Gary Swing on Election Reform

Election Reform is point eight of the Unified Platform.  Gary Swing is a Colorado candidate who bravely ran for Congress twice as a Green Party member with the full support of the New Progressive Alliance. He ran as a Green Party candidate in 1996, 2010, 2012, and 2014. Though unfunded, Gary worked tirelessly against great odds to get out unpleasant truths both major parties ignored. Because Gary has been in the arena more than once fighting the good fight, I think his comments on election reform are very germane. Here he makes a persuasive case based upon his experience for a Party list system of proportional representation. In August 2015 he added comments on the electoral system and U.S. Senate and added still more in November 2015.

Gary Swing: Following is the text of a presentation I prepared for the 2014 Colorado Green Party state convention about the impact of voting systems on Green Party success:

"I would like to talk with you today about how the Green Party is doing in the United States compared to the rest of the world, and how different types of voting systems impact the success of Green Party election campaigns.

According to the current listings on the website of the Global Greens, there are now Green Parties in 96 different countries on six different continents. So far, there is no organized Green Party in Antarctica. However, there are rumors that some penguins -- who are deeply concerned about global warming -- may soon be organizing a Green Party chapter there.

The Global Greens website reports that as of December of 2013, Green Party members held 314 seats in national Parliaments in 30 countries around the world, and 46 seats in the European Parliament. (A total of 360 members of Parliaments.)

The Green Party of the United States has an outdated database of Green Party office holders. It lists 129 Green Party officeholders around the United States. These are people who happen to be Green Party members, and who were elected mostly to small, local, non-partisan offices such as special districts, school boards, town councils, and mayors. Very few of these people appeared on an election ballot with the label: “Green Party.” So the best way for a Green Party candidate to get elected in the United States is to NOT be identified as a Green Party candidate.

The Green Party has been running candidates for public offices in the United States since 1985 and in Colorado since 1994. But we still haven’t elected a single Green Party member to Congress. Currently, there is one Green Party state legislator in Arkansas. Only four Green Party candidates have ever been elected to state legislatures in the United States. In three of those cases, the Green Party candidate was in a two-way race in which the other candidate self-destructed in a major scandal. In 2012, Fred Smith, a former Harlem Globetrotter, took a funny bounce into the state legislature when his only opponent was convicted of election fraud and was disqualified from the ballot just a few hours before the election. In 2008, Richard Carroll was elected to the Arkansas state house of representatives with 100% of the vote after his Democratic Party opponent was removed from the ballot for inappropriate sexual conduct. In 1999, Audie Bock won a special election for a vacancy in California’s state assembly. Her opponent was embroiled in controversy when he offered coupons for free fried chicken to people in the mostly African-American district in exchange for their election ballot stub. He was accused of vote-buying and racism. In 2002, John Eder was elected to Maine’s state house of representatives in a two-way race in a tiny district, with public campaign financing.

The website of the Green Party of the United States shows that Green Party candidates have been much more successful in other countries. As the website states: (Quote): “Why are US Greens not holding similar offices in similar proportions? The difference is not of ideology but of the electoral system. Greens are being elected on the state and national level in countries that utilize systems of proportional representation. In contrast to US-style winner-take-all, single seat districts, there are multi-seat districts in these countries where representation is determined according to the proportion of the vote cast for each party.

If systems of proportional representation existed in the US, Greens would assume their rightful place at the political table as they do elsewhere in the world.” (End quote.)

I have looked primarily at legislative elections because that is where the use of better voting systems makes the biggest difference. Out of the 360 Green Party members who currently hold seats in national parliaments or the European Parliament, almost all of them were elected through some form of proportional representation voting system. Only 14 Green Party members have ever been elected to a national parliament anywhere in the world under a winner-take-all voting system. And most of those 14 were elected under unusual circumstances, echoing back to our four Green Party state legislators in the United States.

We are stuck with an archaic 18th century voting system. Voting systems have evolved, but the United States remains primitive and most Americans don’t know how the rest of the world votes. Most democratic republics use more modern, more sophisticated, more representative voting systems.

American elections are uniquely backwards in many respects. We have the longest, most expensive election campaigns in the world. This is the only major democratic republic that nominates candidates through primaries, which adds months and expense to elections. No nation takes so long to select its chief executive, with presidential primaries or caucuses in each state and a bizarre Electoral College system. Only in the United States do we elect so many secondary executive offices like attorney general, treasurer, auditor, secretary of state, and even county coroners. Most countries have unicameral legislatures with one body of representatives. Our Congress and 49 redundant state legislatures are bicameral, electing two bodies of representatives. The US Senate is probably the most unrepresentative legislative body of any country that claims to have a representative form of government. Most other democratic republics have a prime minister chosen by their parliament, not a direct presidential election. Our elections are centered on individual candidates, not political parties and platforms, but only candidates of the two establishment parties are covered by the media or included in debates. Public campaign financing is rare in our elections. The government allows unlimited corporate campaign spending. Voter turnout in the United States is among the lowest in the world. This is also the only western democracy that has never held a national initiative or referendum. Nowhere else have so few people voted so frequently in such utterly meaningless elections, with such poor representation.

Our winner-take-all voting system tends to divide voters into two major parties, even if the voters wish they had more viable parties that they could elect.

We have two types of problems with our voting systems. One problem is the possibility that a candidate could win with less than a majority of the vote in an election with three or more candidates. There is the so-called “spoiler” problem. Many voters are afraid to vote for their favorite candidate because doing so might lead to the election of their least favorite candidate. So these voters often cast “strategic votes” for candidates they see as the “lesser of two evils.”

A much bigger problem is the lack of fair representation for a politically diverse population. We don’t all support one of the two major parties. We want to be able to elect candidates who represent our values. We have choices, but we lack a meaningful, effective vote.

The basic premise behind proportional representation is that the right of decision belongs to the majority, but the right of representation belongs to all.

The first two points in the election reform section of the Green Party’s national platform call for implementing better voting systems.

The first point states (Quote): “Enact proportional representation voting systems for legislative seats on municipal, county, state and federal levels. Proportional representation systems provide that people are represented in the proportion their views are held in society and are based on dividing seats proportionally within multi-seat districts, compared to the standard U.S. single-seat, winner-take-all districts. Forms of proportional representation include choice voting (candidate-based), party list (party-based) and mixed-member voting (combines proportional representation with district representation).” (End Quote) What that the Green Party calls “choice” voting here is usually called the single transferable vote, or STV.

The second point of the Green Party’s election reform platform states: (Quote): Enact Instant Run-off Voting (IRV) for chief executive offices like mayor, governor and president and other single-seat elections. Under IRV, voters can rank candidates in their order of preference (1,2,3, etc.) IRV ensures that the eventual winner has majority support and allows voters to express their preferences knowing that supporting their favorite candidate will not inadvertently help their least favored candidate. IRV thus frees voters from being forced to choose between the lesser of two evils, and saves money by eliminating unnecessary run-off elections.” (End Quote).

I have a handout that describes the three basic forms of proportional representation: party list voting, mixed member proportional representation, and the single transferable vote (or STV). The last two pages of the handout describe instant runoff voting (or IRV), which is a winner-take-all voting system, not a form of proportional representation.

In Colorado, the use of the term “ranked choice voting” may be confusing. Ranked choice voting includes both the single transferable vote and instant runoff voting. But usually when someone talks about ranked choice voting, they are only talking about instant runoff. IRV will help the two major parties by eliminating the potential threat posed by minor party candidates, but it won’t help the Green Party to win elections.

If we want the Green Party to win fair representation in government and hold real political power, we need to push for proportional representation in legislative bodies as our number one election reform priority. We could use the citizen initiative process to implement proportional representation systems at the local and state levels. At the federal level, it would require an act of Congress or a Constitutional amendment.

More than 80 percent of the proportional representation systems used worldwide use some form of party list voting. Each party nominates a list of candidates. Voters cast a ballot for their favorite party, and the parties win seats in proportion to their share of the vote. Ten percent of the vote would win ten percent of the seats.

Party list systems can use either closed lists or open lists. With a closed list, the party chooses the order in which its candidates are listed and elected. The voter simply votes for their favorite party. Most European countries now use open party lists. Voters cast one or more votes for individual candidates, but the vote counts for their party as well as for the individuals. The most popular individuals are elected in proportion to each party’s share of the votes. Party list systems typically provide the best representation for women, ethnic minorities, and smaller political parties in government. These are generally the most simple proportional representation systems.

After World War Two, Germany created a system of mixed-member proportional representation for its parliamentary elections. Half of the seats are elected from single member districts, as they are here. The other half of the seats are elected by a party list vote and added on to the district members so that each party’s share of the seats is equal to its percentage of the vote. Bolivia, Venezuela, New Zealand, Romania, Hungary, Scotland and Wales also adopted this system. In New Zealand, the Green Party currently holds 14 out of 120 seats in Parliament. All of these Greens were elected from the party list, not from the single member districts. In 1997, the Green Party of Colorado selected mixed member proportional representation as its preferred system for electing our state legislature.

The single-transferable vote (or STV) is used in Malta and Ireland. This system looks like instant runoff voting because you rank individual candidates in your order of preference. The difference is that more than one candidate is elected from each district. In a district with nine seats to be elected, a candidate would need one tenth of the vote to be elected. If your first choice candidate doesn’t have enough support to win, your ballot is transferred to your highest ranked candidate who can be helped by your ballot. STV is the most complicated system of proportional representation and is generally less proportional than party list systems. Australia elect its Senate with a system that gives voters a choice between casting either a single transferable vote ranking individual candidates in their order of preference or a simple vote for the party list of their choice. It is interesting to note that when voters are given this choice, about 95% of them choose to cast their vote for a party instead of using a ranked choice voting system. I like this system with some modifications.

As I said before instant runoff voting is not a form of proportional representation. It can be useful for making sure that the most popular candidate is elected to a single winner office like president, governor, or mayor, but it won’t help the Green Party and it should not be used for legislative elections. The only countries that use instant runoff voting exclusively to elect their Parliaments are Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Australia uses IRV to elect its lower house. Parliamentary bodies elected by IRV have fewer women than parliaments elected by any other voting method. There is a growing movement to promote IRV among progressive activists in the United States.

Some people in the Green Party believe that we can build up from the grassroots to become a major political party. That is a nearly impossible dream under our current election system. In the history of the United States, more than a thousand minor political parties have nominated candidates for public office. Only one of those parties was successful enough to become a major national political party. The members of that party call themselves Republicans.

In 1994, I was the campaign treasurer for the first Green Party campaign in Colorado, Phil Hufford for governor. Ever since then, I have felt that if we want to create a successful Green Party here, we must first pass a citizen initiative to elect our state legislature by a party list system of proportional representation. This would require an enormous amount of effort, but without it, the Green Party will remain an ineffective protest vote. On the other hand, we could all move to New Zealand or Bolivia.
Gary Swing also added the following on the United States Senate in 2015:
"When I was a Green Party candidate for Congress in 2012, the political website "That's My Congress" reported that I was proposing to abolish the US Senate and eliminate presidential elections. Here are the comments I posted about this:

The convention that drafted the US Constitution didn’t intend to have popular elections for the president. The delegates at the Constitutional Convention voted three times — the first time unanimously — to establish a parliamentary system with the president being appointed by Congress. However, the delegates weren’t satisfied with that proposal, so a committee proposed the creation of the Electoral College instead. Each state legislature would appoint a number of electors equal to the state’s number of members in Congress. These electors would vote in an Electoral College to choose the President. Two days after the conference report came out, the delegates voted to establish the Electoral College, but the language they used stated that each state’s legislature would determine the method for selecting the state’s presidential electors. Within 12 years after the ratification of the US Constitution, the Electoral College changed from a system of legislative appointment to a system for the public election of a slate of presidential electors. Today, the US has the world’s most ridiculous system for choosing its chief executive, using the most expensive, most meaningless, and most cumbersome elections.

The US Senate is surely one of the most ridiculous legislative bodies in the world. Each state has two US Senators, regardless of the state’s population. When the US Constitution was put into effect, the largest state had 11 times the population of the smallest state. By 2002, California had 68 times the population of Wyoming, but each held two US Senate seats. This was not a principled decision by the framers of the US Constitution. It was “garbage in, garbage out.” At the Constitutional Convention, each state was given one vote, regardless of its population. Five and a half states voted for the creation of a Senate with equal representation for each state. Four and a half states voted against it. Three states abstained. Massachusetts split its vote evenly. The states that voted in favor of the Senate represented a minority of the US population. The smaller states would not agree to form a union without equal representation in the Senate; hence it was a coerced compromise.

The US Senate has consistently created an artificial conservative bias in Congress, giving more power to sparsely populated, rural, conservative states that tended to support slavery. The slave states were even given extra power in the US House of Representatives because the Census included each slave as 3/5 of a human being for the purpose of allocating each state’s number of US Representative seats. So the Constitution not only preserved slavery, but added insult to injury by using the practice of slavery to give even more representation to the slaveholders. Between 1800 and 1860, the US Senate blocked Congressional votes against slavery eight times. Even after slavery was abolished, the US Senate blocked legislation to protect the human rights of African Americans for another century. In recent decades, the equal representation of small states in the US Senate has artificially inflated the conservative Republican representation in Congress and established the ability of a conservative minority to block judicial appointments."


Further Clarification in August 2015:

IT’S PARLIAMENTARY, MY DEAR – OR – FEEL AT HOME WITH RANGE VOTING My 2014 commentary “Green Progress Requires Proportional Representation” was prepared specifically to address a Green Party audience. As I stated in that presentation, the national Green Party platform advocates instant runoff voting (IRV) for single winner executive offices such as president, governor, or mayor. I should clarify that this is the Green Party’s official position, but it is not my position. I have always been critical of the emphasis placed on pushing for IRV. My position has evolved to the point that I now reject IRV entirely. I would encourage the Green Party to remove IRV from its platform. I prefer decentralization of political power under a parliamentary system.

Legislators would choose a weak executive with strictly limited powers, who is held accountable to them, and can be removed by them at any time upon a vote of no confidence. Far too much power has become concentrated in the office of the President of the United States. Congress has allowed the President to launch illegal, immoral military attacks against anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time, for any reason. In the nuclear age, the President of the United States even has the power to exterminate all life on Earth at any time. If that isn’t an extreme abuse of power, I don’t know what is! If executive office holders are publicly elected rather than appointed by legislators, I consider range voting to be a much better method than IRV for electing single winner office holders. IRV secures two party domination of elections, to the detriment of minor party and independent voters. IRV tends to create peculiar distortions in election results. This linked article explains why range (score) voting is better than instant runoff voting for electing single winner offices: Why Range Voting is Better than IRV (Instant Runoff Voting)   Under range voting, the voter can rate or evaluate each candidate on a scale, rather than ranking the candidates in order of preference. If you like two candidates equally, you can rate them equally. There are no forced choices.

I like the model of the five star movie rating system. You can rate movies or candidates as excellent, good, fair, poor, or bad. Each of these ratings is converted to a numerical score. The candidate with the highest average rating from voters is elected. Range (score) voting is easier to use and to count than instant runoff voting. The simplest form of score voting would be approval voting. Under an approval voting system, voters cast a simple vote to “approve” of as many candidates as they like. The candidate with the widest approval wins. I prefer the five star rating system because it is a more fully expressive voting method. It enables voters to evaluate which candidates they prefer over others, while ensuring that the most popular candidate wins.

Here is the distinction I would draw between proportional representation and single winner voting methods like range voting or approval voting. Proportional representation ensures that nearly all voters are able to elect legislators who represent their values. This provides fair representation for a politically diverse electorate, including political minorities, as well as the majority. Range or approval voting would ensure that the single candidate with the broadest popular support is elected. This guarantees majority rule.

Gary Swing

Boiling Frog Party candidate for US Senate 

Boiling Frog Party

Written August 23, 2015"


By Gary Swing
Boiling Frog Party candidate for U.S. Senate, Colorado

Pre Symposium "off the record" discussion of Alternative Voting Methods
Free & Equal – Electoral Reform Symposium
November 13, 2015
Independence Institute
Denver, Colorado

I became interested in proportional representation voting methods back in 1993 because I wanted to see the Green Party become a viable political party in the United States. I was attending a Green Party gathering in Santa Fe, when I heard a presentation given by a spokesperson from the organization Citizens for Proportional Representation, or CPR for short. CPR’s slogan was “Resuscitate Democracy.” His talk convinced me that instituting proportional representation was a necessary first step towards establishing an effective Green Party in the United States. Since then, CPR has been renamed FairVote. FairVote has focused on promoting ranked choice voting systems, which I consider to be a counterproductive waste of time and energy.

The basic idea behind democracy is that the right of decision belongs to the majority. Democracy has sometimes been described as two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.

I tend to agree with Mark Twain’s perspective that “The majority is always in the wrong. Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it's time to reform." Genuine reform, real progress, comes from freethinkers who challenge the status quo, not from establishment politicians who appeal to the lowest common denominator; politicians who only say what they think the majority already wants to hear.

The basic idea behind proportional representation is that the right of representation belongs to everyone, not just the majority or the plurality.

John Adams proposed a goal of proportional representation for Congress in his pamphlet, “Thoughts on Government,” written in 1776:
“It should be in miniature, an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them.”

I view single winner voting methods and proportional representation as serving essentially opposite purposes. At best, winner-take-all voting methods only provide representation by the most popular candidate in a given district. Approval voting -- at least -- eliminates the spoiler effect that plagues both plurality elections and instant-runoff voting.

In most winner-take-all elections, the outcome is already predetermined by the demographics of the district, rendering the election itself virtually meaningless.

The goal of proportional representation should be to enable as many people as possible to elect representatives of their choice, so that nearly everyone has their voice heard at the table of government. For example, in post-apartheid South Africa, more than 98% of voters are able to elect representatives of their choice.

Economist Kenneth Boulding stated a principle that he called Boulding’s First Law: “Anything that exists is possible.”

However, discussions about alternative voting systems in the United States tend to focus on obscure, uncommon voting methods, rather than those that are used most widely.

Whatever its merits may be, approval voting is not yet used for any public elections.

The only national legislatures that are elected by instant runoff voting are in Papua New Guinea, and the lower house in Australia.

Every new democratic republic established in the 20th century, except for India, uses some form of proportional representation to elect the legislators in its national parliament. Most European countries elect their national parliaments by proportional representation. The European Parliament is elected by proportional representation as well.

Ninety-four countries now elect at least the lower house of their national legislatures by proportional representation. Only two of these parliaments, in Ireland and Malta, are elected by the ranked choice voting method that we call the single transferable vote, or STV. The Scottish Parliament is also elected by STV. The other ninety-two nations use some form of party list voting. Seven of these nations use a mixed member system of proportional representation, with some single member district seats and some party list seats.

The basic idea behind the party list vote is that each voter supports a list of candidates representing their favorite political party. Each political party is awarded seats in the legislature in proportion to its share of the vote. Five percent of the vote equals five percent of the seats. Candidates from each party list are seated in the order in which they appear on the party list.

Party lists may be either open or closed. In a closed party list system, the party chooses the order of candidates on their list through the party’s own internal nominating process. The voter casts a simple vote for their favorite party. This is the simplest way to conduct proportional representation. Putting a party logo or photo of a party leader on the ballot with the party list makes it easy to vote, even for someone who is unable to read, or who doesn’t speak the predominant language.

Under an open party list system, voters cast a vote for one or more individual candidates within a party list. The most popular candidates from each party are elected, but these votes also determine the total number of seats allotted to each party.

A few countries like Germany and New Zealand with mixed member proportional representation allow voters to cast two votes; One for their favorite party, and another vote for a candidate from a local single member district. Overall representation in the parliament is determined by the percentage of the vote cast for each party, compensating for the lack of proportionality from the single member district elections.

Mexico, Nepal, and the Philippines use a semi-proportional system known as parallel voting. Some members of parliament are elected from party lists and others are elected from single member districts. However, the party list vote is not used to make the entire system proportional.

Nations that use party list systems to elect their legislators generally have higher voter turnout, better representation of women and ethnic minorities in government, more political parties represented in government, higher standards of living, and stronger environmental protections than nations that use winner-take-all voting methods.

If you want to have more than two political parties represented in government, you should support a party list system of representation, not ranked choice voting.

As I mentioned before, my interest in proportional representation was sparked by my involvement in the Green Party. The Global Greens website reports that as of December of 2013, Green Party members held 314 seats in national Parliaments in 30 countries around the world, and 46 seats in the European Parliament. (A total of 360 members of Parliaments.) At that time, only 14 Green Party members of parliament had ever been elected under winner-take-all voting systems anywhere in the world, most of them under extraordinary circumstances. Nearly all of these Green Party members of parliament were elected by party list votes.

Today, the Green Party has zero members of parliament where ranked choice voting is used in the Republic of Ireland, Malta, and Papua New Guinea. Green Party members hold just two out of 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament elected by single transferable vote: 1.5%.

Australia is an interesting case that demonstrates the inferiority of ranked choice voting systems. The lower house is elected by instant runoff voting. Elections for the Senate allow voters to cast either a ranked choice single transferable vote for individual candidates or a simple vote for their favorite party. Given this choice, more than 95% of voters reject ranked choice voting and choose to cast a simple vote for their favorite party instead. The Green Party now holds 13.16% of the seats in Australia’s Senate, a higher percentage than the party holds in any other national parliament. However, the Greens only hold one out of 150 seats in the lower house, elected by instant runoff voting – two thirds of one percent. The same voters have given the Greens nearly twenty times as much representation in a body elected by party list vote as they have in a body elected by instant runoff voting.

In 2013, women made up 49.6% of the world’s human population, but men dominated almost every national legislature in the world. Nineteen of the twenty nations where women make up at least 37% of the members of the lower house in parliament use party list systems. The exception is Cuba, with a runoff system.

The US House of Representatives ranked 93rd for representation of women in 2013, at 17.8%. Australia’s lower house, elected by instant runoff voting, ranked 50th. Women made up 24.7% of Australia’s lower house, elected by instant runoff voting, but 38.2% of the Senate, elected on a party list vote. Ireland ranked #115 for women’s representation under the single transferable vote, at 15%. Malta, also using STV, ranked 157th at 8.7%. Papua New Guinea’s parliament, elected by instant runoff voting, ranked 180th out of 184 nations for women’s representation, at 2.7%.

If the goal of an election system is to provide fair representation for as many people as possible, the threshold for representation should be set as low as possible. I would support a natural threshold for representation in a legislative body, rather than establishing artificial barriers. For example, if Colorado used a party list system to elect its 65 state representatives, a truly proportional system would allow a party to win a seat with 1.52% of the party list vote. Party list systems typically allow parties to win representation with thresholds ranging from one to five percent of the vote. In the Netherlands, the threshold for representation is two thirds of one percent. In Denmark it’s 2%. In Austria, Norway, and Sweden it’s 4%. Turkey is at the high end of the spectrum, requiring a 10% threshold for representation. In 2002, only 54% of the people who voted in Turkey’s election were able to elect representatives of their choice. 46% of the votes were wasted.

FairVote has proposed a ranked choice voting system for electing California’s state legislature from five member districts. This would establish a 17% threshold for winning representation. FairVote’s proposal for electing members of Congress would set thresholds ranging from 17 to 25%. These counterproductive proposals would preserve a two party system and defeat the purpose of enacting supposedly proportional voting methods.

The prospects for bringing modern party list voting systems to the United States are bleak at best. In some states, the initiative process could be used to enact party list systems to elect state legislatures. Reforming Congressional elections would be a much more difficult task. Any effort to elect state legislatures or Congress by a party list system of proportional representation would face great opposition from powerful interest groups who benefit from the existing system. Voters are unfamiliar with better voting systems used in other nations, while voting reform activists who should be promoting party list systems are mostly promoting the wrong voting methods instead.

Further Clarification July 4, 2016

 Approval voting simply enables voters to approve of as many choices as they like in a single winner election. The choice with the broadest support wins. It's simpler than ranked choice voting and doesn't distort election results like IRV can. For multiple member elections, I prefer proportional representation, but for single-minded elections, approval voting is a simple way to represent broad consent. Range (score) voting is a variation of approval voting in which votes rate rather than rank choices, like in a five star movie rating system.


1-Why Not Proportional Representation?

2-Election Reform Is Needed

3-Boiling Frog Party

4-Why Range Voting is Better than IRV (Instant Runoff Voting)

5-Global Map of Nations with national parliaments elected by proportional representation voting methods.


7-Proportional Representation Voting Systems

8-Cleese on Proportional Representation (full length)

9-What Democracy?  The case for abolishing the United States Senate

10-A Good Meme as an Illustration






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