The Global Fight For Electoral Justice: A Primer

Erik Moeller
Dec 18, 2016 · 28 min read
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.

American Electoral Injustice

Injustice #1: The imbalance of presidential voting power

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 GalkaSource / interactive version

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.

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 Since Shelby v. Holder, some of its key provisions are no longer in effect, and voter suppression is once again on the rise.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
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

Injustice #5: The spoiler effect

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.

Making electoral justice work visible

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

Electing city councils

The failure of the two-party system

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

People against machines

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

The global fight for reform

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
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
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.
This promise is unlikely to be kept.

When confusion reigns, anti-intellectualism wins

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 laboratories 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
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.

Finding the sweet spot

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.
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.

The myth of effective two-party governance

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

A scientific approach

Towards vibrant multi-party democracies


About this primer


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Erik Moeller

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I work at the intersection of technology and justice.

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