Steven Brams
Professor of Politics, New York University

Who’s the Fairest Democracy of Them All?

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If the U.S. wants to develop a more rational, representative electoral system, it might look to Germany.

Steven Brams

Steven Brams is a Professor of Politics at New York University. He graduated in 1962 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and received his Ph.D. in 1966 from Northwestern. His primary research interests include game theory and its applications, particularly in political science and international relations, and social choice theory, particularly as applied to voting and elections. He is one of the independent discoverers of approval voting and a co-discoverer of the first envy-free solution to the n-person cake cutting problem. Brams was a Guggenheim Fellow from 1986 to 1987 and is a member of the American Association for Advancement of Science.


Question: Which present-day democracy offers the fairest system for electing officials?

Steven Brams: Well I think most of the democracies in the world use what we call proportional representation. That parties run, not candidates by and large, and you vote for a political party and the party gets a number of seats in the legislature proportional to the number of votes it got. The problem that critics of this system have is that people don’t have their personal representatives. It’s a party that you vote for, it’s not the individual. And shouldn’t a voter have the opportunity to go to a representative, or his staff, and seek redress from grievances. That’s harder to do if it’s got an impersonal party than if it’s a real person.

But I think Germany and a few other countries that use basically the German system do well on both counts. In Germany you vote for parties and they get seats in proportion to the number of votes of the parties, but in addition, you vote for an individual representative in your district. And half the German Parliament, the Bungestag is called, is elected on the basis of your vote for the representative in your district, and half depends upon your vote for the party. And if your party, say the Green Party, which typically gets about 10% of the vote, wins no seats at the local level because it’s one of the major parties that usually wins. The Socialists or the Christian Democrats in the case of Germany, then the Green Party is going to be compensated from the seats at the national level when you vote for party. So, if they got 10% of the vote for the party, but no seats because they won in no districts, then they would get seats from the national vote and the representation would be made up. It would be made proportional because you have that 50% at the national level to play around with. So, I think that’s a kind of near-ideal system for a parliamentary democracy. You have your personal representative, but you have your proportional representation at the national level. And a few other countries have adopted this, in Eastern Europe for example.

Recorded on February 2, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen