Why Electoral Reform?

What's wrong with the way we vote?

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”

Today, the main electoral system used in the United States is single-member district plurality (SMDP) elections – a simple voting system in which whoever gets the most votes wins. A lot of problems are associated with SMDP elections – they decrease voter turnout, reduce policy-based debate, increase negativity during campaigns, foster gerrymandering, and hinder representation of minorities. All of these problems degrade the quality of our democracy – and all are a product of the main problem with SMDP – that it creates a two-party system (this is called “Duverger’s Law).

The vast majority of elections in the United States are won by one of the Big Two parties – Democrats or Republicans. Small parties and independent candidates almost never get the most votes so they almost never win office, and both voters and parties know that. Voters know that one of the Big Two will win so voters either choose the party they like the most – or dislike the least – whether that party governs like they want or not. For their part, the Big Two parties know that their voters don’t really have anywhere else to go – so they don’t have to do much to keep their core supporters. Instead, the Big Two can focus their attention on “swing voters” – the small number of voters who could vote for either party.

Negative Campaigns: One result is that it makes sense for parties – and individual candidates – to use negative campaigning to reduce voter support for the other party. If all that matters is to get the most votes, a vote taken away from your opponent is as valuable as a vote earned by good governance. And it takes less effort to depress turnout for the other side than it does to earn support with positive policy-based campaigns.

Polarization: Negative campaigns increasingly demonize the other side – parties and candidates are increasingly unlikely to say they simply disagree with the other side’s policy proposals, more and more they say the other side has some evil intent behind their positions. Consequently, when two-party systems divide voters into two camps – one of the Left and one on the Right – voting can end-up feeling like a choice between “us” or “them” – regardless of how individual voters feel about specific policies. 

Representation: As a result, once voters know which side they are on there is no need for voters to pay much attention to actual policy proposals – and no need for politicians to really explain why their policies are better because most voters are not going change their votes based on individual policy preferences. That means that a lot of voters are not well represented by their own party, because they can’t give their party direction with their votes.

More important, many voters are not represented at all because they voted for the party that lost (and probably usually loses) the election. This is because when only one party/candidate can win office per district (single-member districts, or what is often called “winner-take-all”) all the voters who did not vote for the winner have no representation at all. Maybe those voters constitute 10% of the district, maybe they make up 49%, it doesn’t matter how big the minority is, if they can’t get the most votes they have no representation.

If we want to improve the quality of our democracy, we have to change the way we vote.

We can reduce incentives for negative campaigns and the polarization it creates by adopting Ranked Choice Voting in the single-member district elections most often used across the United States today. But the only way to solve the representation problem is by adopting some form of “Proportional Representation” – which requires we change from single-member to multi-member districts.

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