This coming Monday, the Iowa Caucus will kick off a nomination process where - if history is any indication - approximately 10% of the voting population will attempt to nominate a candidate compelling enough to the average voter to beat an incumbent with an approval rating in the low 40s who lost the popular vote by approximately three million people the last time around.
It would seem as if the odds would be in this presumptive candidate’s favor, yet they’re worried - and with good reason.
In the last three decades, less than half of winning presidential candidates gained more than 50% of the popular vote, with an average margin of a little under 4% against the losing candidate. What’s more, in half of these elections, the number of registered voters who didn’t vote for either candidate was greater than the number of people who voted for the winner.
While you could make an argument that getting a country as large and diverse as the United States to wholeheartedly agree on any one candidate is near impossible, the above would indicate our two party system isn’t 100% tuned in with what American voters are looking for.
The polling data backs this up. A Gallup poll taken in 2018 showed 57% of respondents felt the two party system wasn’t doing a good job representing the people, and that a third major party was needed. Another poll taken by the Pew Research Center in 2019 showed 38% of voters chose not to register with either major party - making independents the largest voting bloc in the United States.
With such huge demand for third party candidates and such a lack of enthusiasm for either major party, it’s fair to ask not only why a third party hasn’t entered the fray, but why either major party hasn’t attempted to fill the void themselves in an effort to pick up more votes.
The answer lies in how our elections are structured, and what kinds of behaviors are rewarded by it.
What motivates politicians?
Let’s assume, for the sake of this discussion, that politicians are motivated by power. I’m not going to make any assumptions on whether they want to do bad things or good things with that power, but it’s clear they want it and are willing to go through the process of being publicly embarrassed and hated to get it.
In America, you gain power by winning elections, and you win elections by getting more votes than your opponent.
Note - I didn’t say you win elections by getting the majority of voters to vote for you, just by getting more votes than your opponent. Which brings me to the second point…
The First-Past-the-Post System
The US has what’s known as a “first-past-the-post” system of elections, where whoever wins one more vote than the second highest vote getter wins. This is generally a pretty efficient way of running elections, as they’re easy to count and don’t result in any drawn-out runoff elections, subjecting a weary country to more campaigning and exposing CNN anchor Jon King to a potentially career ending pointy-finger injury as he’s summoned back to his touchscreen electoral maps night after night.
It also means that, if I want to win an election, all I need to do is be really good at getting that one more vote than my opponent, and I’m golden.
This incentivizes voters to line up behind one of the two parties likely to win - a principle known to political scientists as Duverger’s Law. First-past-the-post systems like ours generally result in two major parties, with scattered minority parties making up an insignificant opposition.
The problem occurs when political gamesmanship is used by the major parties to put their thumb on the electoral scale. This has been most pronounced in the House of Representatives where, through gerrymandering districts to rig the vote in favor of one party, has seen the number of truly competitive districts dwindle from 103 in 1992 to 35 in 2012.
In the 2018 midterms, 17 candidates ran unopposed and another 19 had no major party opposition - meaning a little under 10% of population had no real election and, to flip that on its head, only another 10% went to the polls knowing their vote made a meaningful difference.
When districts are carved to favor a given party, their representative is only accountable to the party, rather than the majority of its citizens. This ultimately favors more partisan candidates who risk being primaried if they buck the party in what they view as the best interests of their constituents.
This rewards candidates who are more likely to run on wedge issues (i.e. - guns, abortion, etc) than “kitchen table” issues that matter to most voters, and less likely to engage in the kind of compromise with the opposing party necessary to effectively govern.
If we’re looking exclusively at the United States, we have two parties whose original mission was to represent opposing views during the Civil War and a population that wonders why they can’t get along. More specifically, we have:
- Low voter turnout - Voter turnout in the US is amongst the lowest in the developed world, and gets lower as a voter’s ideology moves closer to the center. Those registered with a major political party (i.e. - the most partisan) turned out at roughly 60% in the most recent midterm elections, whereas turnout for those with no party preference was around 30%. When an election is rigged against the candidate or party you’re aligned with, why vote?
- Divisiveness and dysfunction - When the most partisan are put into government, governing becomes a winner-take-all proposition, with both parties viewing the other as the enemy to democracy itself, in many cases.
- Corruption - When voters view their greatest enemy as the opposing party, it becomes easier for both parties to serve their donor base and blame government inaction on their opposition.
While seeing all of the above play out in recent years has been disheartening, let’s keep two things in mind:
- It’s a direct result of the system of elections we’ve built.
- The number of people who don’t feel adequately represented by either major party outnumber the number of people registered to either, meaning there’s more appetite for change than there is for the vitriol and gridlock we see today.
There’s also an electoral model that could be applied to the House of Representatives that could change things.
What all good democracies have in common…
Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
If we apply this to democracies, all democracies that rank highest in terms of transparency of elections and voter trust have one thing in common - a proportional system of representation. Unlike our system, where 51% of the vote wins all, proportional systems award seats in government in proportion to the popular vote, so the party that wins 51% of the vote, wins 51% of the seats.
There are systems built into our government - such as the Presidency and the Senate - which are designed not to be proportional, and there’s not a strong case for changing those, but the House of Representatives was specifically designed to represent popular opinion and, with an approval rating of around 23%, opinion seems pretty unpopular.
The root of the problem is our winner-take-all system built around the congressional district. Eliminate the congressional district, award seats to the House proportionately on a state by state basis, and let the voters choose their party, as opposed to the other way around.
In a proportional system, parties win the majority of seats by seeking the political center, as opposed to the ideological fringe. This means less campaigning on issues where Americans are diametrically opposed, and more focus on the issues of greatest concern, such as the economy, healthcare, and education.
- Improved voter participation - While I like my congressman, the district I live in hasn't had a competitive election in my lifetime. This means people in my district who'd like to see change effectively have no voice in the Democratic process. A proportional system would incentivize them, and people like them across the country, to make their voices heard.
- Truer representation of popular opinion - In the 2018 Midterm Elections, 20% of voters in my home state of Massachusetts voted Republican, yet all 9 of our seats in the House went to Democrats. Conversely, in North Carolina, 50% of voters cast their ballots for Democrats, yet 10 of their 13 seats went to Republicans. A proportional system in both states would allow for a better representation of each state's population.
- An opportunity for third parties - Proportional representation offers room for a more diverse set of ideas, meaning people who do fall further to the left or right can have more meaningful participation in the political dialogue.
- True Accountability - If a major party becomes corrupted or is unrepresentative of the public interest, as our current major parties are, a proportional system makes it easier for those parties to lose power. This is the biggest contrast with today's system, where parties can represent their donors without fearing a significant loss of power.
In short, we have a system that is a much fairer representation of the will of the voters that's much less susceptible to partisan gimmickry.
With the bulk of voters aligning behind candidates in the political middle, institutions such as the Senate and the Presidency will follow, as that’s where the votes are.
How to make this happen
The Constitution leaves the apportionment of representatives to the states, and the states are the ones who create the districts. There’s no law on the books that says it has to be a district, only that a certain representative to citizen ratio has to exist.
State-by-state initiatives to reform the districting process are all that’s needed to effect this change and end the current dysfunction in Congress.
It’s time to take the keys away from two parties who started out representing opposing sides in the Civil War. If the above resonates with you, consider yourself invited to a one-issue party focused entirely around organizing people at the state level to effect change in their own neighborhood.
Click here and be one of the first people to moving America beyond today's dysfunction and vitriol, and on its way to a more perfect union.