One aspect of political structural flaws that has not been widely discussed is how unfair our voting system is.
Right now, we follow something called first-past-the-post. Under this system, voters can only pick one choice per ballot, and the candidate with the plurality (not the majority) wins.
In his coverage of a cute animal kingdom, CGP Grey has detailed the flaws of this system in one of an excellent series of videos on different voting systems. Let’s examine the different flaws one by one and apply them in the context of US elections.
Minority Rule and Two-Party System
According to game theory, the inevitable result of first-past-the-post is two-party rule. This is an extremely bad problem in several major aspects.
First, few Americans would consider either the Democrats or the Republicans their first choice. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2014, self-identified Democrats accounted for 32 percent of the voting age population, 23 percent identify as Republicans, and a stunning 39 percent are either unaffiliated or identify as independents (while it’s unclear whether this represents likely voters or all voting age Americans is unclear, but more and more Americans have identified as independents over time). These results are echoed by Gallup data, which estimated that 43 percent of Americans identified as independents in 2014.
Perhaps even more troubling, a different Pew survey found that a record 24 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of both the Democrat and Republican Party in 2015. What’s clear from this data is that a plurality of Americans do not especially identify with either party.
However, thanks to a combination of strategic voting and the spoiler effect, there is an entrenched two-party system in the US. What’s been happening more and more often is that Americans vote for the party they dislike least rather than a party or candidate that truly aligns with their values.
It’s these people who list neither party as their first choice that are most likely to become disillusioned with the democratic process and drop out entirely. It might also help explain why the US has abysmal turnout rates compared to the rest of the developed world: we ranked 4th to last among OECD countries in turnout when comparing most recent presidential or parliamentary elections.
This two party system also has unsettling implications. It allows Republicans to drift ever farther to the right and Democrats to become increasingly corporatist with relative impunity. The modern Republican congressman must first be worried that he will face a far-right primary challenger if he does not sufficiently tow the line. What’s notable was that the decline in self-identified Republicans was much sharper than the drop in self-Democrats.
Democrats, meanwhile, have increasingly gotten in bed with corporate interests. As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson note in Winner-Take-All Politics (2010), it has gotten to the point where Democrats’ “populist tradition more and more appeared like a costume — something to be donned from time to time when campaigning — rather than a basis for governing.” Robert McChensey quipped in Dollarocracy (2013) that the difference between Democrat or Republican control is “whether AT&T openly or covertly writes the laws.”
A side effect of a two-party system is that major issues are often portrayed as only having two sides. In 2013, Jon Stewart lambasted CNN for oversimplying nuanced concepts into whether it was a “good thing” or a “bad thing.” There are often multiple viewpoints and even solutions to any issue, and the creation of false dichotomies encourages polarization and close-mindedness towards potentially better alternatives.
On major issues that are popular with Americans of all ideologies — the public option, universal background checks on firearms, increasing the minimum wage, overturning Citizens United, the belief that a small elite has excessive influence in governance — you will find lukewarm support at best from Democrats and staunch opposition from Republicans. If representative governance is designed to the responsive to the will of the people, our current system is not one.
The Spoiler Effect
Because candidates only require pluralities rather than majorities to win a race, first-past-the-post makes it extremely difficult for third parties to gain traction. A third party will almost always draw support from a voter’s second choice, making it more likely that the party they dislike most will end up winning.
The most prominent example is happened in the 2000 presidential election, when Bush won Florida by a margin of only 0.0092 percent and where Ralph Nader won 1.63 percent of the vote in that state, arguably “spoiling” the election (the electoral college itself is extremely unfair, but should be the subject of a different post). Even in that election, Ralph Nader only won 2.74 percent of the popular vote. In order to qualify for federal funding, third parties must win at least 5 percent of the popular vote; that 5 percent can easily swing a close election.
Even in House races, the spoiler effect can lead to unintended results. Witness in 1988, when Bernie Sanders ran as US representative: he split the liberal vote, ultimately losing 41 percent to 38 percent (to be fair, the Democrat with a meager 19 percent of the vote was the spoiler, not Bernie). In a scenario of a runoff or even an instant runoff, there would be no spoiler effect.
The final major issue of the first-past-the-post system is its susceptibility to gerrymandering. Every 10 years, when the Census Bureau makes a comprehensive survey to collect demographic information of the American populace, state legislatures will redraw congressional districts. Because Republicans swept state races in 2010 (fueled by low turnout and the rise of the Tea Party), they redrew some bizarre looking lines.
Seriously, what the hell is that? Despite Austin and the greater Travis County’s reputation as liberal areas, five of the six districts within the Austin area are currently held by Republicans.
In the 2012 election, Democrats actually won the overall popular vote in the House by 1.17 million votes, with 50.59 percent voting for a Democrat congressman. Nonetheless, the Republican Party had 234 seats to 201 for Democrats, a substantial 33 seat advantage and 18 seats above the number needed for a majority. That represents a 4.38 percent error in representation.
To be fair, gerrymandering is not limited to Republicans: where state houses and governorships are under Democrat control, you see gerrymandering favoring Democrats as well. However, current gerrymandering behavior is disproportionately Republican, and it is incredibly unfair regardless of who perpetrates it.
Artificially reinforcing presidential candidates
Here’s where things get scary. In recent presidential elections, a presidential nominee from either major party can expect to get a minimum of 37 percent of the popular vote (even in landslides such as the election of 1964, the election of 1972, the election of 1980, the election of 1984). Since 1980, any Democrat or Republican nominee has gotten a minimum of 40 percent of the popular vote.
So what does that mean for an extremist like Trump? Recall earlier that only about 25 percent of Americans identify as Republicans. Of those, maybe 40 percent support him. That translates to an overall support of just 10 percent who would plausibly support him as the first choice.
Yet that number will be amplified to a minimum of 35–40 percent should Trump get the nomination. Under any remotely inclusive system that embraces independents and uses instant-runoff, the Republican nominee would be far more moderate than the far-right, awful, awful choices we have gotten in recent years.
A hypothetical scenario of Clinton vs. Trump would be extremely unique in that both candidates have an overwhelmingly negative net favorability rating. Right now, Hillary’s net favorability rating is negative 14.4 percent. Trump’s is an astounding negative 31.9 percent. However, the combination of a two-party system, electoral college rules, and spoiler effects discouraging voting third party would mean that there is actually a plausible scenario where Trump’s support among working-class whites would win him the presidency.
That is terrifying. It is something I would not fathom happening in a different voting system.
Other Voting Systems
So we have painstakingly shown how first-past-the-post system makes a complete mockery of American politics all by itself. What are some ways to combat this distortion?
CGP Grey outlines two good solutions, each with its distinct pros and cons. The first option is the Single Transferable Vote (STV). The second option is the mixed-member proportional (MMP) system. Either system would make it easier for alternative parties to become real forces by eliminating the spoiler effect and maximizing representation. Both would ensure that both Republicans and Democrats are held accountable to voters. Both systems have inherent defenses against gerrymandering. Meanwhile, instant runoff in presidential elections would reward centrist and charismatic presidential candidates over partisan hacks or dishonest flip-floppers.
Which system is better? Ultimately, I think that is up to preference. MMP would institutionalize parties as part of the electoral process. I think STV is slightly more susceptible to gerrymandering. Nonetheless, if well designed, you really can’t go wrong with either.
Here is a table summarizing the different alternatives.
Blanket “Non-Partisan” Primaries
Here’s another interesting system that can be implemented regardless of the voting system. Instead of having a different primary for each party, have a single blanket primary with ranked choice voting where liberals, independents, and conservatives alike can cast votes. Candidates can still identify their partisan affiliations, but all candidates regardless of affiliation will be part of this initial primary process. From here, reallocate votes above a certain threshold (say 20 percent), then start eliminating candidates with the weakest support, redistributing their second choices among those remaining. From here, you can choose to have a runoff with the 2–4 candidates who got the biggest share of the initial vote.
One major advantage of a blanket primary is that if a given district is heavily liberal or heavily conservative, they can have multiple liberal or conservative candidates in the subsequent general election. Moreover, in general, centrist-minded incumbents need not worry about being challenged by extremist fringes: rather, they should worry about challenges moderately from the left, moderately from the left, or even from the center.
Generating wholesale political reform
Hopefully this post convinces you that first-past-the-post voting is extremely anti-democratic and produces multiple distortions that harm political discourse. Unfortunately, reform will probably not go anywhere because both Democrats and Republicans benefit tremendously from the current system (Republicans disproportionately so).
To the extent a constitutional convention can be held in the future, hopefully first-past-the-post come to the forefront as a target of institutional reform that would improve representative governance and restore health to our troubled democracy.