The Global Fight For Electoral Justice: A Primer

Last updated: July 6, 2017

Electoral justice, social justice and economic justice are interdependent. We all understand this in retrospect when it comes to major achievements of electoral justice in the United States. The gradual enfranchisement of white men (rather than just white male property owners), of black men (1870), of women (1920), the elimination of poll taxes (1964), and the lowering of the minimum voting age to 18 years (1971) are all examples of electoral justice, as is the Voting Rights Act (1965).

Helena Hill served a three-day sentence for carrying a banner saying “Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed”. American women were harassed, attacked, imprisoned and tortured for demanding the right to vote. The frequent charge, “obstructing traffic”, may sound familiar.

But when we look forward, the bias to stick with the status quo knows no party. What’s wrong with the Electoral College? Does it not protect smaller states from being dominated by larger ones? Do we really need obscure changes to the voting system? Why are so many people obsessed with district boundaries? And isn’t it completely delusional to think that these fundamental structures can be changed?

We must be clear: the institutions of American democracy as they exist today remain fundamentally unjust, and the effort to fix them is part of a global struggle for vibrant, truly representative multi-party democracy. That’s no “pie in the sky” — it’s a fight in the streets, in local and national politics, and in social media.

This is a primer, a starting point to prepare anyone to be part of this fight, written from the perspective of the United States but looking at electoral justice efforts around the world.

American Electoral Injustice

Here are five major categories of electoral injustice that are still part of American democracy today, and actions we can take to make progress in each one of them:

Injustice #1: The imbalance of presidential voting power

The popular vote winner is not the winner of the presidential election. It’s not even close, as Hillary Clinton’s 2.8M popular vote victory margin shows.

The Electoral College was established in part because it allowed slave states to count their non-voting slave population toward their electoral votes. To this day, the unequal distribution of voting power favors white voters while it disadvantages black, Hispanic and Asian voters.

A complex mythology has arisen in defense of the system, supported by a media narrative that focuses on “red states” and “blue states”. But most of these states contain regional strongholds of the opposing party, or pockets of competitiveness between both.

A national popular vote exposes these regions to political campaigns, be it for persuasion or mobilization. Economist David Strömberg (2008) predicts that as a consequence, it would lead to far more equal distribution of advertising and campaign visits, and to no net disadvantage for smaller states.

In the final analysis, there is no moral justification for valuing some votes more than others. The Electoral College is an unjust institution. It must be abolished.

This map of county-level margins in the 2016 presidential election shows the number of votes from each county as a third dimension. As the blue spikes all over the map indicate, California and New York are not outliers in how they vote. America’s political divisions are primarily between rural and urban areas (which have comparable poverty rates). Note that county divisions create perceptual distortions of population (e.g., NYC is split into five counties, while LA County contains 10M people). Credit: Max Galka — Source / interactive version

Actions we can take:

Support the National Popular Vote Compact, which already has 165 of 270 electoral votes needed to take force. Once implemented, the President can be elected by popular vote. A constitutional amendment is not required, but may follow.

If your state is not already on board, you can contact your state legislators through the web form on the NPV site. You can also donate to the organization, and advocate for abolishing the Electoral College on social media. (I recommend sharing this excellent illustrated summary by Andy Warner.) Finally, as the NPV compact gets closer to reality, we need to be ready to defend it against the inevitable backlash.

Injustice #2: Politicians picking their voters

The blatant manipulation of district boundaries to shift the result of an election in one party’s favor remains widespread.

In America, voters don’t just pick politicians — politicians also pick their voters. Partisan redistricting (“gerrymandering”) is used to such an extent that even with only two viable parties, one party can win the majority of the votes while another can win the majority of the seats.

The extent of gerrymandering varies significantly at the state level, and the practice is used more frequently by Republicans than by Democrats. In some states, it is extreme even in global comparison. Political scientist Andrew Reynolds writes about North Carolina:

When it comes to the integrity of the voting district boundaries no country has ever received as low a score as the 7/100 North Carolina received. North Carolina is not only the worst state in the USA for unfair districting but the worst entity in the world ever analyzed by the Electoral Integrity Project.

Actions we can take:

Common Cause is one of the main groups fighting against partisan redistricting and has offices in 35 states. Ballot initiatives and state legislative action can be used to institute bipartisan or nonpartisan redistricting commissions, while lawsuits have occasionally been successful at defeating excessively partisan maps drawn up by legislatures.

This is not enough due to urban/rural clustering and other biases. Only a commitment to greater proportionality will sufficiently address unfair representation — more on this in the next section.

Injustice #3: Voter suppression

The Selma to Montgomery marches against voter suppression contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Since Shelby v. Holder, some of its key provisions are no longer in effect, and voter suppression is once again on the rise. Photographs, clockwise: Alabama police attack marchers on Bloody Sunday; solidarity march in New York City; civil rights leaders; Selma marchers. Source

Many states engage in deliberate suppression of the vote, by closing polling locations, altering registration and voting requirements, and wrongfully purging voters from voter rolls. A wrongful purge of alleged felons in Florida was almost certainly outcome-determinative in the election of George W. Bush in 2000.

Cases of individual voter fraud are very rare. Politicians frequently highlight even the most tenuous voter fraud claim to justify new voting requirements for political gain — requirements which don’t do much to stop real world fraud, but which are part of a recent wave of new state-level restrictions.

Whether by choice or by neglect, many of the same states have failed to implement common-sense reforms that would make voting easier. “Time off to vote” laws, for example, could help to bridge the enormous turnout chasm between rich and poor.

Actions we can take:

The American Civil Liberties Union (affiliates) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (local units) have a long history of fighting for voting rights for all Americans, and both benefit from volunteers and financial support. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University is one of the best resources for facts and analysis.

Injustice #4: Disenfranchisement of ex-convicts

Most US states (and many countries) don’t allow prisoners to vote, but some US states extend the ban beyond the prisoner’s release. Given well-documented racial disparities in the criminal justice system in general and in the war on drugs in particular, these restrictions hit minorities especially hard. Source: Brennan Center

11 US states prevent people with criminal convictions from voting even after they have served their sentence. This practice has deep roots in post-slavery efforts to neutralize the black electorate, and it continues to have racially disparate impact.

Actions we can take:

In addition to the aforementioned organizations fighting for voting rights, the Sentencing Project treats felony disenfranchisement as a core policy issue. The organization regularly sends out action alerts and provides state-level information in case you want to contact your state representatives and your governor’s office. The Sentencing Project also maintains the excellent Felony Disenfranchisement Primer.

Injustice #5: The spoiler effect

The first-past-the-post voting system used in US elections denigrates third party candidates to the near-perpetual status of spoilers. It pits largely like-minded voters against each other, as the countless attacks on candidates like Jill Stein and Ralph Nader demonstrate.

This is unjust, because it has poisonous ripple effects:

  • It discourages independent candidates, centralizing nominating power with the two dominant parties.
  • It reduces the likelihood that any third party candidate will poll highly enough to participate in official debates.
  • It leaves voters without a choice they want to vote for. In 2016, the two main presidential candidates had record unfavorability ratings, for example.
When “spoiler” candidates are successful enough, the resulting breakdown of the two-party system can lead to reforms. Maine’s voters approved ranked-choice voting in part because state gubernatorial elections had stopped producing clear majorities for the winners. Campaign graphic by Ranked Choice Voting Maine.

Actions we can take:

Voting systems that allow voters to express preferences suffer from less severe spoiler effects (they may still exhibit favorite betrayal). Ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, is a popular alternative voting method and was recently approved in Maine using a ballot initiative. However, a subsequent court opinion found it to be in violation of the state’s constitution. Maine’s reformers will continue to push for the change, and FairVote promotes similar initiatives across the country.

Making electoral justice work visible

What’s visible (and invisible) in our social media feeds increasingly determines how we see the world. Following civil rights and election reform organizations’ efforts on social media keeps electoral justice work visible in your life and the lives of others.

Here are some accounts you can follow. All of them regularly post vetted information graphics, stories, papers, and other content that will help you make the case for reform:

Fairvote, ACLU (state-level affiliate Twitter accounts), NAACP, National Popular Vote, Brennan Center (assesses voting-related policy issues), Common Cause (state-level and staff accounts), the Center for Election Science, the Electoral Integrity Project, the Fair Elections Legal Network, Election Protection, Verified Voting, the Sentencing Project.

To save you some clicks, you can subscribe to the Electoral Justice US Twitter list to get updates from all national-level organizations in the list above.

The failure of first-past-the-post voting

Florida’s District 5 was, until recently, one of the most blatantly gerrymandered. It winds through lightly populated rural areas, and its tendrils reach into pockets of African-American communities, giving the Democratic district candidate a secure supermajority of the vote. Unsurprisingly, she joined forces with Republicans in defending this setup, which weakened other Democratic candidates. Credit: Michael Nguyen — Source

Electing district representatives

A much more controversial question is whether voting for a single district winner leads to inherently unjust representation in bodies like state assemblies and the US House of Representatives. None of the aforementioned reforms address this fundamental question.

The idea of a district representative, of course, is to find someone who can speak to the concerns of a constituency and be a point of contact with roots in a given community. However, voters’ concerns (and their representatives’ actions in the state legislature or in Congress) go far beyond the needs of the specific district they’re elected from.

Indeed, campaign websites often don’t even mention anything about the district itself, which makes sense given some of the truly strange district boundaries.

In this system, population patterns and district boundaries are as important as voters’ choices. An analysis of North Carolina’s 2012 House delegation shows that the real result (Republicans: 9 seats, Democrats: 4 seats) could be fully reversed (Democrats: 9 seats, Republicans: 4 seats) by changing existing district boundaries.

The situation is worst for people who share a strong preference (e.g., environmentalism, libertarianism), but who are dispersed throughout a region. They have virtually no chance of electing a representative.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Many of the world’s political systems have district or region representatives while also reflecting the full range of political preferences of voters accurately. These systems are largely resistant to gerrymandering. They are commonly called proportional representation systems.

Electing city councils

US cities often use “plurality at-large” elections to their city council. At-large means that the whole city is one district with multiple winners. Voters cast a fixed number of votes (e.g., 5 votes to fill 5 seats), and the candidates with the most votes win.

These systems produce distorted landslide majorities, because the largest political faction (usually Democrats) will just vote for their batch of candidates. Accordingly, many US cities are effectively under single-party rule. This has contributed to political battles between blue cities and red states.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Countless cities around the world use proportional representation, and have representatives in their city councils that reflect a broad range of political positions.

The failure of the two-party system

First-past-the-post voting tends to produce two-party configurations. This comes with inherent problems, as can be seen in the United States, where other factors (such as the presidential system) further exacerbate the two-party effect.

US voters are extremely divided along wedge issues like immigration, LGBT rights, abortion, climate change, or gun rights. The political distance between the parties in the House and Senate has steadily increased since the late 1970s, primarily due to a shift of the Republican Party to the right.

The political distance between parties in the US is the highest it has been since the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War. Source: Polarization research by Howard Rosenthal (Princeton) and Keith Poole (University of Georgia)

Given the long list of sharp disagreements between the two parties, for many voters, the question of who to vote for might as well be phrased as: “Do you want to burn your own house down — yes/no?”

In this context, voters turn against each other: undecided voters are shamed as stupid (“How can you not know who to vote for?”), while third party voters are branded as pariahs. Reasoned debate is chilled, because nobody wants to be seen as supporting “that other terrible candidate”. And minority concerns are either ignored or added to implausibly long laundry lists of issues a candidate supposedly will address.

An analysis by Bill Bishop (The Big Sort) shows how US voters increasingly live in landslide counties (where a candidate won by 20 points or more). Source: Bill Bishop / The Daily Yonder

As of 2016, a majority of voters live in landslide counties where a candidate won by 20 points or more. This means a low level of local competitive debate, a high amount of peer pressure, and an increasing percentage of wasted votes that have zero impact on the outcome.

Low competitiveness can eventually lead to no competitiveness: candidates running without opposition. Voters simply get to tick a box, with no consequences. That is the perversity of single-winner plurality systems: they can lead to localized unopposed single-party rule. According to Ballotpedia:

“In 2014, 32.8 percent of people living in states with senate elections had no readily available choice about who to vote for, while 40.4 percent of those living in states with house elections similarly had no readily available choice.”

Alongside the aforementioned geographic sorting of voters into landslide counties, the trend of candidates running without opposition is increasing, as well:

For purposes of state-level representation, an increasing percentage of Americans are living under uncontested single-party rule. Source: Ballotpedia

In short, the two-party system produces adversarial, polarized politics that robs voters of real choices and real debate.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In proportional multi-party systems, you will find small parties opening offices in tiny towns across a country, participating in debates, sitting in city councils. Wasted votes are minimized as any increase in a party’s vote share moves it closer to gaining another seat.

In such systems, the requirement of mutual accommodation tends to steer established parties away from wedge issues. Instead, challenger parties pop up to target perceived cracks in the political consensus. Meanwhile, established parties can allow themselves to move past old culture wars about homosexuality and abortion, and instead argue about solutions to pressing new issues (e.g., climate change, job losses due to automation).

People against machines

America has struggled with the question of proportional representation before, mainly in the first half of the 20th century in the context of city politics. Douglas J. Amy writes in his (highly recommended) essay “A Brief History of Proportional Representation in the United States”:

Large cities often were dominated by ‘party machines,’ of which Tammany Hall in New York City was the most infamous. Bribery, kickbacks, favoritism, and voting fraud were rampant in these cities. The Progressives wanted to clean up these cities and blunt the power of the party bosses.

As part of these reform efforts (which succeeded due to defections within ruling parties), cities including New York City adopted proportional representation (PR) for their local elections. The new electoral system immediately increased diversity:

In Cincinnati, Hamilton, and Toledo, African-Americans had never been able to win city office until the coming of PR. Significantly, after these cities abandoned PR, African-Americans again found it almost impossible to get elected.

Powerful political players sought to eliminate PR wherever it was adopted. In Cincinnati, they appealed to white anxieties by warning of a “Negro mayor”, and dismissed the system as “the longest-lasting pinball game in existence” and as a “complicated lottery-type PR voting system”.

The repeal campaigns were relentless. Amy writes:

In Cleveland, well-financed opponents sponsored five repeal referendums in the first ten years of PR, with the final one succeeding. Similarly, PR opponents in Hamilton finally won their repeal effort after four failed referendums in 12 years. [emphasis mine]

When it comes to electoral reform, political parties are rarely neutral arbiters of policy. The success of repeal efforts depended in large part on whether dominant political players threw their weight behind them out of self-interest (see Santucci: “Exit from Proportional Representation”).

The lesson from America’s forays into proportionality is not that such efforts are doomed to fail, but that we must be prepared for the inevitable backlash that follows any reform, and that political parties can be fickle allies in the fight for electoral justice.

Timeline of proportional representation in US towns and cities. Source: Jack Santucci, CC-BY-SA License

The global fight for reform

As noted earlier, voting systems like ranked-choice voting mitigate the spoiler effect and would therefore be a significant improvement for elections to individually elected executive positions such as President, Governor or Mayor in the United States.

However, it is crucial to understand that a ranked-choice system applied to an existing single-member district system (such as US state assembly or House of Representatives elections) does not create proportional representation. Only the variant known as Single Transferable Vote, applied to multi-winner elections, is approximately proportional, and the two systems are often confused.

This is important because dominant parties that fear proportional representation will often propose ranked-choice voting as a much more conservative reform, as in the 2011 UK referendum which ignored a commission recommendation for a proportional system.

Ranked-choice voting (also known as instant-runoff voting) mitigates spoiler effects when voting for executive positions, but it does not by itself achieve proportionality. Image credit: Fairvote Minnesota

Campaigners around the world agree, and they fight for real proportionality in their legislatures. These campaigns are most likely to succeed after systemic failures become undeniable. New Zealand experienced two such system failures, in 1978 and 1981, when the party which came in second-place in the popular vote received a majority of the seats in parliament (just as the Republicans did in the US House of Representatives in 2012).

After years of planning and debate, in 1993, New Zealand finally voted to scrap its single-winner plurality parliamentary electoral system in favor of proportional representation, with 53.9% of the vote, even enlarging its House of Representatives to accommodate the new system. In 2011, with plenty of experience under their belt, 57.8% of voters decided to stick with the change. The end result: greater diversity, real majorities, and a viable multi-party system.

The New Zealand electoral system change (in place since 1996) led to a significant and sustained increase in the representation of women and minorities. Proportional representation systems generally lead to higher representation of women in legislatures. Source

Their success is inspirational to other campaigns, such as Fairvote Canada and Make Votes Matter UK. Both point to their recent election results as evidence that voters’ voices aren’t heard. In the UK 2015 election, 24.4% of all votes went to alternative parties like the Greens, the Liberal Democrats, and the pro-Brexit UKIP — but these parties combined only received 1.5% of the seats in the House of Commons.

Indeed, the Conservatives secured a majority of seats while only receiving 36.9% of the vote. This is what’s called a manufactured majority: one which is the result of “wasted votes” that don’t go towards any elected candidates.

Campaigns like Make Votes Matter in the UK argue for proportional representation, citing the breakdown of the two-party system as evidence that first-past-the-post no longer reflects voters’ real preferences.

In the 2017 UK snap election, the two major parties increased their vote share. While a progressive coalition of Labour, SNP and Liberals received a majority of the vote, the Conservatives are set to stay in power, with the help of an extremist party that received just 0.9% of the vote.

In Canada, the frustration with the existing system became so palpable that Justin Trudeau made a campaign promise that the 2015 election would be the last one under the first-past-the-post system:

This promise is unlikely to be kept.

Once in power, he changed his mind. It’s not the first time progress has stalled. So far, Canada has seen more than a dozen different Commissions, Assemblies and Reports focused on electoral reform, ten of which advocated for a mixed-member proportional representation system (more on this below).

A glimmer of hope comes from British Columbia, where an ad-hoc coalition might advance the cause of reform once again. We should all pay attention to these efforts, not just out of solidarity, but also because successful reform in Canada could serve as a model for reform in the United States.

When confusion reigns, anti-intellectualism wins

Many reform attempts are, of course, unsuccessful. In 2005, British Columbia’s electoral reform referendum for a proportional representation system failed in spite of 57.7% support (60% was needed). A 2016 Prince Edward Island referendum that resulted in 52.4% support for Mixed Member Representation was ignored on grounds of low turnout.

Prince Edward Island reformers protest the premier’s decision to ignore the result of an electoral reform referendum on grounds of low turnout. Turnout was identical to the 2014 US mid-terms election: 36.4%.

The previously mentioned non-proportional ranked-choice voting reform in the UK failed spectacularly, with only 32% of voters expressing support. And all but one of the aforementioned proportional representation systems in the United States have been rolled back.

The American city-level proportional representation systems used the Single Transferable Vote. You rank your preferred candidates in order, and a quota-based formula is used to ensure proportionality. While voting is easy, the system as a whole can be a bit daunting to understand. Nonetheless, it remains an appealing choice to many, because it is a straightforward upgrade path from single-winner ranked-choice voting.

Even in single-winner ranked-choice voting, it can be difficult to understand how/why winners are chosen, and it does sometimes produce counterintuitive results. In particular, it squeezes out centrists because they’re usually fewer people’s first choice. The rank-order makes it possible for people to interpret the same result very differently: “candidate X should have won!”, “candidate Y should have won!”

When confusion reigns, anti-intellectual arguments may prevail, leading to repeals. Still, most election experts agree that even non-proportional ranked-choice voting is a major improvement on first-past-the-post voting. This is why the Center for Election Science supported Maine’s adoption of ranked-choice voting, rebutted some misconceptions, and offered reasoned criticism.

The laboratories of democracy

In his excellent book about electoral reform and proportional representation, Real Choices / New Voices, Douglas Amy (Professor of Politics at Mount Holyoke College) writes:

America was once known as the laboratory of democracy, but in the area of elections we are now in danger of becoming the museum of democracy.
Voting systems around the world, by the Canadian Library of Parliament (full-size). Proportional party list and mixed-member systems are dominant in developed democracies. See also: alternative, interactive map compiled by Fairvote

Indeed, wars, revolutions, secessions, decolonization, and other changes of the global political landscape have turned many parts of the world into testbeds for new political systems, some democratic, some not, while the United States system has only been modified incrementally.

This allows us today to look around the world and evaluate different political systems using any empirical criteria we care about, such as:

  • Is the political system stable, or do governments routinely collapse?
  • Is the parliamentary allocation of seats proportional or not?
  • Are voters frustrated or confused by the system or not?
  • Can new political movements successfully emerge or not?
  • Do extremists, kleptocrats and authoritarians successfully exploit the system or not?

Of course, any electoral system exists in the context of countless other conditions which must be taken into consideration. Nonetheless, the systems that have over time become dominant in developed democracies tend to fall into two categories:

  • Party list voting: each party compiles a list of potential representatives for each (multi-winner) district, and the total allocation of seats is determined based on the % of vote they get. In the popular “open list” variant (sample ballot), voters can specify which candidate from the party they prefer, while the party percentage still determines overall allocation.
  • Mixed member representation (MMP): voters vote for a district candidate in a single-winner election (first vote), and for a party (second vote). The party vote determines overall allocation of seats, and candidates from the party’s list are seated to ensure proportionality consistent with the party’s total allocation. This system can be open to independent candidates not associated with a party.

The MMP system is a popular reform option for first-past-the-post countries because it retains single-winner elections, but both systems allow for regional representation. An MMP open list ballot like the one proposed by Prince Edward Island reformers is quite intuitive and highly focused on competition between individuals.

Even single-vote variants of MMP are possible. You vote for your district candidate and your party with the same vote, and party lists are created from the runners-up in district elections. This is known as the “best near-winner” variant.

Sample ballot for the German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, which uses a “best near-winner” mixed-member proportional system. Although no more complicated for voters than first-past-the-post and highly focused on individual candidates campaigning in local districts, it achieves proportional representation.

This attractively simple and open model has long been used in the German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg. Under these conditions and in a fairly conservative state, the Green Party managed to go from zero to becoming the largest party (a historic first) within 40 years.

A working paper that was part of Quebec’s aborted electoral reform efforts came to the conclusion that a single-vote MMP system strikes the best balance between multiple competing goals. Yet this variant is relatively still little-known.

In both list-based models and MMP, there may be a need for leveling to achieve true proportionality, and the degree of proportionality is ultimately implementation-dependent. The Fairvote Canada graphic above compares the index of disproportionality for different countries’ voting systems; Canada’s parliamentary committee on election reform recommended a value of 5 or less.

In most European democracies, the parliament elects the chief executive, which means that parties typically must form coalitions to gain the requisite majority. In contrast, Latin American democracies tend to bias towards presidential systems with proportional representation only in parliament, rendering them more vulnerable to slips into autocracy (hyper-presidentialism).

Finding the sweet spot

The goal of proportionality can be balanced against the goal of stability. Proportional democracies without an electoral threshold may produce so many tiny parties that coalitions are difficult to form. In such an environment, extremists who promise easy answers may gain substantial shares of the vote while their opposition is divided.

Set an electoral threshold too low, and a demagogue like Dutch anti-Muslim extremist Geert Wilders may gain outsized influence against a fragmented opposition. Set it too high, and it may result in the expulsion of moderating influences from parliament. This happened in Turkey in 2002, when all five sitting parties failed to meet the 10% threshold (the highest in the world), putting Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party in two-thirds control with less than 35% of the vote.

You may remember hearing about Geert Wilders, a Dutch anti-Muslim extremist who who threatened to close mosques and ban the Qur’an. In the 2017 election, he ultimately came in second — with just 13.1% of the vote. He received disproportionate attention (which may have helped him gain new followers) in part because the party landscape is so fragmented: parties only need to win enough votes for a single seat.

Increasing the threshold distorts proportionality. Voters don’t necessarily experience this as unfair, because it lets them “gamble” on a party’s success. Say you set the threshold at 5%. Voters may make an informed decision that casting their vote for a party polling at 4–6% is worth the risk of wasting it, because that party better represents their views. Crossing the threshold for the first time is seen as a major milestone in any party’s history.

Set the threshold too high, and you again benefit extremists who can form large factions united by ideology. Turkey has the highest threshold of any proportional representation system: 10%. In the 2002 general election, all sitting parties were ejected from parliament because they did not reach that threshold; 46.33% of votes were wasted. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party obtained a two-thirds majority of seats with only 34.28% of the vote.

To the extent that there are electoral reform movements within proportional representation systems (such as the movement for a replacement vote in Germany), they tend to be focused on finding the sweet spot: a system that reflects voters’ real choices, doesn’t fragment into too many parties, and does not embolden extremists.

All democracies depend on coalitions. The two-party system in the US contains within it factions and alliances, but they are not exposed to voters. In multi-party systems, voters can punish or reward political groups more selectively.

But contrary to popular belief, proportional representation systems do not lead to more frequent elections than plurality-voting systems, according to political scientist Dennis Pilon:

“Between 1945 and 1998, plurality-using countries averaged 16.7 elections, while [proportional representation] using countries averaged 16 elections. Since their shift to MMP in 1996, New Zealand has gone early to the polls only once in four PR elections.”

Many constitutions, regardless of voting system, provide mechanisms for snap elections, motions of no confidence or dissolution of parliament. The ease with which such measures can be triggered, not the voting system, is the primary factor determining whether elections are rare or frequent.

These mechanisms exist for good reasons. They can be used to hand power back to the voters if governments become dysfunctional, if their actions are strongly opposed by the public, or if corruption is exposed.

But if it’s too easy to push the reset button, political parties will do so just because the polls have swung in their favor.

For example, Israel heads to the polls far more frequently than most European democracies, and that’s in large part because it’s so easy to dissolve parliament (the Knesset). The Constitution specifies five different ways to do so. Indeed, the Knesset can schedule its own dissolution by passing a law with a simple majority.

In sharp contrast, the US is unusual in providing no mechanism for early elections at the federal level (mid-terms can provide some relief from unpopular governments), which may lead some US voters to overestimate the instability of of other systems.

Proportional parliamentary systems can be similarly “locked down”, as the case of Norway demonstrates. Snap elections are impossible, so the parties in parliament simply have to find successive working arrangements, which may include minority governments working collaboratively with parliament.

The myth of effective two-party governance

Some proponents of first-past-the-post systems say that the regular alternation between two opposing parties produces the best policy outcomes. In this view, it’s acceptable that such systems may hand a single party opposed by the majority of voters full control of the government. It is simply the price to pay for effective, innovative administrations.

There is little evidence in support of this view. Instead, such governments tend to see frequent efforts to undo the previous administration’s work for political reasons.

In the United States, where control between the presidency and Congress can be divided, the extreme polarization between the two parties has produced extreme dysfunction. When health care reform was passed into law in 2010, the efforts to repeal it started immediately. They reached an ugly peak when the federal government was shut down for two weeks in 2013 as part of a political pie fight. In 2017, after Republicans gained control of Congress and the Presidency, they finally began the process to repeal and replace the health care law of the previous administration.

Or consider the issue of mass incarceration: the US government leads the world in putting more people in prison than any other country (per-capita it is second only to the Seychelles, a tiny island nation). There has long been bipartisan consensus that this needs to change, yet no major criminal justice reforms have been implemented.

To make things worse, gridlock in the United States Congress has trended upwards over a 65-year-period, according to a detailed analysis by the Brookings Institution. Voters are aware of the dysfunction, too. Only a small minority (10–20% in recent years) approve of the job the United States Congress is doing.

The Brookings Institution found that the likelihood of congressional gridlock on any given issue has doubled since the 1950s.

Voters are more rational than we give them credit for. Frustration with the status quo can motivate high turnout — but when voters lose trust in their institutions altogether, international comparisons show that they stop voting.

US voters have reasons to be frustrated. A widely cited paper by political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page attributed the shape of US public policy entirely to the preferences of economic elites and organized interest groups:

When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.

We must understand the turnout numbers of US elections, which are very low by international standards and abysmal during mid-term elections, in this larger context of a system that is unresponsive, polarized, and gridlocked.

Policy outcomes do not justify the system failures of first-past-the-post systems. In fact, there is considerable evidence that proportional representation systems create more effective, more innovative governments. Canadian sociologist Alex Himelfarb has provided a good summary of these arguments in his essay ”Why proportional representation is likely to produce better policy”. Excerpt:

For example, countries with proportional systems score significantly higher on Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index, which measures how well human health and ecosystems are protected. (…). Countries using PR were more ready to pay the price of strong environmental policies, more likely to use renewable energy, and therefore produced a lower share of carbon emissions (Orellana, 2014; Cohen, 2010). The greater co-operation and continuity in proportional systems evidently yield environmental dividends.
(…)
Orellana further argues that PR-elected governments are less inclined to “quick-fix” solutions and, because of the greater diversity of their governments and parliaments, more open to policy innovation. For example. they are more likely to have adapted their welfare and tax policies to changes in the economy and labour market. Orellana also demonstrates that they tend to be policy leaders on highly sensitive issues such as assisted dying, LGBT rights and freedom to marry.

First-past-the-post systems make for good drama as the two biggest parties gear up for a regularly scheduled battle against each other, but that doesn’t translate to good politics. Multi-party systems are no panacea, but they are more likely to result in a deliberative approach. Parties with significant disagreements may need to form alliances to govern, reducing the risk of extreme polarization.

A scientific approach

America has its own laboratories of democracy: the states. With Maine taking the lead, other states have the opportunity to trial new electoral systems for gubernatorial elections, state legislatures, and municipal elections. Fairvote is the leading organization in the US supporting such efforts and vetting ideas for feasibility, including reforms aimed at achieving proportionality.

While proportional representation in state assemblies would be a historic first, it is entirely compatible with the US Constitution. In fact, the Oregon state constitution makes explicit provision for proportional representation and alternative voting methods thanks to an amendment that is more than 100 years old.

As for what such reforms could look like, law professor Allan Ides has written an exceptionally well-argued case for adopting mixed-member representation in California through a reform of the state’s constitution. This is legal, and it’s possible — but it requires progressives to embrace electoral justice as part of their agenda.

Since America is not a parliamentary system but a presidential one, electoral reform will need to combine proportional representation with fairer votes for executive positions. For the latter, in addition to ranked-choice voting, reformers promote alternative voting systems such as approval voting (“pick as many as you want; highest ranked wins”) or score voting (“rate candidates from 0–9”).

These variants are relatively untested, and it would be irresponsible to make sweeping changes without good data about the potential effects. The Center for Election Science aims to provide such data, most recently through a representative panel vote that compares the results of the 2016 US presidential election under different voting systems.

It’s easy to get lost in the arguments about which system produces better outcomes, and to retreat again into the comfortable status quo bias: if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it! But as reformers around the world know all too well, the first-past-the-post system is broken, and the careful exploration of new frontiers in American democracy is not a journey without a destination — it’s a journey towards a more just society.

Towards vibrant multi-party democracies

The ongoing national emergency of Trumpism, the fact that 82% of voters expressed “disgust” with the 2016 presidential campaign just ahead of the election, the historic disparity between 2016 presidential popular vote and election outcome, the out-of-control gerrymandering and brazen attempts to hijack democracy in states like North Carolina, all of these represent system failures in American democracy.

George Washington hated the idea of political parties, period. In his Farewell Address, he warned of the “spirit of party”:

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.

Washington favored a shared republican commitment to the public interest as the driving force of politics. He would never have proposed more parties as the solution to factional, polarized politics. But as the experiment of democracy has been repeated again and again around the world, it is now clear that the requirement of mutual accommodation in multi-party systems acts as a check on the “spirit of revenge” by any one party.

This isn’t about tinkering, it’s about transforming people’s hunger for change into everyday politics. Imagine what movements like Black Lives Matter or #NODAPL could accomplish if they had a realistic path to political representation — and if their ideas were routinely put to the test of debate in legislatures at all levels.

The struggle for vibrant multi-party democracies is global. It is at its heart a struggle for justice, for including voices that were previously silenced. There are victories we can achieve in the near term, and others we may not achieve in our own lifetimes. Yet, we must fight with both near-term and long-term goals in mind. Be a part of this.


About this primer

The text of this primer is in the public domain; you may use it as you wish.

Thanks to Aaron Hamlin of the Center of Election Science for providing feedback on an earlier draft of this primer. Thanks to all readers who have shared it with others.

Please post your thoughts below, or contact me directly (Erik Moeller; eloquence AT gmail DOT com) if you have comments or corrections. A couple of preemptive comments:

“Republic vs. democracy”: It is true that America is a republic, but that is not an especially remarkable fact. There are many democracies in the world today that identify as republics, and even the ones that do not, share key characteristics: the will of the voters is constrained by constitutions or laws with similar status, and it is translated by elected representatives. Concepts like federalism are widespread throughout the world.

This is not an argument for an Electoral College, or for first-past-the-post voting, or any other characteristics of American democracy criticized here.

Lower-case republican ideas such as non-negotiable human rights, separation of powers, and support for political parties are consistent with all the ideas expressed here. They are important ideas, but beyond the scope of this primer.

Other electoral injustices: This is not an exhaustive view of electoral justice issues. Without question, money can have a toxic effect on political systems, and does indeed have that effect in the United States. Ballot access issues can make third party politics impractical even when the system otherwise is favorable, and do indeed contribute to the unusually strong two-party dynamic in the United States. And if the mechanics of democracy (the actual voting equipment and logistics) fail or are susceptible to manipulation, it can cause a whole different category of system failure.

Yet, the evidence is strong that multi-party systems are better prepared to confront such issues, which are often discussed only outside the mainstream of politics in the United States. Jill Stein’s multi-million dollar fundraiser to pursue recounts (even just to expose serious flaws like the ones found in Michigan) can serve as an example — Stein remains a villain of the 2016 election for many, and it was easy to marginalize and ridicule her efforts due to her negligible share of the vote.


Change history

  • Version 1.0–20126–12–18 — published
  • Version 1.1–2016–12–19 — incorporating “wasted vote” data from Germany and Poland, and adding reference to relevant reforms
  • Version 1.2–2016–12–20 — added section on government effectiveness of two-party systems vs. proportional systems
  • Version 1.3–2016–12–21 — added section about early elections; restructured electoral threshold section and used Turkey as primary counterexample of a high threshold
  • Version 1.4–2016–12–22 — added Washington quote, added Germany FPTP/list seat map
  • Version 1.5–2016–12–23 — added data from the Electoral Integrity Project
  • Version 1.6–2016–12–24 — added felony disenfranchisement as a major category of near-term reform; added Gilens/Page paper, congressional approval and voter turnout data; added Twitter list
  • Version 1.7–2016–12–25 — added polarization data, landslide counties data; reframed argument about two-party system; added PR history chart and proposed PEI ballot; added reference to Norway’s system & mid-term turnout data; added link to Allan Ides paper
  • Version 1.8–2016–12–27 — added reference to single ballot MMP, Florida District 5 map and a bit more on proportionality as a principle
  • Version 1.9–2016–12–28 — reordering/copyediting, some edits to STV history based on correspondence w/ Jack Santucci; added 3D counties map and more EC arguments
  • Version 1.11–2016–12–31 — new version of Santucci timeline; explicit reference to North Carolina’s ranking in gerrymandering; section title changes
  • Version 1.10–2016–12–29 — more copyediting/tightening, added felony disenfranchisement map, sample Baden-Wuerttemberg ballot; added Stroemberg paper
  • Version 1.11–2017–01–03 — removed cross-country graph from Electoral Integrity project; the methodology based on expert feedback makes it more suitable for intra-country than cross-country comparisons
  • Version 1.12–2017–01–10 — various copyedits + tweaks to Electoral College section
  • Version 1.13–2017–01–14 — tweak a few links, better explanation re: role of approval/score voting in electoral reform
  • Version 1.14–2017–05–11 — update with latest developments on Dutch election, Obamacare
  • Version 1.15–2017–06–10— added resource on current gerrymandering lawsuits; removed Project Vote since it’s being shut down; update on Maine’s constitutional barrier against ranked choice voting; update on Canadian reform efforts, UK 2017 election results; simplify closing section
  • Version 1.16–2017–07–06 — linked to recent NYT article on blue cities/red states