German Elections Are Easier Than California’s

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

For years, I’ve been arguing for reforms that would make California’s elections look like Germany’s. The political science description of a German election is that they have mixed-member districts with proportional representation.

This suggestion is widely dismissed in California as too complicated and un-American, even though it was American political scientists who promoted it in Germany after the Second World War.

I got a firsthand look at the run-up to a Germany election – the Sept 24 contest — on a recent trip to Hamburg. And I’m back to report that the “too complicated” argument is a canard. German elections are a lot easier than ours.

They also provide voters more choice.

Californians face long ballots full of many candidates, few of whom we know, on all levels – local, state, federal, community college board, judicial – as well as ballot measures. German voters don’t see such long ballots all at once. And their choices make more sense.

Throw away the term mixed member. German voters get two straightforward choices. They vote for a person, and they vote for a party—at the same time.

Parties put forward specific candidates to represent you in a legislative body, and you can choose from them. But you also get to choose a party, a choice that determines how many seats that party gets. You can split your vote between a person of one party you especially like, and a different party that you prefer.

As a formula, this produces a government more representative of people’s choices.

Americans think of this as a parliamentary system, and thus foreign. But it’s really not that much different from our own. Indeed, our own system is based on the British system, with single-member districts, and that’s a parliament too.

Germany is a wealthy, multi-ethnic society, like ours. It has similar commitments to fighting climate and accepting immigrants. We have to stop making excuses for using ancient election methods that don’t make us happy. Let’s look around the world, find the best methods, and make changes.

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