Richards: Last Past the Post

It’s time to change the American voting system.

by Parker Richards | 5/10/18 2:00am

 In the United States, as in many Anglophone countries, each voter lives within a legislative district and is awarded one vote. The voter then casts that vote for a candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins. Each district elects one member, has one 

But there are problems. The system, called first-past-the-post, is inherently biased toward a two-party status quo. When only one candidate can win, and the highest vote getter is the winner, there is an incentive for voters to group together into unwieldy coalitions to support otherwise undesireable candidates. It’s why libertarian businessmen and evangelical Christians both back the Republican candidate while centrist liberals and trade unionists do the same for a Democrat.

And if there are more than two parties, disproportionality ensues. This is measured by the Gallagher index, which documents the discrepancy between votes cast and seats won. One infamous example is the United Kingdom’s 1983 general election. The Social Democratic Party-Liberal Party Alliance won 25.4 percent of the vote and 3.5 percent of seats in Parliament while the Labour Party took 27.6 percent of the vote and 32.2 percent of parliamentary seats. The Gallagher index score was 20.62; a score of five or less is generally considered acceptably proportional. And while the 1983 United Kingdom election was extreme, it remains hardly alone in being highly disproportionate. The 2015 Canadian federal election saw a Gallagher score of 12.02; the 2012 Queensland state election boasted a mammoth score of 31.16; and even the 2010 United Kingdom general election — the last in that country that has truly been a multi-party affair — saw a score of 15.57.

And it isn’t just national races. The recent United Kingdom local elections saw the same trend; for instance, the London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames boasted a Gallagher disproportionality score of over 23 — the Liberal Democrats won 72.2 percent of the seats from 46.69 percent of the vote. In the United States, the problem looks a bit different; with only two major parties, immediate disproportionately is rarely the issue (the last U.S. House election in 2016 had a score of 7.16). The issue is less disproportionalily — though gerrymandering creates a substantial problem in this regard — than lack of choice. Because first-past-the-post shepherds voters into only two camps, voters lose options.

Some would argue that the primary system ameliorates these problems. Never mind that many states restrict primary voting to members of certain parties or that the entire process costs the taxpayer massive sums. Or that primaries tend to undermine the interests of the average voter when candidates cater to the extreme wings of their own parties. Then there is the uniquely American problem of parties nominating, via primaries, candidates that they do not officially support or otherwise fail to advance their ideals in the best way possible. Missouri’s Todd Akin and Alabama’s Roy Moore are notable recent examples.

But there are also obvious problems with purely proportional systems. Israel and the Netherlands use the most extremely proportional systems of any functioning democracy. Both treat their entire countries as single parliamentary constituencies. Parties put forward a list of candidates, voters pick a party — and can sometimes rank candidates within a party’s list — and the proportion of seats won almost exactly matches the proportion of votes cast for the party. At the 2017 Dutch election, the ardently Calvinist Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij won 2.1 percent of votes and thus received two percent of seats. But voters would vote for the party, not the candidates within that party. In Anglosopheric politics, which tend to be highly personalized, the inability to denote preferred candidates is a drawback.

Lack of regional representation is also an issue in those countries that lack geographic constituencies. Some, like the Nordic countries, use party list voting but have individual constituencies, with some seats left over to “level” the parties to the national vote share. Thus, if a party received 10 percent of the vote nationally but only eight percent of the seats in parliament through constituencies, it would receive additional seats to get its representation into line with its vote share. Other countries, like Ireland, forsake some element of proportionately in favor of individuality. Irish voters rank candidates in constituencies of three to five members, each one voting for a first preference, second preference, third preference and so on. If a voter’s first preference choice receives the fewest votes, she is eliminated and the vote moves to the second preference candidate. This is done until five candidates meet a quota and are elected.

The problem with the Irish system — which was substantively simplified above — is that it is absurdly complex and quite mathematically challenging. Candidates can often win with vote shares that end in fractions of a vote when surplus votes are redistributed. It gains both individuality and a degree of proportionality — the Gallagher index remained an unacceptably high 8.50 — while sacrificing voter understandability and also tending to give rise to candidates with local popularity at the expense of national programs.

So perhaps the best system is that used in the devolved Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly and the similar mixed-member proportional scheme used in New Zealand. Both use first-past-the-post — to an extent. Voters in each country get two votes: the first for a person, the second for a party. Say, for instance, a Scottish voter lived in St. Andrews, a town in the first-past-the-post constituency of North East Fife. North East Fife is one of nine seats that together comprise the larger electoral region of Mid Scotland and Fife, which elects an additional seven party list members of Parliament. This voter might support, say, a Liberal Democrat candidate for his home seat but want the Green Party to emerge the largest overall, and would thus vote for the latter party for the regional list.

In this system, the seats that a party “should” win based on its vote share in the region are calculated and the seats actually won in first-past-the-post seats are subtracted. Thus, although the Scottish National Party won eight of the nine first-past-the-post seats, it received no additional member seats. The additional seats thus go to those parties that deserved them based on their party list results but did not in fact win seats in the individual member constituencies. Thus, voters can select both a party they want to form the government in Holyrood and an individual candidate whom they wish to serve as their individual representative.

It’s not perfect, but an America with both individual representation and proportional representation of the kind that broke the two-party system would be ideal. Of course, the average U.S. House member represents 711,000 constituents, hardly denoting local representation.

Truth be told, it’s next to impossible for a country the size of the United States to have an effective representative system. Electoral reform must be pioneered at the state level. Vermont and Maine, always innovative, could step to the fore in this matter. But of course, the better solution might be to take another lesson from Europe. A bloc of affiliated states, a union with common guaranteed rights and trade arrangements, might be a better long-term solution for this country than a federal state. A Commonwealth of New England, reformed Kingdom of Hawaii, California Republic or Carolinian Federation might be better able to ensure the representation of their populaces. Perhaps a Republic of the Yucatan, a Quebec Republic or an Acadian state could even join. Maybe they’d find better and unique ways to elect representatives.