representation, in government, the term used to designate the means by which a whole population may participate in governing through the device of having a much smaller number of people act on their behalf. Although an elective presidency and even a nonelective monarchy may possess psychological characteristics of representation for its people, the term is generally used to refer to the procedure by which a general population selects an assembly of representatives through voting. In the United States this assembly is the Congress of the United States, while in Great Britain it is Parliament. Historically, representation was first seen in the Roman republic, but it came into more general use in feudal times when a king would select representatives from each estate—the clergy, nobility, and burghers—so they might offer advice or petition him. Out of this system, as people gradually secured the right to choose their representatives themselves, grew the modern representative legislature. Modern representation is usually based upon numbers and territorial groupings of the population, such as a congressional district in the United States. An election district in both the United States and Great Britain sends only a single member to the legislative body and is therefore called a single-member district. The representative is chosen on the basis of winning a plurality within the district. In contrast to this system is that of proportional representation, in which there are plural-member districts (in national elections, the country as a whole may form one constituency) and the seats in the assembly are distributed among the parties on the basis of the proportion of the vote that each party receives. This system gives more assurance that minority votes will be taken into account and tends to encourage the proliferation of parties. One perennial controversy on the subject concerns whether elected representatives should act according to the explicit desires of their constituents or according to their own personal judgments when they conflict with those desires.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.