Proportional representation is a democratic system which aims to represent the will of the population in the legislature by proportional support. If, for example, an election ends in a 33% vote for Party A, a 30% vote for Party B, and a 37% vote for Party C, and there were 100 seats in the legislature, 33 would go to Party A, 30 to Party B, and so on. The goal of proportional representation is to more accurately reflect the political inclinations of the population.
This system can work in a number of ways. For example, in a party list system, citizens vote for political parties, rather than individual candidates, and seats in the legislature are apportioned by percentage of the vote, as discussed above. In an open party list, voters vote for both political parties and candidates, generating a list of people to fill the seats. In a closed party list, the party creates a list, dealing out seats to the candidates once they have been apportioned in the election.
Some nations use mixed member proportional representation, which includes a mixture of winner-take-all races, and representation such as a party list. Others use preference voting, also known as single transferable vote, in which citizens rank candidates by preference. In a preference vote, for example, someone might rank the Candidate F as his or her favorite, followed by Candidates D, A, C, B, and E. If Candidate F didn't win enough votes to take the election, the citizen's vote would be rolled to Candidate D, and the votes would be counted all over again, moving down the list until a winner is established.
This system dates to the late 1800s, and it is used by governments around the world. One of the big advantages to proportional representation is that minority parties get a say. The Green Party in the United States, for example, has almost no presence at the national level, while it is a powerful force in Germany, thanks to proportional representation. This system also encourages the formation of coalition governments, fostering cooperation between the political parties in order to accomplish goals.
Some people claim that the primary advantage to proportional representation is also its major downfall. By allowing minority parties to have their say, proportional representation sometimes sets up a situation in which fringe issues become magnified, and the government becomes highly factional, with various parties warring over issues and control over the government. However, in a well-organized system, many people feel that this problem is outweighed by the benefit of encouraging a variety of voices in a nation's legislature.