Choosing How to Choose: Alternative Electoral Systems

By Tim Martinson, Head Writer for Political History

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When an American citizen goes to the ballot box on election day, they have a choice of candidates for office. Federal elections in the United States and many states across the nation tend to use a type of majoritarian or plurality electoral system in which multiple candidates run for a single office in one district. In many cases, this specific system is referred to as a “first-past-the-post” system (DeSilver et al. 2021). Simply put, this type of electoral system is one in which the winner in an election gets the most votes, or a plurality, but does not necessarily need to receive an outright majority of the vote (DeSilver et al. 2021). The typical first-past-the-post system used in much of the US, as well as other countries such as the UK and Canada, has both advantages and disadvantages. While the system has been praised for its simplicity for both voters and election officials, some argue that the first-past-the-post system incentivizes a two-party system and leads to votes being wasted (“What Are the Advantages” 2013). 

In political science, the idea that plurality systems like first-past-the-post in what are called single-member districts lead to a two-party system is called “Duverger’s Law.” There is also a psychological element to it, in which both politicians and voters realize that only two political parties could be viable to win in such a system and largely abandon third parties, thus perpetuating the two-party system (“Duverger’s law”). Various arguments could be made over whether or not the current first-past-the-post system used in the US and the resulting two-party system are better or worse for American politics. For instance, one could argue that a two-party system promotes governmental stability since first-past-the-post always results in one of the two parties having a legislative majority after an election (“Two-party system” 2023). On the other hand, specifically in the US, there has been a sharp increase in political polarization between those who affiliate with the Democratic and Republican Parties in the past couple of decades. This has even led to frustration with the two-party system in general, with a recent Pew Research Center study finding more than half of Americans desire more political parties to choose from (“As Partisan Hostility” 2022).

While there is likely no single reform that could solve all the problems with American politics, it could be good to look at some alternative voting systems that could be implemented in the United States. The majoritarian electoral system used in the US is not the only type that is used across the world, after all. Another major category of electoral systems is proportional representation (PR) systems, in which the overall percentage of the popular vote for a particular political party in an election is translated in some way into the percentage of legislative seats that a political party receives. This kind of electoral system is used by many countries, such as the Netherlands, Sweden, Greece, and Spain (“Proportional representation” 2023). Unlike the single-member districts that are widely used in the US, countries with PR systems tend to use multi-member districts, which have more than one legislative seat allocated to it (“Multimember district”). There are different forms of proportional representation systems, but some of the more prominent types are party list systems. In a party list PR system, political parties choose candidates in a list depending on the number of seats in that district, and the voter gets to choose between either the parties or a mix of the candidates between the different parties. A formula is then used to determine how to translate the vote totals into seat allocations to parties (“Party List Proportional Representation”). PR systems, in general, tend to lead to multi-party systems, where parties must form coalitions amongst themselves to establish a majority in a legislature. As such, voters have more options on their ballots when they go to vote (“Advantages of PR systems”). However, some critiques do exist for PR systems, such as them leading to fragmented party systems or the potential for confusion on the part of both voters and poll workers compared to majoritarian systems (“Disadvantages of PR systems”). Regardless, proportional representation is not the only potential alternative for electoral reform.

Another widely discussed electoral system is called ranked-choice voting (RCV), also known as instant runoff voting. It has gained steam in the US in recent years, particularly at the local level. A notable example is New York City’s adoption of the system, starting with the 2021 local elections. In an RCV system, voters are given candidates from parties similar to the current single-member district plurality system, but they have the option to rank the candidates in order of their preference. If no single candidate receives an outright majority, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and the second choices from those voters are reallocated, and so on until a candidate reaches a majority (DeSilver et al.). However, this system is not without faults. If RCV is implemented within single-member districts, then it is still susceptible to some of the same electoral issues that arise from single-member districts, such as gerrymandering.

Simply put, gerrymandering is the practice of politicians drawing district boundaries to benefit one political party over another. In US politics, partisan gerrymandering involves consolidating voters into districts such that one party is given a disproportionate advantage electorally (Duignan 2023). In the United States, more liberal voters tend to live in urban areas and more conservative voters in rural areas. Due to the relative consistency of this divide, combined with single-member districts not giving any legislative representation to the political minorities in those areas, gerrymandering creates non-competitive districts (Drutman 2022). A potential combination of RCV and multi-member districts, however, was studied by researchers at Cornell University’s School of Engineering, revealing that multi-member districts with RCV could combat gerrymandering (Fleischman 2021). These are only a few potential alternatives to the current American electoral system. 

While it is important to have these discussions in public, it is also important to consider what reforms have been proposed as bills in Congress. One prominent reform that would significantly overhaul the electoral system for the House of Representatives is the “Fair Representation Act,” which had been introduced in 2021 by Rep. Donald Beyer (D-Va.). According to the official summary, the bill would require RCV to be implemented for the elections of Senators and representatives, have states with at least six representatives draw multi-member districts, and have states put in place independent commissions to draw district boundaries. While the bill did not receive any votes in the 117th Congress, its introduction shows that electoral reform is not off the table (“H.R.3863” 2021). 

These alternative systems are only some of the many that are used across the world. All in all, though, the current first-past-the-post system has its critics. If the system were to be reformed, it would significantly shake up American politics, possibly to the extent that new political parties could gain seats in the United States Congress. Whether such reforms would be for better or for worse is up for debate, but the current electoral system is not the only possibility. 

Tim Martinson is a political science major from Merrick, New York, on Long Island, who currently serves as Head Writer for Political History at Happy Medium. Tim has volunteered for several political campaigns in the past, such as his state senator’s re-election campaign in 2018. He is currently a board member of the Binghamton College Democrats and was previously a public affairs show host at WHRW. Tim was an intern political journalist at Happy Medium in summer 2022. Tim has an interest in political history and likes to play video games and learn new things in his free time.


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