“My vote doesn’t count.” “The system is rigged.” The complaints are manifold. Suggestions are scarce.
Winner take all, or first-across the line voting schemes are often blamed. A plurality voting protocol leads inevitably to a two-party system, the process being described by Duverger’s Law.
More fundamental though, is the geographic basis of almost every existing political structure. In the United States, we vote in wards, consolidate the totals in precincts, and consolidate them again in districts. For President, the districts are generally states, from which we dispatch all of the state’s electoral delegates to vote for president. It’s a reflection of a tribal view – that the population in a geographic region has a common set of interests. It assumes that these common interests are accurately reflected by the Electoral College vote from that state. This paradigm applies similarly to member of Congress. The assumption again is that where voters live reflects a commonalty of interest. Indeed, it may. Rural voters may have more in common with their neighbors than they do with city dwellers. In both rural and urban districts, there may be a significant minority whose views are not reflected in the population of elected officials.
Why do I describe our current voting system as tribal? In the first recorded democracies, Athens and Sparta in ancient Greece, the primary common interest of the population was geographic, an interest in common defense. Common religion and military defense unified populations within geographic areas until the creation of the printing press. When books could travel, you could have for the first time distinct populations within the same geographic area. With the rise of mass media slowly in the 18th century, speeding in the 19th century and blazing fast in the 20th, we saw the rise of groups whose primary common interest was no longer geographic. Examples are manifold: Revolutionaries versus Loyalists, Dries versus Wets, and Interventionists v America Firsters.
Today, given a choice of news outlet – Fox or CNN – or choice of Facebook friends, we have common interest groups that have nothing at all to do with geography. Neighbors may be diametrically opposed in political orientation. Proximity no longer has anything to do with common interests in many areas, especially matters of national interest.
All politics is local
Our dependence on geography to organize voting makes sense in the most local of elections. My town council member fights for on-time garbage pickup and road resurfacing on my street. My neighbors and I do have a commonality of interests. It is not so clear this is the case when it comes time to vote for my representative to Congress or the President. Historically, consolidating votes by geography was efficient. In 1789, Massachusetts counted the popular vote for President in Massachusetts and selected ten electors. Those ten electors rode on horseback to Philadelphia to cast votes for Washington. Today, the same hierarchical system allows an easy means to audit votes by ward, precinct, and state. It allows each state to control its voting protocol. It also allows the state legislature to define the geographic boundaries of Congressional districts.
When the boundaries of voting districts, especially those for Congress, are defined to benefit a particular party or candidate, we call that gerrymandering. When an election applies to a mayor, governor, or senator, the boundaries of the districts are defined by the municipality or state. They are seldom altered for election purposes. Where elections to representative bodies are concerned, the state or national legislature for example, the boundaries of the districts can make all the difference in the composition of the seated body. Gerrymanderers have several strategies available to them. They can redraw boundaries to concentrate voters of a particular ilk, guaranteeing them a seat in the district, but lessening their chances in neighboring districts. Alternatively, they can redraw boundaries to dilute the votes of opponents in all districts, reducing their chances of having a representative elected. In federal elections, the boundaries are subject to review after every federal census.
There are other methods of allocating votes than winner-take-all in each district. In federal elections, these methods have been illegal since 1967. Federal law 2 USC §2c says that a district may elect one and only one representative. The method developed by Daniel Webster, which had been common in the U.S. and is still used in other countries, allows a district to elect multiple representatives reflecting the composition of the district. The districts are larger, but the result is likely to reflect a more diverse set of voter views. Duverger’ Law no longer applies.
Single Transferable Vote
Political scientists have developed several alternative voting systems that guarantee more-or-less proportional representation to minority parties in districts that elect more than one representative. The most of popular of these is STV or Single Transferable Vote, in which a voter ranks his or her choice of candidate for an office.
Single Transferable Vote dramatically lessens the importance of locality. It should surprise no one that is has proven popular in races where geography is irrelevant, such as voting for the Academy Awards and student council elections.
STV was first used in Australia in 1896. The Australia Senate was chosen by STV for the first time in 1948. STV is used today in Malta, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, and for local elections in Scotland.
New York City used STV from 1937 to 1945. That period saw a rare decline in the power of the Democratic machine (Tammany Hall). With a return to first-past-the-post elections in 1946, power returned to the Democrats in 1947, where it stayed for another two decades. STV was a threat to the established power structure of both Democrats and Republicans. In 1941, under the proportional voting construct, Brooklynites elected Communist Peter Cacchione as a New York City Alderman. After the war, campaigns against proportional representation in many states were aligned with anti-communist efforts. Blacks complained that loss of proportional representation also reduced their influence.
Threat to the two-party system
Republican and Democratic machines reluctantly accept the two party system. It means that a candidate need run only against a single powerful opponent. In the White House, a loss is likely to be recovered eight years later. A proportional voting system would require a party to be more responsive on a range of issues. Construction of a party platform is exponential more difficult when three or more parties are competing.
No change soon
Like campaign finance reform, single transferable voting is a threat to the status quo in Washington. Without a groundswell of public sentiment, we are unlikely to see any substantial support from within either of the two parties. If change is to come, it needs to be from a group that wants more representation. These groups include Blacks who have only ten sit as Senators, or Hispanics and Latinos, who have had only thirteen sit in the Senate.