Elections are coming up in the United States, so I thought it was a good opportunity to talk about the best and worst voting systems in the world. Why are US elections so weird? And how can it be fixed?
Sorry, hold on one second, just deleting all these texts asking for campaign contributions…Sorry, hold on one second, just deleting all these texts asking for campaign contributions…
All right, sorry about that, so if you’re in the US, you probably know the midterms are upon us, a–
And according to about 50 of the texts I just deleted, it’s possibly the most substantial midterm election in our lifetimes. This isn’t untrue.
This is an important election, there’s a lot on the line, but doesn’t it feel like every election is THE MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION EVER lately?
Why do we seem to just bounce from one crisis point to another when it comes to our elections in the United States?
I mean, as we all learned in school, this country is the last great bastion of democracy in the world. Also, the first bastion of democracy. The beginning and the end of everything. Also the only free country in the world, the richest country in the world, the strongest military in the world, the smartest country in the world, the shimmering city on a hill…
Maybe the reason we bounce from one election crisis to another is because when it comes to elections anyway, we’re none of those things. In fact, compared to a lot of other countries… we kinda suck at it.
All right before I lose all the flag-waving Americans in my audience, let’s start by acknowledging something here… the founding of the United States was a pivotal moment in the history of democracy in the world.
No, we didn’t invent democracy, in fact we gained our independence from a country with a parliamentary system, though with an unelected head of state.
And there were democracies in ancient Greece, that’s where the term comes from, plus many indigenous tribes had forms of democracy.
But the United States, according to many historians, is the oldest continuous democracy in the world. And you know what? We should be proud of that.
The problem is… We’re the oldest democracy in the world.
You know how the original iPhone was like a total game changer and launched us into the era of smartphones and now every other company is doing the same thing, arguably better in some ways?
Yeah, the original iPhone was amazing, it literally changed the world. But would you want to use the original iPhone now?
The election system in the United States is the original iPhone of election systems.
Although to be fair, it has evolved some over the years, so maybe it’s closer to an iPhone 6?
Also, in the interest of accuracy, the US isn’t one election system, it’s more of a patchwork of election systems because every state kinda has its own take on it but that’s my metaphor and I’m sticking to it.
The way the US runs elections made perfect sense 230 years ago. But the world has changed a lot since then and a lot of the newer democracies were able to jump in with newer systems that make a lot more sense today.
This is why, as much as we love to pride ourselves on being a free and democratic country, many international freedom watchdogs don’t have us at the top of the list. In fact we’re nowhere near the top.
We can start with Freedom House, which doesn’t have rankings per se, just lists countries as “Free, Partly Free, and Not Free”
Gotta love the simplicity.
Well they have the US listed as Free, which is a good start, and they give us a grade of 83 out of 100. Not great not terrible.
Then you’ve got the Democracy Index from the Economist Intelligence Unit, which has been keeping track of democracy trends since 1946.
They rank countries in 4 categories, Full Democracy, Flawed Democracy, Hybrid Regime, and Authoritarian.
They rank the US at 26th in the world, and in fact, we don’t even make the top category, coming in as a Flawed Democracy.
And one more I’ll point out is the Democracy Matrix from the German Research Foundation. They rank countries as Working Democracies, Deficient Democracies, Hybrid Regime, Moderate Autocracy, and Hard Autocracy.
And, again, we don’t crack the top category in this one, we come in as a Deficient Democracy, and ranked 36th in the world.
The countries that performed the best in these studies were:
(US is 36th
- New Zealand
- Costa Rica
(Economic Intelligence Unit)
- New Zealand
- New Zealand
And in case you’re wondering , there wasn’t quite as much agreement on the bottom 10 in each of these studies, but two that did make the worst of the worst were North Korea and Syria.
- North Korea
- Saudi Arabia
- South Sudan
- North Korea
- Democratic Republic of the Congo
- Central African Republic
- Equatorial Guinea
So I mean… At least we’re not them.
If you want to go into the details of how they made these rankings, what were the criteria and all that, I’ll put the links down in the description, feel free to take a look for yourselves. But the point is, we’ve got room to improve. And a lot.
There’s a long list of problems with our voting system in the US, from the outsized influence of money in politics, to rampant gerrymandering, to the electoral college system, all of which have led to an apathetic electorate that feels like their vote doesn’t matter, so they stay home.
Leading to the US having one of the lowest voter participation rates in the Western world.
Gerrymandering rant – dying on this hill
But the argument has been made, and I find it very compelling, that at the heart of all these issues is the voting system itself; the way we count the votes.
That’s right kids, we’re gonna talk about First Past The Post voting.
First Past The Post is basically “winner take all.” In other words, you count the votes and who ever gets the most votes wins. Which… sounds like it makes sense. I mean that’s democracy right?
And yeah, that does make sense – in a strictly 2-party system.
If you only have two people running, then whoever wins will by definition get more than 50% of the vote.
But add just one more person to it, whether it’s a third party or if you’re voting for multiple people in say a primary, then things start to not work so well.
If that third person gets any significant number of votes, you end up with someone winning the election without getting 50% of the vote.
In other words they win a plurality but not a majority.
So you could wind up with a representative that 60% of people voted against. And the more candidates in the race, the smaller the percentage of the vote the winner receives, and the less democratic the whole thing becomes.
This sounds like a little thing. But it’s not. It leads to some pretty bad results over time.
For example, the spoiler effect.
Let’s say you create a third party because you don’t feel either party really represents you clearly. In a First Past The Post system, you are basically ensuring that you will siphon votes away from the party you most align with and hand the election to the guy from the party you least align with.
In 2000, Ralph Nader ran as a strong Green party candidate on a progressive platform and wound up pulling just enough votes away from Al Gore to swing the election to George W. Bush.
Which, by the way, he did not win the popular vote or get more than 50%.
And hey, if you’re on the right side of the aisle and don’t like that I’m pointing that out, let me direct your attention to the election of 1992 when Ross Perot ran as a conservative Independent and basically handed the election to Bill Clinton.
Perot got almost 20 million votes, but didn’t win a single state, got zero electoral college votes, and Clinton won with only 43% of the popular vote.
I actually walked past Ross Perot at the mall here in Dallas one time… It’s not much of a story but it happened.
But the point is, he was able to get 20 million votes because there’s a lot of Republicans that are fiscally conservative but don’t care about the social wedge issues that the Republican party gets involved in.
Or from the other side, maybe you’re a big environmentalist but you think the Democrats are too corrupt so you want to vote for the Green party, but in our current system you know that’s just going to help out the Republican, who wants to do away with the EPA.
Voters in this system are constantly having to vote strategically and play 4D chess and support the least bad candidate rather than actually vote for the person or cause they believe in.
It’s like every time you step in the ballot box you have to hold your nose and vote for someone you don’t like so the other guy doesn’t win. Or as South Park said, you’re always choosing between a giant douche and a turd sandwich.
So yeah. People don’t really get excited about voting.
To go even further, in our winner-take-all system, the party that has control of the house or senate, even if it’s just by one seat, gets to control all the committees.
So there’s no incentive to work together.
Candidates also have no incentive to move to the middle as they will always get primaried by the political extremes. All of which just moves the parties further and further apart. Leading to the polarization we see today.
All of this comes down to the way we count the votes. It’s not a left or right issue, it’s a systems issue. So let’s look at some different – arguably better – ways of doing it.
There are essentially three types of voting systems: Plurality/Majority, Proportional Representation, and Mixed System.
And every country has their own variations of these systems, there’s no way to cover all of them but here’s a few examples.
So under the Plurality/Majority category, you have First Past The Post, then there’s the Two-Round system, block voting, and party block voting.
First Past The Post we talked about earlier, the Two Round System is a way to prevent someone from winning the election without a majority.
Basically you have a first round of elections and if nobody gets more than 50% of the vote, you have a second round of voting with the top two candidates, that way nobody wins without getting a majority.
Block voting has voters use as many votes as there are seats to fill in their district. They’re often free to vote for candidates regardless of party affiliation.
One advantage is that this system helps retain a voter’s ability to vote for individual candidates while increasing the role of parties at the same time.
Party Block voting is kinda like Block Voting but you vote for a party and not for an individual candidate.
It’s a simple-to-use system, but it suffers from some of the same disadvantages found in FPTP.
So those are all examples of Majority/Plurality systems, the next major system of voting is Proportional Representation, often just shortened to PR.
It takes the percentage of total votes a political party receives and assigns the number of seats that party will have in a legislature.
So let’s say you have a legislature with 100 seats for easy math, and the Orange party gets 40% of the vote, the Green party gets 30%, the Red party gets 20% and the Blue Party gets 10%.
Those parties would be given 40, 30, 20, and 10 seats respectively.
This way the overall proportion of people’s interest is reflected in the representation.
An advantage of a PR system is that it often reflects accurately how a population has voted. Plus there are few wasted votes.
It also encourages the development of multiple parties. And, it incentivizes those parties to work together to form coalitions. Thus, moving parties more to the center rather than the extremes.
One disadvantage is that this system may weaken constituencies. In other words, local districts and county representation is less prioritized than the overall mix of public sentiment.
And then you’ve got Mixed Systems which are exactly what they sound like, they’re a combination of First Past The Post and Proportional Representation.
So a voter would have two ballots when they vote, one that’s a party vote for a proportional house chamber and one that’s for a candidate for a representative house chamber.
This way the overall will of the people is reflected but also local constituencies are also represented.
Ranked Choice, Single Transferable Vote, Alternative Vote
But no talk of different voting systems is complete without talking about Ranked Choice Voting. Also known as Single Transferable Vote… And Alternative Voting… And Instant Runoff Voting… Multiple names are fun.
I’ll stick with Ranked Choice voting for the purposes of this video because with Ranked Choice voting, you – wait for it – rank your choices.
So instead of just casting one vote for one candidate, you rank the candidates based on your preference.
For example if you’re a Libertarian and feel like the Republicans have gotten a little too brownshirty for your taste, you can actually vote Libertarian as your first choice, Republican your second choice and on down the line.
And then if your top choice doesn’t get a majority, your vote will go to your second choice. If that doesn’t get a majority, it’ll go to your third choice and so on.
This way you can actually vote your conscience and know that you’re not wasting your vote or actually leaning the table toward the party you least agree with.
In this system, third party candidates actually have a chance, voters can actually vote their conscience, and parties are incentivized to move to the center because if they get too extreme, their base can always vote for another party.
So let’s go back and take a look at those 6 countries that keep showing up in the top 10 democracy rankings, what do they do?
- Norway – Proportional representation (PR)
- Finland – PR for parliament; First Past The Post for President in the Two Rounds format
- Denmark – Party-list PR
- Sweden – Open List style Party List PR
- Switzerland – Mix of PR for the Assembly and direct voting on referendums
- New Zealand – Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP)(Was FPP until 1993)
As I said before, there’s a million different ways of doing these things, and every country has their own twist on it but most international election observers agree some form of proportional representation is the most fair and democratic election system going.
People in these countries feel more represented, they have more say in their government, and their quality of living and happiness levels are higher.
Look at that, something that actually trickles down.
A Bicameral legislature
Instead of a House of Commons/House of Lords situation based on land districts…A proportional house and a district house.
In the Proportional House, people vote statewide for the party of their choosing and the seats are filled according to the proportion of votes each party receives. Seats are filled by votes within the party.The District House, people vote directly for candidates that represent their districts, but it’s done by ranked-choice voting so people can vote their true beliefsThis way the overall will of the people can be represented proportionally but the interest of regional communities is preserved.
Maybe you want to adopt a voting system like this, are there any politicians currently advocating for it.
How do we change this when the people in charge benefit from the current system?
Until we can get that done, we have to operate in the system we have, so here are some resources to get out and vote. Find the best online resources for people to learn about their candidates, find their polling places and make a plan.
EDITORIALIZE ON THE IMPORTANCE OF VOTING
It might sound impossible to get something like this done in the United States. Things just feel too stuck.
But to be fair to ourselves, we have evolved our voting systems before.
Originally only white, land-owning males were allowed to vote. In other words, the elite. Those rights were expanded over time, in fact, to be fair, one could make the argument that the history of the United States is one of regular expansion of voting rights – with irregular periods of backsliding.
Just to hammer this point home a little more, women’s suffrage happened just over 100 years ago. There are people alive right now who were born at a time when literally half the country wasn’t allowed to vote.
Alaska recently started using Ranked Choice voting and elected their first indigenous person to congress.
Many states joining the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, where they pledge to vote along with the winner of the popular vote to prevent electoral college upsets.
Things are slowly changing, and they can change. But the only way to do that is to vote for politicians who want to open access to voting rights, not restrict it.
I can’t tell you who or what to vote for. But if a better, more representative and less extreme democracy is important to you, you have to get out and vote in the next couple of weeks. Here are some resources to help you:
First is Vote 411.org, this is run by the League of Women Voters, and this is a pretty great website, just enter your street address and they’ll tell you when the election is, where your polling place is located, you can even pull up a sample ballot so you can see who’s running for what and in many cases what their positions are on various issues. You can also register to vote from here, depending on where you’re from, and they show upcoming debates and forums so you can get involved.
Then there’s vote.org, where you can check your registration and do it online if you need to, find your polling place, get election reminders, and find specific rules and info about your individual state.
And remember Rock The Vote? It’s still a thing! At Rockthevote.org, you can check your registration status, request an absentee ballot, click on your state on a map and find out all the rules for your state, and find a sample ballot, plus a lot of other information.
I’ll put links to all those in the description, of course there’s always the option of just Googling this information but hey, somebody else has already done this work for you, you might as well take them up on it.
But that’s really the main takeaway from this video. Yes, our election system is frustrating and ancient and it makes you want to give up on it altogether.
But that’s all the more reason that you should vote. The only way to move anything is to show up in massive numbers.
Right now we are in a bit of a crisis point. Polarization is about as bad as it’s ever been and faith in our elections is under attack. Again, I’m not here to tell you who to vote for. But I do encourage you to make a plan and do it. As the meme says, if your vote didn’t count, they wouldn’t be trying so hard to keep you from doing it.
And I hope this has been interesting enough to get you to look into other election systems and advocate for things like proportional representation and ranked choice voting. It’s time to upgrade the iPhone.
Or get the new Samsung whatever if you don’t like Apple– look, the metaphor’s hanging on by a thread but I’m sticking with it.