Glancing Out

Travels and musings about life, government, climate change, and more.
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The downward spiral of Congressional approval ratings reflects a general dissatisfaction with ‘politics as usual’ in Washington (has ranged from about 10-14% over the past few years). On a related note, the number of individuals identifying as ‘independents’ has increased from about 33% in 1980, to 40% currently. To be clear, when asked if they ‘lean’ towards a party, the number of ‘true’ independents plummets to about 10%. The important finding here is that almost half of voters prefer not to label themselves as either a Republican or a Democrat. Attempting to explain this dissatisfaction is an arduous task, as respondents, despite the low ratings of Congress as a whole, still generally are satisfied with their representative, as over 90% of incumbents typically win reelection (explanations for this range from parochialism, gerrymandering, to fundraising advantages). The point of this essay is not necessarily to explain the dissatisfaction with the two major parties in the American political system, but rather, examine the systematic impediments to expanding the number of options voters could have at their disposal when casting their vote. If 40% of the electorate prefers not to formally associate themselves with one of the two major parties, why are about 99% of elected officials in the US either a Republican or a Democrat? Why don’t more voters support 3rd or 4th party candidates? 


Members of the research community have tackled this perplexing question from a variety of angles. The most obvious explanation centers on an institutional explanation, known as Duverger’s Law (Although Maurice Duverger often receives credit for coming up with the theory, it was first put forward in the late 19th century by Henry Droop, who analyzed electoral systems and their impact on the number of parties). Essentially, the Law explains that single-member district (SMD), plurality systems (as the US employs), tend to produce two parties as a result of mechanical and psychological effects. Third parties, even ones with relatively popular platforms, often fail to win a plurality of the vote in any district, leaving them with zero seats, despite having as much as 20% voter support (this is a common occurrence in the UK with the Liberal-Democratic Party). Realizing this, voters tend to ‘weed out’ smaller parties in favor of an ‘acceptable’ larger party with the hopes of preventing their least preferred party from winning the seat (the fear of ‘wasting’ your vote on an improbable candidate).

For instance, let’s say you are a Libertarian living in a moderately conservative district and three candidates are running for a congressional seat. Candidate A is a moderate Democrat, candidate B is a moderate Republican, and candidate C is a Libertarian (a pretty close description of what happened in the 2012 Montana Senate race). So the order of your preference is: C > B > A. However, you realize that by casting a vote for your preferred candidate, C, who is only polling at about 15%, you are increasing the likelihood of your least preferred candidate, A, of winning the seat, even though he is only polling at 40%. Realizing this development, you opt for candidate B, polling at 35%, with the intention of pushing him past candidate A (your least preferred candidate). This is essentially how mass parties, such as the Republicans and Democrats, have established themselves as ‘umbrellas’ in the US – they represent various causes and ideologies, all finding each other tolerable enough to coalesce under one party label. Although third parties have gained legitimacy in the US in the past, they have typically taken advantage of the inability of one of the existing parties to adequately address a pressing issue of the day, ultimately displacing it as one of the two major parties (as the Republicans did to the Whigs in the mid-19th century).

In the 2000 presidential election, Ralph Nader supporters faced this dilemma. Although Nader was the preferred candidate of about 16% of the electorate, he only received about 2.5% of popular vote that year. Many of his supporters voted strategically, realizing that they would prefer to vote for the ‘2nd choice’, Al Gore, rather than increase the likelihood that their least preferred candidate, George W. Bush, would be elected. Ross Perot voters were not quite as ‘strategic’ in their behavior, as he received an impressive 19% of the popular vote, while failing to tally a single electoral vote (he failed to win a plurality in any of the states, coming closest in Maine with a 38-30% loss to Clinton). In fact, in June of 1992, Perot led all candidates, polling at 39% in the general public, compared with 31% for George H.W. Bush and 25% for the eventual winner, Bill Clinton (that data regarding Perot’s supporters’ second choice is disputable however, as they were evenly divided when asked this question). 

So what are other countries doing that enables the proliferation of 3, 4, 5, or in some cases, dozens of parties? Well, the second half of Durverger’s Law explains that proportional representation systems (PR) enable multiple parties to emerge as a result of the lower threshold of support necessary to earn a seat in their respective legislatures. Rather than awarding only one member per district, as our system in the US does, PR systems delineate multiple seats in each district based on the percentage of popular votes received. Depending on the country, a party may need anywhere from 2-5% of the vote in order to qualify for representation, encouraging voters to support their first preference, regardless of the probability of gaining a plurality (there may still be some strategic voting in play if they are unsure if their preferred party can achieve the minimum threshold of support). Most countries employ some kind of PR, or mixed member proportional (MMP)– a hybrid of the two that retains SMD for the one chamber, yet employs PR for the lower house.


Most democracies formed since the mid-19th century have opted for some kind of PR system, as the only remaining SMD countries are the UK and their former colonies (the US, Canada, Australia, India, and a handful of others - New Zealand switched from SMD to PR in the mid-1990s). When faced with the choice while determining the characteristics of their democracy, nations began to realize the many advantages PR provides over SMD. First, PR systems better reflect the ideological will of the people. The number of seats awarded to a party is generally dependent on the popular vote share achieved during the election (some bonus seats are often awarded to the top vote getters, but the effect is negligible). On the other hand, SMD systems typically overstate the support of the majority party, and consequently, understate the support of potential 3rd or 4th parties. For instance, in the 2005 election in the UK (SMD system), the Labor party received only 35% of the votes, yet was awarded 53% of the seats in the House of Commons. The Liberal-Democrats, on the other hand, received 22% of the popular vote, but only 9.5% of the seats in the legislature (predictably, they have been leading the electoral reform movement in the UK).


Similarly, albeit less severe, in the 2012 House elections in the US, Republicans received about 48% of the popular vote, yet gained 54% of the total seats, while Democrats received 49% of the popular vote and only 46% of the seats (much of this can be attributed to gerrymandering, which would be ineffective in a PR system). 


The contrast regarding the relationship between popular vote share and seat allocation between SMD and PR/MMP systems is stark. In Sweden, the Social Democratic Party received 30% of the votes and was awarded 32% of the seats (bonus seats from parties that failed to reach the 4% threshold). However, the rest of the parties are all within a half of a percentage point of their popular vote and seat allocation. The results are similar in Germany (MMP) and the Netherlands (lower threshold PR), where seats are often awarded to parties if they fail to adequately reflect popular vote share.


A second advantage that PR systems provide is increasing the salience of issues citizens care deeply about - having multiple parties expedites progress in society by allowing certain issues to enter the national consciousness. The aforementioned Republican Party of the mid-19th century initially gained prominence when they officially became the anti-slavery party, among other progressive reforms. The allocation of seats to the Green Party in PR systems ensures that climate change will remain on the agenda of the national legislature. Here in the US, no issue is perhaps more symbolic of the need for a third party than the use of drone strikes. Regardless of one’s opinion on the policy, it is difficult to argue that the two candidates distinguished themselves from each other on the issue, as Mitt Romney finally found something he agreed with Obama on, “I support that entirely and feel the president was right to up the usage of that policy.” If you were diligent enough (or just a political junkie), you may have tuned into Democracy Now’s minor parties’ debate, aired simultaneously to the major party debate to see all four of the candidates from the Green, Libertarian, Constitutionalist, and Justice Parties criticize the use of drone attacks as an instrument of foreign policy (and condemn the unpopular drug war). The point is, there are issues that Americans care deeply about that get little attention from lawmakers and the media in the US. Opening the door to minority parties would facilitate the expansion of the conversation on a number issues important to the Left and Right. 

Finally, rather than resorting to supporting the ‘lesser of two evils’, a PR system facilitates true ideological representation by aligning voters with like-minded candidates. This increases the level of efficacy felt by voters – they actually feel good about the person they cast a vote for, rather than being forced to calculate the odds of victory for their most preferred candidate, and strategically basing their vote on this probability. As a product of this efficacy, voter turnout is substantially higher in PR systems than in SMD. The US is around 50-60% during presidential years (about 35-40% during midterm elections), while Sweden and Germany have typically been in the 75-80% range. On a related note, PR systems have been observed to elect more minority and female candidates than SMD, as a result of the lower threshold required to elect someone to office. This makes the legislature as a whole more demographically similar of the electorate it aims represent. For a more lengthy discussion regarding the advantages of a PR system, here’s a pretty exhaustive analysis. 

Those who cling to the virtue of the SMD system typically rely on arguments centered on simplicity, moderation, and stability. They argue that adopting a PR or MMP system is too complicated, as voters are often forced to vote twice, possibly for a party instead of a candidate, or even a candidate from a long list created by the party leaders (kind of insulting that other countries’ citizens can figure it out, but not your own). Although the elections would emphasize party platforms over candidate characteristics, the normative implications of this are mixed at best. Is it not more ideal for a democracy to base one’s vote on the policy stances a candidate will adhere to once in office, rather than superficial qualities (charisma, speaking ability, attractiveness) that dominate American elections?

Proponents of SMD systems further argue that PR systems produce candidates who are too extreme, providing undue influence to hate-mongering parties in Europe. While it is true that parties like the Netherlands’ xenophobic ‘Party for Freedom’ managed to gain nine seats in the 2006 election (5th most), their influence on policy, however, is limited. Although I previously argued that allowing minor parties a platform as a positive feature, increasing the salience of an issue should not be confused with having the ability to actually formulate policy that has a chance of passage. A party’s platform still must pass some kind of ‘reasonability threshold’ in order for the governing party or coalition to consider proposing it. Furthermore, the US is regarded as one of the most ‘pure’ two party systems, yet recent trends in the Republican Party can hardly be characterized as a move towards moderation. While the election of more extreme members may not be a systematic feature of SMD, this development in the US demonstrates that it is neither a safeguard against such candidates from winning elections (yes, I’m referring to you Michelle Bachmann and Allen West). 

Finally, many argue that SMD systems provide a greater degree of stability, accountability, and decisiveness compared to PR systems. While it seems intuitive that a government ruled by a single party would be more decisive and accountable, and thus more stable, the academic findings in this regard are inconclusive. Stability in a country is largely dependent on specific characteristics of the PR ultimately employed, but not necessarily PR in itself. Furthermore, coalitions have plenty of incentive to remain decisive and effective at governing, as a breach of this agreement would likely leave all of the coalition partners out of power. Major discrepancies in decisiveness and accountability are more likely to be attributed to separation of powers vis`-a-vis´ parliamentary systems. In the US, with its separation of powers system, it is often difficult for voters to adequately attribute blame for the current state of affairs when the President and Congress are different parties (there seems to be considerable disagreement regarding Obama’s divisiveness and Republican obstructionism – who you believe is largely a reflection of your ideology, but not necessarily reality). Moreover, providing the minority party institutional mechanisms (filibuster) to prevent the majority party from enacting policy, stalemate, rather than compromise, often ensues. These last two issues, however, are not inherently either the PR or SMD systems (neither the UK nor Canada have these gridlock problems because they have parliamentary systems, as opposed to the separation of powers we seem so proud of in the US). 

So, now that we’ve established the superiority of PR systems over the current SMD system in the US, what exactly would a PR or MMP system look like in the US? Well, based on the limitations of the Constitution, it may be difficult to employ a full-PR system. However, some kind of MMP system in which the election of senators remains largely unchanged, while altering the nature of House elections is certainly plausible. There are dozens of possibilities; I’ll outline what I believe to be a reasonable option: 

We have a completely nationally elected House of Representatives. This means that the number of seats would remain unchanged (435 total), but the allocation would not depend on who won individual districts, but rather which party received the highest percentage of votes nationally (as long as they achieve, say 4% of the national popular vote). For example, let’s say that 16% of people vote for the Green Party - they would be awarded about 69 seats (16% of 435, rounded down). Next, if the Libertarians receive 20% of the popular vote nationally, they would be awarded 87 seats. It’s possible the Democrats still receive about 35% of the vote (152 seats), and Republicans receive 26% of the vote (113 seats). This leaves about 3% of seats unaccounted for (small parties that failed to reach the 4% threshold), and those seats would be awarded to the party receiving the highest vote share, in this case the Democrats (which gives them 14 additional seats, bringing their total to 166). The Democrats would then likely form some sort of coalition with the Green Party in order to give them a majority of the seats (166 + 69 = 235. 218 seats are needed for a majority - 51% of 435). 

It’s important to keep in mind that this is a hypothetical situation, and it’s difficult to speculate exactly how many parties would be able to clear the 4% threshold. In some countries (Netherlands) where the threshold is 1%, dozens of parties earn representation. A 4-5% threshold, however (Sweden, Germany), may yield anywhere from 5-8 parties, depending on pre-existing social cleavages that are pronounced enough to facilitate the creation of a formal political party. In time, it’s highly probable that more than the four parties I discussed would end up receiving representation; I merely took the primary faction from the Republican and Democratic Party and turned it into a formal party in order to demonstrate how seat allocation would work. 

The disadvantages to this plan: citizens would no longer receive geographical representation from their member of congress (which they would still receive from their Senators); you have less say in the specific candidate(s) you elect to congress (although it would provide some kind of list system in which voters are involved in determining the order in which candidates are chosen to represent their party – Sweden does this and it works quite well).

The advantages to this plan: congress is much more representative of the people they are creating policy for - in many respects ideological representation is much more desirable than geographical representation (what do I care if my representative fights for my ‘district’s interest’ if I disagree with his entire outlook on the world?); it essentially rids of the system of the ‘orphan voter’ problem (Democrats in conservative districts and Republicans in liberal districts who have never once voted for the winning candidate in their district). 

You may be asking yourself, is this system essentially what we have now – the progressive faction of the Democratic Party coalescing with the moderates and the Tea Party caucus making their presence felt among the Republican establishment? In many respects, yes, coalitional systems, in a practical sense, work similarly to ‘factions’ cooperating in two-party systems. As outlined previously, however, representing these views with formal parties enables relevant issues see the light of day. For advocates of progressive policy, ending the drug war or instituting single-payer healthcare have become lost causes because the Democratic establishment has failed to make it a priority (or passed a rather disappointing healthcare reform law). If they were forced to form a coalition with the Green Party, these issues would remain on the agenda. The same could be said for those on the Right who hopelessly cling to the Republican Party, despite the fact that they prefer more of a Libertarian-minded isolationist position regarding foreign policy matters, and would like to see and end to corporate bailouts. 

So, where do we go from here? Why has nobody attempted to reform the political system in the past? 

Various reforms have been attempted in American history, albeit mostly at the local level and not nearly as drastic as the one outlined here. During the ‘Progressive Era’ of the early 20th century, for example, efforts were made to ‘diversify’ the party structures of various cities that were dominated by single-party and often corrupt ‘political machines’. A relatively unknown organization, the Proportional Representation League, had modest success at the city level, eventually passing PR reform in about two dozen cities across the US, including New York in 1936. Various researchers have examined the effects of the reforms, and found that it produced fairer and more proportional representation of political ideologies in relation to the electorate, while eliminating the tendency of SMD systems to exaggerate the seats allocated to the largest party (and underrepresenting minor parties). The research further indicates that levels of corruption decreased, as independently-minded candidates were less beholden to party bosses once in office. Despite the relative success of the PR reforms, almost all of them were eventually reversed due to racist fear tactics and Cold War Communist witch hunts. Here’s a little taste of Kolesar’s 1997 study that explains PR’s demise: 

Although deriving from the Progressive era of electoral reform, with the political realignment of the New Deal, and continuing through and immediately after World War II, there was a surge of interest in the use of PR. By the early 1960s, however, PR had been repealed in almost all the jurisdictions which used it (only Cambridge, Massachusetts, retained it beyond then). In the Cold War period opponents of PR successfully stigmatized PR as “un-American.” They frankly argued that PR—”this Stalin Frankenstein” as Tammany Hall called it—should be abolished in order to prevent the election of Communists. Furthermore, as African-American political candidates increasingly seemed to benefit from PR, charges that PR fostered racial bloc voting became increasingly important. As a result, by the 1960s PR had been eliminated as an electoral system within the United States, except as a curiosity. 

So there you have it. PR was defeated in the US due to its ‘Un-Americanness’. Does that argument ever get old? Anyway, any revival of the movement will probably have to come at the local level, just as it did nearly 100 years ago. Some cities are tinkering with the idea again, and only time will tell if the idea catches on nationally. The collective willingness of Democrats and Republicans to blockade third party efforts certainly doesn’t help matters (unreasonably high threshold requirements for ballot access, not allowing minor party candidates to participate in debates). Apparently, preventing genuine minor parties from forming is the one issue Republicans and Democrats can agree on – well that and the virtue of drone attacks. 

Even if PR seems unattainable for House elections, adopting some kind of single transferrable vote (STV) system for the presidential election would be enormously beneficial in providing a voice for minority parties and their causes. This would eliminate the ‘strategic voter’ dilemma faced by Green and Libertarian Party supporters, as they could vote for their first preference free from fear that they are enabling the victory of their least preferred candidate. While it may fail to alter the who ends up winning the election in the end, it would provide a voice to issues that lack adequate attention during the election cycle (and force the media to actually cover them). There’s a reason electoral reform receives little attention from the media. They are beholden to the institutionalization of the two-party system – they prefer to keep things simple for their viewers, and framing the election as a two-candidate ‘horse race’, in their view, is the best way to keep ratings up. However, for the sake of democracy, we need to stop treating political ideology as a simplistic, dichotomous choice between two parties who continue to perpetuate harmful status-quo policies, while preventing voters from expressing their views more effectively. Adopting a PR electoral system may not cure all of society’s ills, but it sure would be a good start.