The 2016 election brought into sharp relief the anomalies and imperfections of our democratic institutions. Trump, beating out a crowded field of primary candidates, won the election having lost the popular vote. Despite intense media coverage, the party primaries were still low-turnout events, and party infighting undermined the legitimacy of the final candidates. Third-party candidates who stood no chance of winning nonetheless drew significant votes in swing states.
Translating frustration with the political system into an agenda for political reform is difficult in any established democracy. Americans have been fed up with gerrymandering, campaign finance, and two-party monopolies for years. But “reform” often gets a bad rap as a way to seek partisan advantage. The For the People Act 2019 (H.R. 1), the Democrats’ first agenda item after the 2018 midterms, was derided as the “Democrat Politician Protection Plan” by Mitch McConnell when it reached the Senate.
As discontent with the Trump administration grows, however, Americans across the political spectrum are taking a serious look at the vulnerabilities in our democratic institutions and asking how they might be improved. Reform, after all, is the way democratization happens. Reforms align our normative ideals of democracy with the actual practice of democracy. They are designed to make democracy safer in the long run by reestablishing the rules of the game, and by fostering competition that allows better representative outcomes.
In the United States, a serious conversation about democratic reform has begun to take shape. It is focused in particular on our electoral system and representative institutions. There is a growing sense that problems in American democracy are not just related to parties and partisanship. Instead, they are structural, built into our institutions themselves. Our winner-take-all system of electing representatives—technically known as first-past-the-post, single-member district elections—makes it hard for third parties to win. Winner-take-all also forces many voters to vote strategically or risk “wasting” their votes. Further, Congressional seats are allocated solely on the basis of geography. The party receiving the most votes does not win the most seats in Congress: All that matters is where the voters live. Taken together, it is not surprising that many voters feel inadequately represented at the national level. Our electoral system does not let voters vote their true preferences, nor does it translate the greatest vote-getters into the winners.
Reforming our electoral system is a promising way to improve American democracy. It may seem prosaic to say that if we change how people select candidates, we can alter outcomes. But in fact, it is the prosaic practices of democracy that condition all political possibilities. Successful cases of reform in other advanced democracies provide lessons on how we might actually overhaul first-past-the-post in the United States. In other countries, such as New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan, and Italy, aligning the normative values of democracy with the rules of democracy became a political priority. First, voters and politicians came to agree on the problem—on the fact that the electoral rules unfairly disadvantaged some voters and parties. Second, they agreed on finding a solution that made the electoral system more proportional and competitive.
America’s Electoral System: A Problem for Democracy?
The American electoral system includes both deeply-rooted and modern features. Debates over the Electoral College, a uniquely American institution that aggregates presidential votes by state rather than by popular vote, frequently turn on the past vs. the present. And while the Senate has always been composed of two Senators from each state, Senators were not popularly elected until the twentieth century.
The House of Representatives, which is a small legislature given the size of the United States, assigns seats to equally-proportioned districts within each state. It was not until the 1960s, however, that the House mandated single-member districts (through the Uniform Congressional District Act of 1967). This act followed a series of Supreme Court decisions in the early 1960s that created the “one man, one vote” standard, and applied it to both Congressional and state legislative districts. Unlike most other democracies, the principle of proportionality—that all votes should count the same, and that the seats in the legislature should, therefore, reflect the distribution of votes in the electorate—has never operated in Congress.
Over the past two decades, however, there has been a realization that the way we choose our elected officials may not be fair. The two-party system means that one party typically enjoys a “seat bonus” in the House of Representatives. Since 2000, this has consistently worked to the benefit of Republicans. Republicans often only need to win a plurality of the national share of the House vote (less than 50 percent) to win a decisive majority of seats. On occasion, Republicans have secured House majorities while receiving fewer votes. In 2012, for example, Democrats won 1.2 million more votes than Republicans, while Republicans retained a 33-seat advantage. (Democrats, on the other hand, must win an absolute majority of votes in order to win a majority of seats.) While some of this advantage can be attributed to gerrymandering, it is mostly due to a bias caused by geography: More seats are allocated to rural and suburban areas, while many more people live in urban, coastal areas.
The Economist recently argued that American institutions are “biased” towards Republicans, and that “American elections no longer convert the popular will into control of government.” The editorial board of the New York Times recommended significant changes to the House of Representatives, including expanding the number of members and electing multiple members from each district. In its U.S. Competitiveness Project, Harvard Business School’s Michael E. Porter and colleagues argued that the main problem with democracy today is the two-party duopoly. While calls to “abolish the Senate” remain fringe, the large-state disadvantages of the Senate have affected debates about Supreme Court nominations and impeachment. The Senate is both the most malapportioned and most powerful upper chamber in the democratic world, with no pretense that votes across states should be weighed equally.
Beyond First-Past-The-Post: Lessons from Abroad
It might be hard to distinguish the criticism of first-past-the-post in the United States from the diffuse discontent with other elements of American elections. In polls and surveys, Americans still think that gerrymandering and money in politics are more concerning than the allocation of Congressional seats. However, without structural change that reconfigures how effectively Americans are represented, it is unlikely that districting or ethics reforms make a significant impact on American democracy.
Throughout American history, we have reformed our institutions in the name of democracy. Further, other countries have successfully reformed their electoral systems in ways that both preserve their original features while also ensuring that citizens’ preferences are fairly reflected in government. In the early 1990s, during a period of jubilation about democracy and widespread adoption of democratic elections, a wave of democracies—New Zealand, Italy, Japan, and Taiwan—amended their electoral systems as well. In these countries, the electoral systems often produced results that were biased in favor of one of the parties. Therefore, legislative majorities did not reflect the popular will. These countries then moved to mixed systems that combined elements of first-past-the-post with proportional representation, which helped to correct structural biases and improve competition and representation.
New Zealand offers a particularly interesting case of electoral reform, since its parliament used to rely on first-past-the-post single-member districts to elect its members. After multiple elections through the 1970s in which the party with only a plurality of votes won decisive majorities in Parliament, the Labour party established the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Electoral System in 1981. Five nonpartisan Commission members were appointed to investigate alternatives to first-past-the-post. They undertook a multiyear investigation into electoral systems in other countries and also spent time with citizens to understand the problems that reforms ought to address.
The Royal Commission issued its report, “Towards a Better Democracy,” in 1986. The report argued that the electoral system was antiquated and unfair. It asked whether “our electoral system—in significant measure unchanged since its establishment in England long ago—now best serves different purposes in a different country, community, and century.” The Commission articulated a new set of standards by which electoral systems should be judged, writing that “the number of seats gained by a political party should be proportional to the number of voters who support that party.”
In other words, the Royal Commission did more than simply propose alternative institutional arrangements. It also established new criteria for selecting an electoral system, arguing that elections should not be based on geography or tradition, but instead should start from the principle that all votes matter equally. A concerted reform effort, combined with a public education campaign, led to a 1992 indicative referendum in which 84% of voters supported changing the electoral system. In 1993, a binding national referendum led New Zealand to adopt a mixed-member proportional system.
The countries that changed their electoral systems in the 1990s all adopted mixed systems that combine majoritarian and proportional features, allowing voters to choose both one candidate and one party. Germany’s system is mixed-member proportional, as are the Scottish and Welsh parliaments. The trend towards proportionality reflects an evolution in our conception of democratic fairness: If an electoral system consistently produces results that do not reflect the preferences of its voters, reforming it towards proportionality can make it more democratic.
Reform efforts are not always successful, though. In the 1990s, the Labour government in Britain created the Jenkins Commission to look into alternatives to first-past-the-post. In 1998, the Commission issued a report recommending a mixed system called alternative vote plus. This system allows voters to rank-order the candidates in single-member districts, and also reserves a proportion of Parliamentary seats to parties, which are selected proportionally. But the momentum for electoral reform fizzled, and a national referendum to adopt alternative vote plus failed in 2011.
There are critical lessons to draw from the reform efforts that succeeded and failed. First, voters and elites need to see electoral systems as the source of unfair or disproportionate political advantage. At the very least, voters need to realize that the two-party system is entirely a product of the electoral rules. Without changing first-past-the-post, it is very unlikely that a third party becomes competitive. Second, the reform coalition—grassroots activists, experts, and stakeholders—needs to cohere around one big reform idea for it to gain traction with the public. This is crucial to momentum, and to creating a base of support among cross-cutting constituencies. Finally, in the lead-up to reform and in the years that follow, there must be consistent voter education, and patience: Outcomes might not change overnight.
Electoral Reform in the United States?
The crisis of liberal democracy at home and abroad requires us to think critically about what exactly is wrong with our democratic institutions and practices. For decades, Americans’ trust in institutions has been on the decline. Many Americans say they are fed up with a system that feels like it is not truly representative, one in which their choices are constrained.
We must ask if an electoral system that requires voters to waste their votes, that limits politics to two parties, and that greatly enhances the power of voters in certain states or districts comports with modern conceptions of democratic fairness. Voters and politicians are increasingly receptive to calls for reform. Mobilizing for electoral reform, and building momentum for greater proportionality in our politics, will be arduous. But with sustained support, it may not be impossible