Now more than ever, Americans hate the two-party system and want to see more parties in a more vibrant democracy. However, most Americans don’t know why we have a two-party system or how to fix it.
Most elections in the United States happen under a first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system. This is an electoral system in which whoever gets the most votes wins the election. This seems fair, but it is actually what limits us to a two-party system and has restricted choices in American elections.
If you voted for anyone other than Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, you threw your vote away. This is a controversial opinion, but it’s not an opinion, it’s just math. FPTP creates what political scientist call the spoiler effect.
Voting for anyone other than the main party candidates just siphons votes off of the main parties and can lead to a minority selecting who wins the election. Maine provides an excellent example of what happens under FPTP.
In 2010, Paul LePage won the gubernatorial election with a whopping 37% of the vote. This means that he was elected governor despite the fact that 63% of Maine voters voted for someone else. This is a classic example of the spoiler effect. That 63% was split between an independent (36%) and a Democrat (19%) along with some other minor party candidates, thus handing the keys to the mansion to Lepage. This happened again in 2014 when LePage was re-elected with only 48% of the vote.
This has had real consequences for the people of Maine. LePage has been an embarrassment to their state, but that is an entirely different article. The voters of Maine realized this problem and voted to switch to a ranked voting system that would eliminate the spoiler effect. This vote appears to have spooked both parties in the state and the legislature has delayed implementation until 2021.
The problem is amplified when looking at Congress. There is a reason that Congress has an approval rating of around 10-20% yet 98% of incumbents are sent back to Washington. This is because the FPTP system allows for gerrymandering and gives 0% representation to candidates that may lose by one vote.
This is not fair. This is not democracy.
So what other options are there for electing our Congress and hopefully legislatures across the country?
Single Transferable Vote (STV)
STV systems also sends multiple members from each district, but takes the parties out of the system and allows for more local representation (which is why I personally believe this system would be better for the United States). The equation for figuring out how many votes a candidate needs to get elected is the total number of votes divided by the number of seats plus one. Plus one more after that.
So if there was an election with 1.7 million voters and 5 seats available the equation would be (1,700,000/5+1)+1 which equals 340,002 votes. Once a candidate reaches this threshold, they will stop receiving votes and the extra votes go to the second choice of those voters (voters rank their candidates when they vote). Whoever has the least amount of first choice votes is eliminated and the second choice of that candidate’s voters get the votes instead and so on. If this is confusing a visual might be helpful.
Because it involves the aggregation of ranked preferences, the single transferable vote formula necessitates complex electoral computations. This complexity, as well as the fact that it limits the influence of political parties, probably accounts for its infrequent use. STV is used in national elections in Ireland and Malta, in Australian Senate elections, and in local and European Parliament elections in Northern Ireland.