Our First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) Voting System Promotes Non-Representative Outcomes
All Congressional elections (both Senate and House) have a single winner. Each voter votes for a single candidate, and the candidate who gets the most votes wins the election even when that candidate earns only a plurality (not a majority) of votes cast. Among political scientists and voting system experts, our system of voting is known as “First Past the Post (FPTP)”. (A few states require a runoff election between the top two vote-getters if no one has a majority, or in some cases if no one has more than 40%; and as of 2016, Maine has adopted Ranked Choice Voting – but these are the exceptions.) When the winner has earned a plurality but not a majority, at least four negative consequences ensue:
- A winner by plurality has less authority, less of a mandate to lead or govern, than a winner by majority.
- In a three- or four-person contest, candidates tend to focus only on their own base voters, paying little attention to the voters of the other candidates. Rather than appealing to voters with disparate views, each candidate works to split the opposition, get 100% support from their own base, and thus win by a plurality. When elected, winners by plurality often continue to appeal to their base supporters and make only a token effort to represent the majority who voted for their opponents.
- In a three-candidate race, two candidates with similar majority views may split their combined 60% majority into equal shares of 30%, while a third candidate with minority views earns 40% and is declared the winner.
- A spoiler candidate, who cannot possibly win, may yet draw enough support away from an “acceptable” candidate so that another candidate, whom most voters do not want, ends up winning with a plurality.
Conclusion: We should adopt a system of voting which ensures that the winner has at least some measure of support from a majority of the electorate.
The Legally-Entrenched Two-Party System is Undemocratic
Many of our challenges stem from the dominance of the Republican and Democratic parties. The two-party system has become so entrenched that we cannot envision politics without them. We need to remind ourselves of the strong feeling of the Founding Fathers on this subject: George Washington was not alone in warning us about the evils of “factions” (the 18th century word for political parties). Today numerous state and federal laws provide legal status to the two major parties and make it very difficult to implement reforms. Yet we need to confront the dominance of the two-party system if we are ever to return real power to the people of this country.
While decrying the dominance of our two-party system, we must also acknowledge the benefits of political parties. A political party allows people to come together around shared ideas, policies, programs, and priorities. They allow like-minded candidates to support each other. They allow all party members to work together on political campaigns whether those campaigns are geared to electing particular candidates or supporting particular agendas. On the other hand, we must also recognize that powerful political parties can squash reforms within a party, block grassroots political movements, and perpetuate the status quo.
One of the biggest problems of the two-party system is its tendency to produce extremism in both parties. The ideologues of the right and of the left find it much easier to take over the machinery of one political party than to convince a majority of their fellow citizens of the correctness of their views. But with the two major parties dominating the process, often with the support of state and federal laws, a third party, a new movement, or a middle-of-the-road independent usually cannot gain a nomination. A Republican presidential candidate with moderate views, especially one willing to compromise with Democrats, may be unacceptable to the conservative ideologues who dominate the party apparatus; and so that candidate cannot win the Republican nomination. Similarly, on the Democratic side, a presidential candidate with moderate views who is willing to work with Republicans may be completely unacceptable to the liberal ideologues who dominate the Democratic party; and so that candidate likewise cannot win his party’s nomination. The result is a system that tends to nominate a Republican candidate too conservative for a majority of Americans along with a Democratic candidate too liberal for a majority of Americans. That’s why we often end up with candidates with huge unfavourability ratings among all Americans.
Meanwhile, fewer and fewer voters identify with either major party. In many states, the most popular “party” affiliation, especially among millennials, is “none of the above”. As a result, none of those unaffiliated voters get a chance to be heard in selecting either major party candidate.
Let me rephrase this conclusion in a slightly different way. A third of the electorate align themselves with neither major political party, so they do not get to participate in choosing the major party candidate for any office. Among those who do register as Republican or Democrat, the overwhelming majority either live in states without primary elections or they fail to show-up for the primary. Hence the percentage of eligible voters who select our general election candidates is quite small. In the race for president in 2016, only 9% of America chose either Trump or Clinton as their candidate.
|“I don’t care who does the electing, as long as I get to do the nominating” – William “Boss” Tweed|
For two centuries (1789-1976) the Tammany Hall political organization in New York City controlled the city’s Democratic Party machinery. Tammany Hall’s most notorious and “entrenched” leader was William “Boss” Tweed, who once famously remarked that voters could elect anybody they want as long as he got to pick the candidates. When people today complain about a “rigged” system and a lack of choice, Boss Tweed comes immediately to mind.
As to the “legal entrenchment” of our two-party system, consider how the presidential primary system works: each of the two major parties nominates a presidential candidate, and for all practical purposes, those two candidates are our only choices for president. Republicans and Democrats may agree on little else, but they do agree on this one feature of our politics: They all love the two-party system.
Caucuses, Conventions, and Closed Primaries Are Also Undemocratic
We have evolved a two-stage election system in this country: Stage 1 winnows the field of candidates, ultimately nominating one person from each political party (plus the occasional independent nominee), while Stage 2 (the general election) allows voters to determine the winner of each contest from those nominees who have survived Stage 1. The focus of this discussion is on Stage 1.
Stage 1 consists of primary elections, most of which occur within a political party, as well as caucuses and conventions, all of which occur within a political party. Primaries are either open or closed, or mixed: Open primaries are open to all voters; closed primaries are restricted to voters who belong to a particular political party. Caucuses and conventions are gatherings of party activists. In states with caucus systems, caucuses occur simultaneously in districts throughout the state. Each local caucus selects delegates to a state convention, where the party’s nominee is selected. The winners of Stage 1 are the party nominees who appear on the general election ballot.
The challenges of the prevailing Stage 1 models are these:
- Caucuses and state nominating conventions are inherently unrepresentative. These processes attract party activists, a far smaller population than the general public. A caucus or a convention of Democrats or Republicans is much less likely to select a candidate acceptable to the entire electorate than a primary election open to all voters. Voters should select all general election candidates through primaries rather than caucuses and party conventions. Party activists will not like this change, of course; nonetheless, it would be good for our democracy. We need to take some of the parties’ power back to the people. There is no good reason that, when it comes to a general election, our only choices are nominees that have been chosen by a relatively small group of activists.
- The current system produces general election nominees who reflect the views of the party faithful rather than nominees with broad public support. At the end of the nominating process (whether by primary or caucus or party convention or some combination of these), our nominees often reflect the most extreme views of one wing of each political party. As often as not, the public is disenchanted with all the nominees.
- In many instances, two or three of the most popular candidates all belong to the same party. Nevertheless, with only a few exceptions, our state election systems produce only one general election nominee from each party.
- A majority of Americans reside in a state dominated by one political party. If a voter belongs to the other party or to no party at all, that voter has no opportunity to participate in a meaningful way in the selection of general election candidates for any office.
- The primary ballot In most states is party-specific. A separate primary ballot exists for each party, and that ballot lists one party’s candidates for every office. Except for primaries in a very few states, a voter can vote in only one party’s primary. On primary election day, on my party’s ballot, I can select my preferred candidate for president, Governor, or senator from among those running for each office from my party. I do not get to participate at all in the primary for local offices, such as county commissioners, county sheriff, mayor, or school board, because my party usually fields zero candidates for those offices. Then in the general election, the person who won the primary from the other party for those local offices runs unopposed. No wonder voters are discouraged!
- Again, except for primaries in a very few states, if my preferred candidate for president is in one party, and my preferred candidate for senator is in the other party, and my preferred candidate for congressman is in a third party, I cannot vote all three of my preferences in the primary election. That is because the two major parties have rigged the system, forcing me to make all my primary election selections from the same political party.
Single-Member Congressional Districts Also Promote Non-Representative Outcomes
If Political Party A holds a 55%-45% majority over Political Party B, and if this split is consistent across the state, then Party A will win every election of single-member districts. But if the state adopted three-member or five-member districts, then Party B would be more likely to capture at least some of those seats. Ideally, the citizens’ legislature should represent the views of all the people. When a legislature represents only some of those views, or only some of those people, then we have a problem – even if the views represented in the legislature are in the majority.
Consider it this way: If a set of political views are agreed to by a 51%-49% majority, then those views should be reflected by a majority of the legislators – but not 100% of the legislators. Meanwhile, the minority view, held by 49% of the electorate, should be reflected by less than a majority of the legislators – but not zero.
Admittedly, this argument can cut two ways. In some municipalities, when all city council members are elected at large, a minority population concentrated in one district of the city may have little chance of electing even one member of the city council, while single-member districts ensure that the citizens of the minority-populated district at least get to choose one city councilman who represents them. The solution to this conundrum is multi-seat districts with Ranked Choice Voting, which will be discussed further in Part II of this treatise.
Our Politics Don’t Work, AKA “Electioneering Forever”
Imagine you are the owner of an automobile dealership. Just after you hire John as a master mechanic, your Service Manager announces that he plans on retiring in three years. Your new master mechanic John starts out okay, but after only six months fixing cars and satisfying customers, he begins campaigning for the Service Manager position, which is going to become available 2 ½ years from now.
John starts spending more and more of his time cozying up to you, partying with big shots, and getting community leaders to write to you or speak to you on his behalf, recommending John as the next Service Manager. It seems that after only six months on the job, John is no longer functioning as a master mechanic; rather, he is functioning as heir apparent and campaigner-in-chief for his next gig. While you were very keen on John for the first six months, now you are no longer so sure – in fact, his constant pandering has become boring, and meanwhile his real job is not getting done.
If that scenario sounds familiar, it’s because it is: That is the behavior of many of our elected representatives. We hired them to govern – as president, vice president, senator, congressman, or governor. Yet, after doing that job for only a short while, they start spending most of their time glad-handing, pandering, soliciting contributions from the donor class, and campaigning for the next election – be it re-election to their current position or a higher office. American politicians fail to govern and fail to tend to our real and myriad national and state problems at least partly because they are too busy campaigning and raising money.
Don’t you wish they’d spend a bit more time doing the job we (the public) hired them to do, before auditioning for their next appointment?
We also have the problem that the incessant campaigning is boring. How many different ways can a politician repeat the same talking points without ever actually doing anything? Congress’ job approval rating hovers around 10%, and the public is totally apathetic. It’s rare for us to get excited about politics, partly because the politicians are all about scoring political points and very little about accomplishing something on behalf of the people they nominally serve.
We really should consider giving an abbreviated and fixed election timetable a chance. If nothing else, it would at least help us become less apathetic and more involved the first couple times we did it.
Restrictions on Voting Rights Limit Ballot Access and Depress Voter Turnout
Just being able to vote is still a challenge in many jurisdictions around the country. This is surely something we should have solved by now – and we can easily solve it, if people truly believe in democracy. (Go back to the Preface of this work if you need a primer on this topic J .)
Unfortunately, there still seem to be some among us who do not believe in democracy for all, and some of those folks hold positions of power or influence, and they sometimes exercise that power to place roadblocks targeted at people that they would rather not see casting a ballot. Of course, persuading someone to come around to your point of view, while perhaps difficult in the short run, is far more effective in the long run than trying to prevent that person from expressing a point of view different from your own at the ballot box. But I digress.
The challenges include:
- Making it difficult or inconvenient to register to vote;
- Limiting vote-by-mail (absentee voting, for any reason);
- Limiting in-person early voting dates, hours, and locations;
- Providing inadequate polling locations, inadequate staffing at polling locations, inadequate numbers of voting machines, and too few hours in which to vote;
- Requiring unreasonable voter identification; requiring cumbersome paperwork for provisional voting when a voter’s right to vote is questioned.
Protests against these restrictions have been met consistently with arguments about the need to prevent voter fraud. However, as every responsible study of this subject has amply proven, the incidence of voter fraud in this country is negligible.
In a democracy, we should be doing everything we can to ensure that all eligible citizens are registered to vote, that we make voting as convenient and accessible for all citizens as we can, and that we then actively encourage them to get out and vote. We might also incentivize states to encourage voter turnout – for example, by apportioning House seats based on the number of people who vote in each state rather than on the number of people who live there.
Campaign Finance Reform Remains an Unrealized Objective
The underlying principle concerning campaign financing reform was stated in the Preface: Every voice deserves to be heard, and no voice should be allowed to drown out all other voices solely because the speaker has more money than most everyone else.
The fight against the undue influence of money in American politics has a long and colorful history. Many Americans may not realize that overt payment for your vote was a common practice until we adopted the secret ballot after the acrimonious presidential election of 1884. Government jobs were also for sale: Until the Pendleton Act of 1883, which established the federal civil service, many people with government jobs had to contribute a portion of their pay to the political party that had appointed them and whose continuing protection was needed in order to remain employed. Meanwhile, vendors who wanted government contracts contributed Big Money to the party in power. In sum, politicians paid for your vote, government employees paid the politicians for their jobs, and contractors paid politicians for their government contracts. The whole system was essentially for sale.
Though we’ve come a long way, most observers think we still have a long way to go.
In 2006, the Supreme Court decided the Citizens United case, holding that businesses and organization had a First Amendment right to express their opinion through paid political campaigns essentially without restriction. This decision invalidated limits on campaign expenditures that had been incorporated in several earlier laws.
Candidates and Elected Officials: Financial Disclosures, Transparency, and Nepotism
I was traveling through Southeast Asia while drafting this section, and I was amazed at the number of countries who give lip-service to democracy while suffering from blatant corruption and venality of public officials. The problems are obvious, systemic, and intractable:
- High public officials have direct financial interests which conflict with their official duties.
- High public officials use close family members to control various government departments and to simultaneously control major corporations and sectors of the economy.
- The public is generally uninformed about these matters. Those few who do know about them are not in any position to do anything about them.
In the USA, we have had our own share of similar scandals. Congress has nibbled at the edges of these problems, but existing legal strictures are rather weak and only marginally effective. We deserve better. We deserve public officials who are completely open and transparent with respect to their personal wealth, who disclose their continuing financial interests, and who avoid using family members to expand their political control or power or to further their own financial interests.
We can try to operationalize these principles through federal laws, but it’s unclear whether such rules would withstand challenges on constitutional grounds, especially given the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. Therefore, it may be necessary to address these matters through one or more constitutional amendments.
 “Only 9% of America Chose Trump and Clinton as the Nominees”. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/08/01/us/elections/nine-percent-of-america-selected-trump-and-clinton.html?_r=0. Accessed on June 15, 2017.
 Only a handful of jurisdictions have an alternative Stage 1 system. Of these, the most popular is a single primary open to candidates of all parties. The two candidates with the most votes survive the primary and compete head-to-head in the general election. Variations on this system exist, but suffice it to say that such systems are the exception.