The Round Table: Councils, Commissions, and Legislatures
Governing by council is probably one of the oldest methods in existence and the round table model means that diverse factions within the population can still have a voice, even if they don't have a majority. The idea is that if there are 4 seats on the council, a candidate representing 1/4 of the population should have a seat at the table. This can be done geographically by splitting the area into districts, ideologically by using a proportional representation method, or by a combination of the two.
What's best for a given election will depend on the voters, the representational goals, and the details of the election itself.
Option 1. Single-Winner Districts:
Splitting the electorate into districts and electing one representative from each is a simple way to accomplish fair geographical representation if the districts are drawn fairly. District based elections are simple and effective. They are especially well suited for situations where the council will be focused on local issues, the local economy, and the local environment, and less on bigger picture ideological decision making. They're also especially well suited for competitive elections with plenty of candidates since voters in each district only need to worry about the candidates in their district. Districts are an especially good fit for situations where different factions and interest groups are clustered in different areas, which is often the case.
Single-winner districts maximize accountability and with STAR Voting they ensure majority preferred winners. Single-winner districts often result in councils or legislatures with diverse viewpoints because voters tend to cluster in neighborhoods and areas with other like minded voters, but alone single-winner districts can't guarantee ideological diversity.
Option 2. Multi-Winner Districts:
For elections where some geographical representation is important but where a larger pool of candidates would be beneficial as well, splitting a larger area into multi-winner districts instead of single-winner districts is often the way to go. Multi-winner elections can help make elections more competitive, help give voters more choices, help mitigate the impacts of gerrymandering, and can even mitigate the damage done by less-than-ideal voting methods. They are a bit more complex for voters to track, but it's often worth the trade-off.
a. Basic Multi-Winner:
Simple multi-winner (Bloc) elections elect the top most popular candidates until all seats are filled. These elections can be great, offering the advantages of multi-member districts while still ensuring each winner is popular and broadly representative. If STAR Voting is used each winner will be majority preferred.
b. Proportional Representation:
Proportional Representation (PR) elections aim to elect councils that give minority factions a seat at the table. This can be done in multi-member districts with at least two candidates in each district or they can be done at-large. Proportional representation was traditionally done by political parties but can also be done without in some cases. The way it works (to put it simply) is that if a faction has 1/4 of the votes, they would win 1/4 of the seats up for election. This is accomplished by running ballots through a proportional representation algorithm and the details vary widely from method to method.
Advantages include that proportional representation ensures more diversity of opinions at the table. Cons include that these elections are more complex and less transparent, that they can platform candidates who may be more polarizing, and that it can be harder to get someone out of office if they are especially problematic, since an election that allows someone to win with 1/4 of the votes would require more than 3/4 of the electorate to vote them out. Proportional representation generally requires centralizing the ballots for tabulation as well, so for elections that cover large geographical areas multi-member districts are especially important for logistical and security reasons.
Read more about proportional representation here.
Option 3. No Districts:
Some groups just can't or shouldn't be subdivided. Neighborhood associations and corporate boards are two examples where single-winner, district-based elections generally wouldn't make sense.
When districts are an option, we strongly recommend having them! Elections with no districts can and historically have been used to further disenfranchise minority and lower-income voters who are often clustered in specific areas. With districts these voters are often sizeable enough to win representation, but without, many jurisdictions find that a whole council or legislature will often come from one well to do part of a city, or state.
We also don't recommend proportional representation without districts for any but the smallest elected bodies because it can lower the threshold required to win too low. With proportional representation the details of the method and the larger system are all critical to get right to ensure a well designed and robust system.
Which option is right for my community?
Choosing the right electoral reform package for a specific community should be an inclusive process. In our experience, most communities include advocates for a number of proposals and most advocates will be well-versed in the reasons to support their proposals but may not be aware of the full list of pros and cons that should be considered, or may not be aware of other proposals that should be considered as well.
Changing the voting method itself is a huge lift, as is changing from single-winner to multi-winner or vice versa. For this reason we generally recommend only making one major change to the voting method at a time. This makes it clear and transparent to explain the new system to voters and people are less likely to be confused or overwhelmed as they get used to it. This way backlash or concerns about one component of the system won't undermine the reputation of the other components, and in our opinion this makes the reform more resilient against repeal efforts.
We believe that any of the options above, implemented with a top tier voting method like STAR Voting, Ranked Robin, or Approval would lead to much better representation. Any of the above systems meet our five core criteria for voting systems: Equality, Accuracy, Honesty, Expressiveness, and Simplicity.
If you or your group is working to choose a voting reform for your community, or to help facilitate an inclusive conversation to get everyone educated on the options, we are available to help consult, present, and facilitate the process. Please send us an email and let us know more about the reform efforts in your area.