U.S. politics seems to be at pivotal moment in which the traditional political duopoly is being openly questioned. Over the objections of party leaders, Donald Trump is running away with the Republican nomination by using authoritarian appeals to attract new and old nativist, xenophobic supporters. Bernie Sanders is activating many new, young voters and others with a vision of making the U.S. more like the social democracies of the Nordic countries, over the objections of centrist Democrats.
In the end, only one candidate will win in each primary, of course, thanks to our use of so-called “winner-take-all” or “first-past-the-post” voting systems. The metaphorical post in this case is the formula of 50% plus one. If any given party’s candidate gets half of the total plus one more vote, that candidate and her or his voters get everything – all of the voice, all of the privileges, all of the power. The other nearly half of the people? They get nothing.
This kind of voting system is often praised for creating a form of political stability. It forces voters with diverse and sometimes contradictory views to compromise and rally behind one party and candidate in hope of making the magic number. Now, I have no problem with compromise. In fact, no democracy can function without it. But this system also has the effect of driving us into having only two large, viable parties. By viable, I mean a party has enough of a reasonable, fair shot at winning elections that the other parties have to take its existence into account. Yes, I know, we have a variety of small parties and occasionally a third-party presidential run, but their chances of success are slim to none.
So why is the two-party system such a big problem? I believe it causes many people to give up on politics because they feel like their viewpoint, their values, their policies can never get a hearing in our representative institutions. Many voters are being energized because of the very real possibility of seeing their voice finally expressed through one of the major parties – for good and for ill. But, inevitably, because of winner-take-all systems, many of them will go home disappointed.
So, what’s the solution? There are three parts.
The first part goes by two names: either “ranked-choice” or “instant run-off” voting. Here’s a short (1:30) video from Minnesota Public Radio – via the electoral reform group FairVote – that will give you a quick outline:
To summarize, you get to vote for, say, your top three choices of candidate in ranked order. If no candidate gets a clear majority of first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes gets tossed out. But that candidate’s voters still have influence! Their second-choice votes now flow to that candidate, who could then get the majority. If not, the process continues until you have a winner that most people saw as being one of their top choices. (Such a process, by the way, might have helped stop
Donald Trump from taking over the Republican primary by allowing the “establishment” candidates to coalesce their fractured support in each primary.)
Even with ranked-choice voting, you don’t necessarily get more political parties. For that you need a form of proportional representation. Again, I turn to FairVote for one example of such a system:
As a quick summary, instead of single-winner, smaller districts, you would have multiple winners in bigger districts. If there is a sizable political minority within an area, their chances are pretty good that they would get at least one representative.
Easier Ballot Access
But even ranked-choice and proportional representation don’t get you more parties. You also need easier ballot access. Laws in many states make it very hard for a new party to win the right to get on the ballot. And, of course, who makes the laws? The already established parties. Let’s be honest. Practically no one really wants truly stiff competition – not in business, not in life, not in politics. And once they have power, fewer people still are readily willing to give it up. Both parties are content to hold on to what they have and keep the contest simple.
Are any of these reforms to our political system actually going to happen? Probably not. Entrenched interests are very powerful, so we’re likely stuck – for a long time, at least – with a system from which many, if not most, American citizens feel alienated. But this appears to be the year of big dreams – whether it’s Medicare for All or Mexican walls – so what’s the harm in adding one more to the mix? All that’s at stake is a true representative democracy that’s actually worthy of the name.
By the way, it is possible to have perhaps too many parties. Like the U.S., other representative democracies, like India (the world’s largest, remember) and Norway (as a recent Norwegian acquaintance told me) also have political paralysis either because of the number of parties or enough parties won’t come together to create a viable coalition under their parliamentary systems. There is no magic solution to the design of political systems – only occasional tweaking when it’s clear that one system has run its course.
Here are a couple of defenses of the two-party system.