Pro-democracy reformers, activists, and funders in the United States tend to focus on increasing voter turnout by decreasing the barriers to voter registration and casting a ballot. But in doing so, they’re missing something important: the broken two-party system. In the market economy consumers have a plethora of choices for virtually every good and service. How, then, when it comes to US general elections, can one expect the American voter to be excited with two choices at best—or, as in most Congressional and many state legislative races, no meaningful choice at all?
Reducing barriers to voting is a good idea, but what’s really needed is a shift to a multi-party system through proportional representation; many comparative studies suggest that such a shift would lead to an increase in voter turnout of between 9 and 12 percent.
Young People Want More Choices
As a generation, Millennials are more ethnically diverse, hold more progressive views on social issues, and are more likely to favor a strong role for government than previous cohorts. How does this translate into affiliating with political parties? A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in early 2014, found that about half of Millennials did not identify with either the Democratic or Republican political party, an increase from 38 percent in 2004. Further, only 31 percent of Millennials saw big differences between the two parties, compared to 43 percent of all respondents in the same survey.
These data suggest a desire for alternative choices. In a NBC News/Survey Monkey poll of Democratic voters released in mid-October, 2015, 54 percent of young people backed socialist Bernie Sanders compared to just 26 percent for Hillary Clinton. Under a proportional representation system, many of these young people might gravitate towards a Social Democratic, Green, or Working Families Party. Without any significant change to the US electoral system, we should expect continued political disaffection by young people, barring the exceptional presidential candidate who is able to inspire and mobilize.
Strategic Voting, the Spoiler Effect, and the GOP Civil War
“But we have lots of political parties.” That’s what one Democratic Party activist told me in a recent conversation about the merits of a multi-party system. He was technically correct; however, the US electoral system, often called “first past the post” or “winner-take-all” system, inherited from British colonialism, is set up to give just two parties any meaningful chance to win elections and govern. In the United States, voters who favor a non-major party candidate must decide between casting a strategic vote for the “lesser of two evils” or casting a vote for their first choice, which could perversely help their least favored candidate to win. (Meanwhile, the vast majority of democracies in other countries have adopted true multi-party systems, mostly as a way for elections to truly reflect the views of voters.)
Consider how current non-major parties have fared in recent US elections. On the left, the Working Families Party arguably has the most momentum. Launched in 1998 by a coalition of labor unions, community-based organizations, and remnants of the New Party, the Working Families Party is electorally active in a handful of states. In New York, where fusion voting allows two or more political parties on a ballot to list the same candidate, the party has been able to claim victories of endorsed candidates including Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. However, only one candidate, Edwin Gomes, has ever been able to win election solely as the nominee of the Working Families Party; the race was for State Senate in Connecticut, and Gomes had formerly represented the same district as a Democrat.
Without a change to the electoral system, the Working Families Party will struggle to win a single seat in any legislative chamber—that’s a far cry from being able to channel energy from protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street into electoral power.
On the right, there’s the very different dynamic of the Tea Party. Since the 2008 elections, Tea Party candidates do not run under the party label. Instead, they typically challenge establishment Republicans by offering what they tout as a more ideologically pure alternative. Successful Tea Party house candidates have formed the Freedom Caucus, which generally blocks the Republican Caucus from compromising with Democrats. Under a multi-party system, the Tea Party could function as a separate party, distinct from the pro-business, pro-immigration Republican Party of previous generations. That structure would not necessarily increase voter turnout among conservatives, but it could very well result in a more functional Congress where compromise is not taboo.
Increasing Competition and Enhancing Voting Rights
The lack of competitive races is a sad hallmark of the US electoral system. In most states, the decennial process of redistricting results is effectively an incumbency protection plan. Races, at least in the general election, are largely pro forma. I’ve voted in four states since first registering in 1991. I can recall voting in only one Congressional election where the incumbent didn’t win in a landslide.
Elections in a multi-party system are structurally more competitive. With single member districts in a two-party race (districts that elect one representative to office), a candidate needs 50 percent plus one vote to win a seat. In three-member districts (which were used to elect the Illinois State Assembly for more than 100 years, until 1980), the threshold for winning one of three seats can be 30 percent or even less. A shift to multi-member districts (where more than one person is elected to office) could make virtually every district competitive, forcing all candidates to campaign aggressively and encourage voters to participate.
What’s more, the increase in competitiveness would not come at the expense of voting rights. Since voters who support Democratic congressional and state legislative candidates are more concentrated in urban areas, more competitive races would mean splitting up these communities and combining them with predominantly Republican suburbs. Given that these urban communities are disproportionately composed of people of color, such a change could have a detrimental impact on minority voting rights—a difficult tradeoff. A multi-member district system could resolve the tension by offering meaningful competition but also providing a method for communities of color to elect someone of their choice. In fact, for Asian Americans, who do not have the same history of racial segregation as African Americans, a multi-member district system offers an opportunity to more easily elect their preferred candidate.
Modernizing our system of election administration is critical to removing barriers to participation and instilling confidence that each vote will be counted. But if voters do not have meaningful choices at the ballot box, why should they bother to show up?