Suppose I offer a group two options I like and most of the group hates. They vote on them, and you get the result that the majority hates the least and we go with that one.
This process is “democratic” – people voted, and got the result that they voted for – but hopefully it’s clear that I’m the one with the power here.
This is, of course, the trick to getting what you want out of democracy: Give people a heads I win, tails you lose choice and it doesn’t matter how they vote. All power rests with the people presenting the choices.
And, at least for now, we don’t have any good way of coming up with those choices except a bunch of people in a room talking to each other. There is no algorithm or voting system for taking a population with a diverse set of opinions, preferences and knowledge and automatically turning that into a coherent and concrete set of policies.
And I’m not sure there ever could be: Many of these choices are complex and require days or weeks of study to understand the ramifications, which is hard to do if you also have to hold down a full time job, and your opinion without taking that time might be very different from your opinion if you had taken it. Which should we respect?
So we’re back to talking. This is quite hard to scale up to millions of people, so this is what we have parliaments and other houses of representatives for: It reduces the problem of millions of people without enough time trying to have a conversation and come up with the choices to one which is small enough that… well at least there’s the possibility of a productive conversation.
But in order, as an individual, to have any sort of say in what policies parliament creates, you need to have someone with a voice close to yours. It doesn’t matter if you elected someone who will vote more or less the same way you want (it doesn’t even matter if you live in a direct democracy and parliament will put the bill to a referendum!): If a voice close to yours is not part of the political debate, your interests are not represented. You can vote as much as you like, but it won’t help much – you’ll just be getting the less bad option of the two someone has handed to you. You don’t just need votes, you need a voice in parliament.
And this is true at the group level too: Even if a strong voting bloc manages to consistently push for the less bad option for then, if that bloc does not have actual representation of their views in parliament, they’re never going to do better than that.
And existing non-proportional systems have consistently failed to produce that representation. Instead they take us right back to the beginning: Which of these two parties that you don’t like would you prefer to have in power?
A move to a proportional system gives you that, by giving significant groups actual representation in parliament. Instead of just getting to voting between a few choices, you get to be part of the process for creating the choices instead, and you get a voice in government as well as a vote.