Local Election Method Study: Proportional vs Current Methods

The Study Committee is working on the study adopted at the fall meeting. Check the calendar on this website for the next meeting.
Study Chair: Action Director Preston Jordan, Contact Preston at action@lwvbae.org
Study Committee Members
Esteem Brumfield, Anna Dell’Amico, Cynthia Lloyd,
Bridget Smith, Nancy Bickel, Adena Ishii, President

Would a different election method than we currently use in our three cities be more democratic or more fair than our current methods?

The New Study on proportional representation, adopted at our August 26 “Fall” meeting, will be limited to proportional methods that could actually be used in our local city elections. The Study Committee now has a core of interested members.. The committee is focusing their work on likely voting methods.  Contact Preston Jordan at action@lwvbae.org if you would like to learn more.

It’s a fascinating topic. At its first meeting on October 12, the very well informed six new members discovered that they really did not understand some of the basic terms, for example, proportional election methods versus single-seat or multi-seat elections or Instant Runoff Voting/ Ranked Choice Voting as used in single-seat elections [for example, for Berkeley mayor and city council] versus in multi-seat elections [for example, in Cambridge MA]. The basic idea behind proportional representation or elections is described briefly in the Background section below.

At its second meeting, the group went over the basic definitions of several election methods, agreed to to more research and set up a table showing all the methods and the various names used for each.

So to start you on your way to understanding some of these terms, here are two approaches–read or watch some videos. Just remember–no election system is perfect–each works well in some situations and less well in others. See Kenneth Arrow’s theorem below.*

To get an overall view of various electoral systems, take a look at and read selectively in Electoral System Design: The New International IDEA Handbook from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

Here are two short videos from Minnesota Public Radio to illustrate how Instant Runnoff Voting/Ranked Choice Voting works for single-seat elections and how it [IRV/RCV] works for multi-seat elections.

Here’s another slower video explanation for IRV/RCV for single seat elections that shows some of the cases where that method doesn’t seem to work as hoped to elect the candidate supported by the largest percentage of voters.

More videos: If you wait a moment after either of the two short videos, you will find yourself watching more and more videos explaining Instant Runnoff Voting/Ranked Choice Voting from different points of view. Have fun!


Currently, Berkeley, Albany and Emeryville Councils and School Boards and the Berkeley Rent Board are elected in multi-seat elections where the top vote winners get the available seats. Only the Berkeley City Council has district elections with one person elected to represent each district.

Neither LWVBAE, LWVCA nor LWVUS has a policy supporting proportional representation.

If you would like to know more about this issue, you might like to take a look at the Washington State League’s position  because the study materials and consensus report leading to its position are available. Use the links to read the LWVWA Consensus Report, view the graphics used in the study, and read the script used in the study.

Proportional representation is a voting method for multi-seat elections that assures the majority view wins a majority of the representation, but also assures the view or choice of a substantial minority to win some representation.

Many other Leagues around the country, both at the state and local level, have taken positions in favor of voting methods that provide for both majority rule and minority representation, known by some as fair representation methods. The Vermont League supports these methods “as a way of achieving both competitive elections and fair representation of both majorities and minorities within a district.”

These methods result in the portion of legislators representing a certain viewpoint equal to the prevalence of that viewpoint among voters, which is why these methods are known as proportional representation.  The Arizona League “supports changing the present election systems so that they more accurately represent the wishes of voters: Adopting the Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) system for single seat races; adopting proportional representation for multi-seat races, specifically Ranked Choice Voting.”

Berkeley, Albany, Emeryville Election Methods: The methods we use to elect  the city councils and school boards in our three cities and the Rent Stabilization Board in Berkeley do not assure majority rule. For all but the Berkeley Council, the top vote winners in one round of vote counting get the available seats. As these winners are not required to have majority voter support, this can result in minority rule on all these bodies.

Berkeley uses ranked choice voting [RCV], also known as instant runoff voting, to elect a single Council member in each district and Mayor city-wide.  RCV requires the winning candidate to get at least a majority of the vote. LWVBAE and LWV CA policies support this method. While this would seem to provide majority rule, when the council members vote only a majority of all Council members is required to pass a motion.  There is no requirement that a majority of the Council as a whole be elected by a majority of the voters citywide.

In addition to failing to provide majority rule, in the sense described here, none of the voting methods used to elect bodies in Berkeley, Albany, or Emeryville assures that minority views will be represented on the bodies and thus do not provide “fair representation” for political minorities in the sense used in proportional representation discussions. . Cambridge, MA, which is a virtual demographic twin of Berkeley, has used proportional representation to provide both majority rule and political minority representation since the 1940s.


Note that fair/proportional election methods are sometimes confused with the parliamentary system. However, rather than an election method, the parliamentary system is a form of government in which the executive branch is appointed by the legislature. In other words, fair/proportional election methods and the parliamentary system are apples and oranges. Fair/proportional methods can be used to elect members to any level of government without changing the structure of that government.

Preston Jordan, Action Director

*Arrow is probably best known for his Ph.D. dissertation (on which his book Social Choice and Individual Values is based), in which he proved his famous “impossibility theorem.” He showed that under certain assumptions about people’s preferences between options, it is always impossible to find a voting rule under which one option emerges as the most preferred. {Wikipedia article on Arrow} In social choice theory, Arrow’s impossibility theorem, the general possibility theorem or Arrow’s paradox is an impossibility theorem stating that when voters have three or more distinct alternatives (options), no ranked voting electoral system can convert the ranked preferences of individuals into a community-wide (complete and transitive) ranking while also meeting a specified set of criteria: unrestricted domain, non-dictatorship, Pareto efficiency and independence of irrelevant alternatives. The theorem is often cited in discussions of voting theory as it is further interpreted by the Gibbard–Satterthwaite theorem.[Wikepedia article on the theorem.]