Now that we have had time to recover from the mid-term elections and the holidays, perhaps it is a good time to examine U.S. electoral systems. If your circle of friends is like mine, you have probably had countless conversations about how “broken” the system is: spoiler candidates, virtual hopelessness of third-party victories, skewed results, politicians looking less and less like the rest of the country and low voter turnout. As will be demonstrated below, all of these are directly rooted in single-member plurality, the very system that predominates U.S. elections.
The way that single-member plurality (SMP), or first-past-the-post, works is voters go to the polls and vote for a single candidate for each elected position. The winner of each race is the candidate who received the most votes, not necessarily a majority but a plurality. Each district, at each level of government, elects only one person (except for some at-large elections), which is why the design is referred to as single-member.
Single-member plurality is one of the first voting designs used in modern democracies, according to electoral system expert Douglas Amy in his 2000 book Behind the Ballot Box. While the Founding Fathers had their reasons for designing elections the way they did, SMP has some tendencies that may not be a good fit for today’s society. They create spoilers, foster two-party systems, do not offer a fair or accurate representation of the country’s preferences or demographics, and suffer from consistent low voter turnout, among other problems.
One of the great frustrations for U.S. voters is the phenomenon of spoilers. Candidates become spoilers when they are a member of a minor party and the votes they garner during a general election are not enough to win but are enough to keep either of the major parties from taking 50 percent of the votes. One infamous, though disputed, example is Ralph Nader in the 2000 election. Anytime there are more than two parties in a plurality-decided election, there is a chance for spoilers. Maine recently changed their electoral system to ranked-choice voting (RCV) to eliminate spoilers, by allowing voters to rank their preferences among several candidates rather than just choosing one. While ranked-choice does eliminate spoilers and often leaves voters feeling more satisfied, it is still a single-member design and shares many of SMP’s problems.
SMP elections almost always lead to two-party systems (Maurice Duverger, 1959). The winner-take-all design of SMP allows for major parties to outspend smaller ones and horde the votes, blocking others from power. Minor parties then have little incentive to invest resources into challengers who will likely lose (Douglas Amy, 2000). Even though about 40 percent of the population identifies as independent, there is still no realistic way for a third party to win elections on a grand scale. RCV elections often have more independent and minor party candidates on their ballots, but just like with SMP the winners are mostly from one of the two major parties (Douglas Amy, 2000).
The Constitution leaves the power and duty of designing and regulating elections up to the states, creating the current situation in which every state and territory has its own regulations. Most states put the power of designing the rules and drawing district boundaries into the hands of the very people who directly have the most to gain or lose: elected officials. The results have led to districts that are skewed to favor a particular major party and rules that hinder minor parties from seriously challenging their power.
There are a few reasons why skewed districts and little to no competition are bad for voters. When districts are drawn to artificially favor one party over any other — i.e. gerrymandering — they offer elected officials security without having to be accountable to their constituents. They also create legislatures that are not truly representative of citizens’ political views. Legislatures that have representation disproportionate to votes, in which one party gets a minority of votes but a majority of seats, are called manufactured majorities (Douglas Amy, 2000). An example of a manufactured majority in Congress happened in the 2016 election: Republicans received less than half of the votes but won over 55 percent of the seats.
Additionally, the lack of competition leads to political representation that is not representative of the electorate. A 2015 Gallup poll found that about 40 percent of the population does not identify as Democratic or Republican, yet there is still no real way for third-party or independent candidates to win on a significant scale (Douglas Amy, 2000). Lack of representation is not just an issue regarding political parties, it is also about demographics. Half of the population is made up of women, yet they are only about 30 percent of elected officials. Similarly, racial and ethnic minorities continue to be under-represented. On a whole, the U.S. population that identifies as black, Latinx, Asian, or Native American is close to 50 percent, yet they hold only about 20 percent of elected seats, and most of those are at lower levels of government.
Political competitions have much more at stake than which “side” wins or loses. They determine who gets a voice in political matters and who does not. While the losing side still has a representative, their political interests might not (Douglas Amy, 2000). Research has shown that the SMP electoral system favors ruling classes and disfavors minority populations and interests. The failure around unequal citizenship is deeper than merely not winning elections or even lacking representatives. Rather, citizens who have little or no political power have needs that go ignored and unmet. History has shown that the same groups suffer from systemically-imposed political impotence: women, and religious, racial and ethnic minorities.
Finally, the U.S. consistently has low voter turnout with only about 60 percent of voting-age citizens going to the polls, placing it behind 13 other NATO countries. Citizens not taking part in the democratic process of voting is no accident. Research has shown that electoral design is very closely linked with a country’s turnout. According to a 2017 Pew study, one of the biggest reasons citizens do not register or vote is that they feel cynical about the effectiveness of their vote, and with good reason. SMP systems are winner-take-all designs. If you do not vote for a winner, your vote is wasted and you walk away with nothing. The system also favors incumbents and — as stated before — the two major parties, leading voters to notice that voting brings about practically no change.
These feelings of ineffectiveness lead voters to be less likely to show up to the polls in the future. In addition to spoilers, voter turnout is one aspect that RCV produces better outcomes than SMP. The reason for this is that ranked-choice voting “gives voters more choices and allows them to vote sincerely for the candidates they most prefer, and this serves as an incentive to go to the polls, especially for minor party supporters” (Douglas Amy, 2000).
So, what can we do to change all of this? Some of the most common suggestions revolve around changes in election rules, such as campaign finance reform, election-day holidays, independent districting commissions and automatic voter registration. All of these fixes are important, necessary and certainly overdue. However, none of them, individually or combined, truly get to the flaws baked into the core of our electoral system. To do that we need to change the way that we elect our public officials. We need to explore other designs, such as Proportional Representation (PR), in which legislatures are seated by the proportion of votes each party wins, or Mixed-Member representation, which combines PR and SMP. We need to examine their benefits and downsides to find one that better matches our democratic values. Without changing the elections, themselves, the winners and losers of the political system will continue to be the same.
Photo Source: April Sikorski.