Trump’s just a symptom; the disease is plurality voting.
or: This One Weird Trick that Republicans—and Democrats!—Don’t Want You to Know…
It’s becoming more and more clear that Donald Trump’s campaign is a disaster. Even as Clinton’s vertiginous convention bounce fades slightly, her lead, especially in key swing states, remains commanding. Trump’s strategy for overcoming negative coverage about each latest crazy utterance seems to be to supplant it by saying something even crazier. Top Republicans are despondent about what this means for their party, while those on the other side who rejoice to see the pathetic desperation of Trump’s struggles are nonetheless concerned at the overt racism he’s unleashed in the wider society.
Plenty has been written about how we came to this point. Most of it focuses on the asking the question: how does Donald Trump have so much support? Some historians have traced the reservoir of racism that underlies Trump’s gusher; other voices more sympathetic to his movement have emphasized the economic insecurity that underpins his populist support.
But this essay is about a different question: how does Donald Trump have so little support? How does somebody become one of only two people in the country who might become president, when he inspires such active dislike from a majority of Americans?
And my answer is simple: plurality voting, also known as First Past the Post. This is the process that most Americans just call “voting”, where each voter picks a single candidate, and the most votes wins. I’ll talk later about the alternatives to this system, but first I want to show how it helped Trump secure the nomination and, once it was secured, remain relevant even as his campaign becomes an epic fail.
The problem with plurality is that by not giving you the right to vote for more than one candidate, it artificially limits your voice in the election. When a resource is artificially limited like that, people don’t want to waste it. If the point of voting is to help somebody win, many will decide to cast that vote where it has the greatest chance of making a difference, and that means picking one of the two frontrunners—even if there’s another candidate you’d like even better.
But that means that frontrunner status is self-perpetuating. Even if Homer Simpson rips off the two frontrunners’ masks and reveals them both to be malevolent aliens, it still makes sense to pick one of them, because you still don’t want the wrong one to win. After all, being enslaved to build a giant space laser is not the same thing as being targeted by one.
And that, of course, brings us to Donald Trump. How did he win the primary? By maintaining a plurality—that is, the biggest minority—in the polls. His frontrunner status became self-perpetuating. In fact, perhaps he had fewer gaffes during the primary because he could spend so much time talking about his latest polling numbers. Yet he never passed 50%, even then. And for many of the majority of Republican primary voters who opposed him, he was actually their last choice.
Now that the primary’s over, he’s still profiting from the uneven playing field of plurality. No matter what he does and says, he’s now the Republican nominee, and for over a hundred years that’s infallibly meant a person who comes in either first or second place in the election. There’s little doubt that there’s other Republicans who would be doing better than he is at this point, but even if they could get on the ballot as independents, everybody knows that supporting them would be a waste of a vote.
(Note that the same argument applies to Hillary Clinton, whose favorability numbers are also pretty dismal.)
But this isn’t just about Trump. Plurality voting means that in order to win, you don’t just have to get people to like you; you need to make them think other people will think you can win. In other words, you have to look like a winner. It seems logical that this would give an unfair advantage to traditionally dominant groups.
And indeed, the data seem to bear this out: according to the Intra-Parliamentary Union, the US ranks behind 95 other countries for gender diversity in national parliaments, and the average country using plurality voting actually ranks even worse at 119 (15% women on average, as opposed to 39% average for the non-plurality countries).¹ Cross-country comparisons of ethnic and class diversity are obviously harder, but I imagine the overall pattern is similar.
Note that I’m not saying that being a woman is a disadvantage in a two-way race. In fact, in many places, it seems to be an advantage. But in order to get to that two-way race, you first have to be perceived as one of the frontrunners, and that’s where I’m suggesting that men have a key advantage.
Since we’re talking about Trump, there’s one more thing I should mention aside from gender and race, and that’s his apparent narcissism. Of course, politics will always have more than its share of narcissists; people who crave fame and power will seek them. But Trump’s tawdry self-promotion works especially well in a system where being perceived as a frontrunner is crucial to becoming one. Meanwhile, the zero-sum nature of a two-way race favors a campaign based on attacks and insults; it doesn’t matter if a taunt alienates some of your own supporters, as long as it undermines your opponent’s support by more.
So I hope I’ve convinced you that plurality voting is a key factor in Trump’s rise. It tilts the playing field in favor of self-aggrandizing white men, and he’s pretty much the epitome of that. But are there other ways to vote that wouldn’t do that? And is reforming the voting system really feasible in the US?
Yes and yes. There are many good reform possibilities, but the simplest is approval voting: simply lift the restriction on voting for more than one candidate. As a Medium user, you already know how that works: you don’t have to be afraid to click the heart below to recommend this story, because your recommendations aren’t an artificially limited resource that you fear “wasting”. This still gives everyone equal voting power: for every ballot approving certain candidates, there’s another possible ballot which would cancel it out exactly by approving the opposite set. And by breaking the artificial scarcity of voting support, it breaks “lesser evil” dynamic which excludes everyone but the two frontrunners from viability.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Approval voting isn’t a panacea, and it’s not going to suddenly bring about utopia. In terms of Trump, plurality voting has inflated the power of his support, but his supporters are real, including the overt racists among them. Those people would still get a fair vote with approval voting. And though I myself would like to see a third party surpass the Democrats and the Republicans, no improved voting system will make that happen unless people like me can convince the majority of Americans to agree with us; and that, frankly, is something we won’t do overnight.
But yes. I firmly believe that Trump’s rise is a result of a broken system, and that a fix is available: approval voting. Getting this done requires only laws and/or ballot initiatives at the state level; no constitutional change. If you want to help work to make this happen, join us at electology.org.
¹As a statistician, I have to point out that the correlation between plurality voting and below-average gender diversity does not prove causation. Alternative explanations are possible. For instance, plurality voting is more common in English-speaking countries, and it could be that English-speakers, or perhaps, countries formerly colonized by England, are less likely to elect women for other reasons. However, it seems likely that the simpler explanation is better here. While this isn’t a smoking gun, I still believe that it’s a pretty strong clue that plurality is bad for diversity.
((((Note: the original title for this piece was “Trump is a system of two diseases: racism… and plurality voting”. I’ve changed the title because I wanted to focus on plurality, but I still think that racism is an important part of the story. Stats as I change it are 40/14/4.))))