Democratic countries vary in their application of electoral systems. Some countries utilize a system of proportional representation where a political party is allocated votes based on the percentage of votes it receives in the election. Some opt for a plurality system where only the party receiving the most votes in a district wins representation in the legislature. The United States uses such a plurality system, also known as first past the post, whereby a candidate simply needs to win more votes than his nearest competitor to win the seat. It is within this system that two main parties dominate the legislative landscape with Democrats and Republicans claiming 98 of the 100 Senate seats in the United States Senate, and all 435 seats in the House of Representatives. Other parties do exist within American politics but we rarely, if ever, see them representing a constituency in Congress. Why is this the case? It is within the political interests of the established Democratic and Republican party apparatus to suppress the involvement of third party interests, and in recent years they have participated in explicit action to do just that: prevent access to the ballot of third party candidates. It is my opinion that measures must be made not only to address the need for greater ballot access by third party candidates, but also the need to move to a more democratic form of electing legislators; proportional representation.
What have we gained by having a system of first past the post, plurality winners? Democrats and Republicans embroiled in gridlock, a word that has come to lose almost all import due to its overuse in describing our Congress. Federal bills invariably follow a party-line vote, cabinet nominations issued by the President face filibuster at every turn, and the Senate has failed to pass a budget in 4 years. With such division among two parties, doesn’t it make sense that at least one congressional district in the United States would opt for change and return a legislator not of the ideological divide described above? It’s easier said than done.
Consider the case of Carl Romanelli who in 2006 decided to run as a Green Party candidate in Pennsylvania for the contested US Senate seat against Republican incumbent Rick Santorum and Democratic rival Bob Casey Jr. In order to gain access to the ballot under Pennsylvania law Romanelli required 67,070 petition signatures. He submitted almost 95,000. The Democrats accused the Santorum campaign of contributing to the name gathering effort because they believed the Republicans feared a Democratic challenger and sought to dilute their support across two candidates. Romanelli denied the Republicans involvement and stated,
What’s appalling is that despite the [ballot access] barriers the state put up, we were able to meet them. We accomplished something no-one has ever done in this Commonwealth before. I’m so sick and tired of everyone trying to give Rick Santorum and the Republicans credit for that.
In an attempt to pre-empt any effort by their detractors to discredit their petition Romanelli’s campaign workers scrutinized the 99,802 signatures they had gathered and removed 5,000 that appeared to them to be invalid. After the department of state verified the signatures and approved ballot access for Romanelli they allowed opponents one week to file any challenges. The Democratic Party condemned the petition as “wrought with fraud and forgeries” and submitted to the department of state that they had found 51 additional names that appeared to be fraudulent. The Democratic Party tied the issue up for months in legal disputes and ultimately won their battle and denied Romanelli access to the ballot, landing him with $80,000 in legal fees to boot.
Consider also the case of John Dashler who, also in 2006, decided to run for Governor of Georgia. He was required to gather 40,000 signatures, plus a buffer of 20,000 just to be safe. However, he faced an ostentatious list of laws created by members in the Georgia legislature to stifle political competition. If a voter is registered as Andrew P Stames and he signs the petition as Andrew Stames then that name is invalidated. If a voter is registered as living at 121 Main Street, Apt C but lists only 121 Main Street with no apartment number, then that name is also invalidated. If a voter omits their date of birth (good luck signing up the ladies) then that name is also invalidated. If a voter signs the petition and they do not live in the county specified for that petition then the entire petition including all 15 names on it become invalid. Needless to say Dashler found this system extremely unfair and unequal to the privilege that Republicans and Democrats enjoyed. 70 third party or independent candidates in Georgia attempted to gain access to the ballot in 2006 with only 1 actually making it on to the ballot. Dashler also reported that supporters of his were visited by lawyers for the Republican Party who ordered a barbershop owner and pastor to remove Dashler’s promotional material from his shop or lose his tax exempt status for his church.
What is required here is a simpler system of ballot access that applauds the tenacity and civic spirit that prompts ordinary citizens to want to participate in the political process. Instead, too often they are faced with intimidations, threats and impossible odds against an entrenched political oligarchy that would sooner exert their tremendous political and monetary wealth to quench a potential rival than they would create a system of ease for divergent ideas and political competition to rise up.
Research into the phenomenon of ballot access has yielded interesting findings. A 2006 study noted that congressional legislators are more inclined to vote along party lines than with the wishes of their constituents when barriers to competition are raised. (Glen and Choi, 2006). Furthermore another study concluded that political competition feeds economic prosperity by creating legislators that are able to compromise and are more effective at fostering economic growth. (Besley, et al, 2005) The occurrence of reduced electoral competition that Democratic and Republican candidates face is further solidified in research carried out in 2009 that finds high correlation between restrictive ballot access requirements as used in most US states and the reduced level of electoral competition. (Drometer & Rincke, 2009) With these studies in mind a clearer picture emerges of an entrenched elite that has no reason nor incentive to change the system, but have created a gridlocked and ineffective system of government.
The first past the post, single member plurality voting system can be arguably an outdated 18th Century construct of democracy. Today, only the United Kingdom and Canada join with the United States in utilizing this method. Most other Western democracies now use a proportional system of representation. Officials in these countries are elected in multi-member districts with each party receiving a percentage of the elected seats based on the percentage of the votes won.
Research tends to show that countries utilizing the plurality method register higher rates of voter dissatisfaction with their elected officials than with those countries using proportional systems. In New Zealand a referendum was held in 1993 asking the people to select between a plurality system and a proportional one in the face of ongoing election debacles in which the second placed party at the polls actually won a majority of seats. Citizens chose the proportional system. In the UK in 1997 the then opposition Labor Party promised voters in Scotland a referendum on a proportional system of regional government if they were elected. The ruling Conservative Party opposed the plan. On Election Day the Labor Party were handed a decisive victory at the polls and the Conservative Party were wiped out in Scotland returning no legislators to the next Parliament, and the proportional system of selecting regional representatives was enacted.
A laundry list of problems can be traced to the plurality voting system over proportional systems. Blame for many of these issues tends to be misplaced due to the lack of discussion that exists in the United States around voting systems. Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker magazine made this very point,
A lot of the political pathologies we worry about in this country–things like low voter turnout, popular alienation from politics, hatred of politicians and politics per se, the undue influence of special interests, the prevalence of negative campaigning and so on–are not caused by the usual suspects. They are not caused by the low moral character of our politicians. They are not caused by the selfishness of the electorate. They are not caused by the peculiarities of the American national character and the American political culture. They are not caused by television. They are not caused by money (although money certainly makes them worse). Instead, they are artifacts of a particular political technology. They are caused by our single-member district, geographically-based, plurality winner-take-all system of representation.
Some of the problems that we see in our political landscape can be traced to the practice in the United States of single member plurality districts. For example, lack of competitive elections: We consistently see upwards of 90 percent of incumbents being re-elected to Congress in the face of overwhelmingly negative opinion polls. Many areas of the country are dominated by one party and can stymie political competition. In elections in 2000, Democrats and Republicans failed to nominate candidates in 41% of state contests where one or the other was so dominant that a competitor was never fielded.
The lesser of two evils regret is often uttered around polling places, a phrase I like to restate as the evil of two lessers. Do candidates really achieve enthusiastic support for their message, or can we conclude that, at least in part, some of that support will be tepid at best? And when candidates are falling over themselves to appeal to the last few swing voters on the eve of an election, voters can be forgiven for concluding that there is in fact no real difference between their candidates. And can we really boil every political opinion in the country down to a choice between red or blue? It is wholly insufficient to offer two choices that can vary very little on substantive issues.
Lower voter turnout is often blamed on slothful voters. Often as many as 90 million voters sit out elections each year with often less than 40% of the electorate participating in congressional elections; this in comparison to upwards of 80-90% in other Western democracies utilizing proportional systems.
Women and minority candidates also suffer as a result of lack of competition. A record 18% of our current Congress is now female compared to 45% currently in the proportionally elected Parliament in Sweden. The case is as bleak for minority candidates in Congress. A record 6% of the current legislature will be Hispanic and a record 8% African American.
And let’s not forget the piece de resistance of the entrenched political oligarchy; the gerrymandered district. This tactic allows legislatures to craft districts that don’t necessarily reflect the will of the electorate but rather the will of the party in power. For example, in the 1990s Democrats were able to redistrict the state of Texas to give them 70% of the House seats while achieving less than 50% of the vote.
Is there any hope? While we need to rely on deeply entrenched state legislatures that are as gridlocked with Democratic and Republican lawmakers as Washington DC is, then the outlook is grim. Single member, plurality voting systems will never be replaced so long as they serve the powers that create the laws that will change them. Nor will ballot access become any easier while the interests of the politically entrenched will be jeopardized if they are changed. What are we to do?
The power of the proposition is a silver lining in this otherwise forbidding backdrop. Several states allow their citizens to propose initiatives to be voted upon by the electorate that if pass become law. The system can completely circumvent legislatures and even pass laws that are openly opposed by elected officials. Such was the case in 2010 when Proposition 14 passed in California creating the Top 2 Primary system in California and completely bypassed the will of both the California Democratic Party and the California Republican Party who both actively campaigned against the measure.
If we are to recognize that many of the complaints against politics in the United States are a result of the single member district and the difficulty of ballot access for third party and independent candidates, then we can make real and effective change to gridlocked and ineffective government.