SACRAMENTO — Americans have been picking politicians the same way for so long -- winner take all -- that it might seem there is no other way to do it.
But the cities of Davis, Calif.; Oakland and Minneapolis, as well as Pierce County, Wash.; have passed ballot measures that will lead to "instant runoff" or "proportional representation" voting in city and county elections. There was no organized opposition to the measures.
Their success has energized election reform advocates, who say the United States should join most other democracies and pick politicians in a way that doesn't shut out the 49% of voters who may have favored someone other than the majority winner.
Proportional voting involves races in which several people are elected to a board, council or legislature from a single geographic area or district. It does not apply to races for a single office, such as mayor or district attorney.
In a city council race in which, for example, 10 people are vying for five at-large seats, voters would rank the candidates in their order of preference. When a candidate is the top choice of enough voters to clinch election, any excess votes for that candidate are redistributed to those voters' second choice. The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and those ballots are reassigned to the voters' next-in-line choice. The process continues until five winners emerge.
Proponents say proportional voting could be used to elect state legislators if the current 80 Assembly districts were collapsed into 16 larger districts, with five lawmakers elected in each.
Supporters say the system has the potential to help elect independent, third-party and more moderate Republican and Democratic candidates -- something Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and many political reformers say California needs in its polarized Legislature.
Schwarzenegger vowed this month to take away lawmakers' power to draw their own districts and give it to an independent commission so that legislative races become more competitive.
Advocates say proportional voting is a better answer to California's predictable elections because Democrats and Republicans tend to separate themselves geographically.
"You try to make every seat competitive, and you can have wild distortions of representation," said Richard DeLeon, a San Francisco State political science professor.
"We think a good proportional voting system can accomplish all the goals [of redistricting reform] and remove all the contradictions.... It allows voters to be controlling their representation rather than some sort of elite commission."
Critics say proportional voting is too complicated and not the American way.
For decades, Cambridge, Mass., has been the only American city to use the system. But in November, voters in Davis and Minneapolis approved proportional voting in city elections.
The California Republican Party hasn't taken an official stance on different voting methods, said spokesman Patrick Dorinson.
Bob Mulholland, political director for the California Democratic Party, said cities and counties ought to be free to choose whatever voting system they like.
But he called the notion of using proportional representation for legislative or congressional seats "cockamamie" and "contradictory to a democratic system."
"The Democratic Party wants to help the middle class and working poor, and the way we do it is by being in office," Mulholland said, "and that damned idea would only hurt that, because people with little following would start being elected."
Mulholland also said the system would confuse voters, in the ballot box and afterward.
"I just like a clear choice," he said. "You go into the booth in November, Democrat and Republican, and whoever is the winner is the real winner."
The nation's small band of proportional voting devotees, however, sees momentum building.
"I think it'll come back," said Abner Mikva, a former congressman, federal judge and counsel to President Clinton who was elected to five terms in the Illinois Legislature under a version of proportional voting that residents scrapped in 1980. "The defects were very modest compared to the advantages it offered." Some say the system encourages cooperation.
A heavily Democratic city such as Los Angeles, for example, would still elect mostly Democrats to the state Legislature under proportional voting, but one or more Republicans also could be elected. Similarly, a Democrat or two would represent the minority Democrats in Republican strongholds.
"It produces more of a mix of Democrats and Republicans that represent more of what we call purple California than red and blue California," said Steven Hill, political reform director for the nonprofit, nonpartisan New America Foundation.
"If you have Democrats from Republican strongholds, Democratic leaders can't make decisions that will ignore those regions. The parties won't drift so much to the extremes just playing to their party."