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. Unfortunately, a lot of problems are associated with SMDP elections! Compared to other electoral systems, SMDP elections 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 #1 Problem with Single Member District Plurality (SMDP or “First-Past-the-Post”) –

Voter Choice is Limited to the Two Big Parties!

The vast majority of elections in the United States are won by one of the two major 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 parties will win so voters either choose the party they like the most, or too often dislike the least, whether that party governs like they want it to or not. For their part, both major parties know that their core voters don’t really have any choice but to vote for them, so they don’t have to do much to keep their most reliable supporters. Instead, the big two parties can focus their attention on “swing voters” – the small number of voters who could vote for either party.

Negative Campaigns: One result of SMDP elections 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 who gets the most votes, a vote taken away from your opponent is as valuable as a vote earned by good governance! And it takes a lot less effort to depress turnout for the other side than it does to earn support with positive policy-based campaigns.

Polarization: Negative campaigns tend to 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. 

Policy 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 (called “single-member districts”) 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, voters who voted for candidates that lost often feel like their preferences are unrepresented.

It doesn’t have to be this way!

We can improve the quality of our democracy by changing the way we vote.

We can reduce incentives for negative campaigns and the polarization it creates by changing the way we vote. We can adopt Ranked Choice Voting (a.k.a. the Alternative Vote) in the single-member district elections most often used across the United States today; or we can adopt some form of “Proportional Representation” if we change from single-member to multi-member districts in order to represent a larger diversity of voters.

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