Process

Light blue background with blue, red, dark blue and light purple toned dots representing the number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and a magnifying glass that reveals "I Voted" stickers.

We are quickly approaching what is, yet again, the most important election year of our lifetimes. I say this with an intellectual understanding, but not an emotional one. Frankly, I’m burned out on all this “end of days” talk. Sometimes, the idea of disengaging completely from political life is deeply appealing — and I’m someone with every incentive to remain an active participant. If politics feels that bad for me, it almost certainly feels worse for other people.

Millions of Americans have not voted in recent high-stakes elections. When you ask them why, they typically either say it’s too hard (something I’ve addressed in previous columns) or express disinterest in politics and the leading candidates. Too often, elections feel like either a boring spectator sport or an endless acrimonious game — a game not worth investing much time or energy into. 

I’m not here to argue that this is the right way to think about politics. Rather, I want to paint a picture of how our electoral system creates the perfect environment for political apathy to fester, and how upgrading our system with proportional representation can put us on a better path. 

In 2020, then-President Donald Trump was up for reelection against now-President Joe Biden. Lives hung in the balance of the outcome: among other things, COVID-19 was in full swing and Trump was spreading disinformation about the virus that was contributing to unnecessary illness and death. To many, voting in elections felt like table stakes — the bare minimum that a responsible citizen could do to stop the trainwreck. 

If we want to get nonvoters engaged, we need to find a way to help them feel connected to politics.

Yet 80 million voting-eligible Americans — a third of the pool of eligible voters — did not vote that year. A national survey then asked a random sample of these nonvoters why they didn’t participate. Over a quarter — 29% — of respondents cited not being registered (which points to the very real need for policies that make registration easier). But the other top reasons involved a distaste for politics. Specifically, nearly one in four people (23%) said they did not vote because they were not interested in politics; one in five (20%) said they did not like the candidates and one in six (16%) had a feeling that their vote would not have made a difference. 

In other words, reforms that make voting easier are an important piece to the low turnout puzzle, but they’re not sufficient to drive participation. People also need to want to vote in the first place.

If we want to get nonvoters engaged, we need to find a way to help them feel connected to politics — to see themselves represented in the field of candidates, represented by officeholders and represented in public policy outcomes. There are many reforms that can move the needle on these fronts, but proportional representation is the most ambitious and, potentially, the most transformative. 

Proportional representation is a system in which a party’s share of the vote determines its amount of representation. If a party gets 30% of the vote, it gets 30% of the seats in Congress (or whichever political body is being elected). If a party gets 60% of the vote, it gets 60% of the seats, and so on. This is made possible by adopting large “multi-member districts,” where constituents are represented by multiple representatives all at once — elected in proportion to their support from voters — instead of just one representative who wins the plurality vote.

This is not what the United States has today. Instead, we use a “winner-take-all” electoral system. People vote for one candidate to represent a given geographical area. The candidate who gets the most votes wins. If only two people are competing, the person who gets more than 50% of the vote is declared the winner. 

At first glance, the winner-take-all approach can seem like the only logical way to run an election. Everyone votes for the candidate they want, and whoever pulls in the most votes wins. Easy.

But there’s a big downside to this approach to running elections: the winner-take-all method typically results in two-party systems. This is because smaller parties have to pass a very high vote threshold to win (typically around 50% of the vote) and voters who prefer third-party candidates often vote “strategically” for a major-party candidate instead of wasting their vote. 

By contrast, countries with proportional representation tend to have multiple parties, each of which caters to a different set of potential voters. Were the U.S. to switch to proportional representation, it is possible that we could end up with five or six viable parties

Rather than forcing a huge, diverse electorate into two categories — Democrat or Republican — we’d end up with parties that varied by ideology, economic class and political engagement. Pro-business social moderates, like the Michael Bloomberg types, could settle into a new political home separate from today’s MAGA-dominated Republican Party, just as young progressives motivated by racial and economic justice might follow AOC into a new left-wing party. 

In that world, many more Americans could find a candidate on the ballot who spoke to them. And if they didn’t — if the parties still felt unrepresentative — it would be far easier for new parties to field candidates and win seats. 

Imagine a world in which politics felt more open. A world where Congress didn’t just flip back and forth ad nauseam between Democrats and Republicans but, instead, where communities with shared interests could organize into new parties that actually won power at the ballot. Sure, some people would still sit out elections — but some sizable percentage would get off the sidelines and, for the first time, feel invested in their government. 

Charlotte Hill is the interim director of the Democracy Policy Initiative at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy. As a contributor to Democracy Docket, Hill writes about how structural reforms impact American democracy.