The United States electoral system has always been a point of interest for me, and that interest was heightened during the Voting Theory unit of my Math class. The things I learned there and any prior knowledge I had provided me with a foundation for this project. I really enjoyed doing research for this project, and I hope you enjoy reading my findings.
What’s the problem?
The United States electoral system is one with many inequities, and these have only become starker over the last ten to twenty years. Two parties are representing 240 million eligible voters (Esri). The way we allocate representation has allowed states with massive populations to have the same representation as those with less than a million people. Getting and staying on the campaign trail has only become more unaffordable and inaccessible. And as a result, many voices and identities aren’t truly being represented. Various underrepresented perspectives are being pushed down the priority list in favor of a much more homogenous one. But what got us to this point? How does the country that is held up as a beacon of democracy globally have such seemingly undemocratic practices? And more importantly, how can we alleviate these problems?
Some historical context
The presence of the two-party system in U.S. politics dates back to before the late 18th century. After the founding of the United States, politicians became split on the ratification of the Constitution and whether or not a strong central government would be beneficial to the country. The arguments got so bad that people split into two parties; the Federalists pushed for the ratification of the Constitution and a strong central government, while the Democratic-Republican party did not (Lumen). These two parties had a stronghold on American politics for the rest of the 18th century, but the Federalist party began to lose prominence in the 19th century. In the late 1820s, the Democratic-Republican split into two following the rise of populist politics. The Democratic party was led by populist and 7th president Andrew Jackson, while the Whig party was led by Henry Clay (Lumen). However, the prestige of the Whig party slowly dwindled, and as the enslavement of Black people became a contentious issue, a new party was founded. The new Republican party was made up of many former northern Whigs and adopted many Whig-like policies. Republicans were generally opposed to the enslavement of Black people, while Democrats, who tended to hail from the South, were pro-enslavement (Lumen). While party platforms and ideologies have changed with time, these two parties have a duopoly on American politics and have for the past 160 years.
How did we get here?
The presence of a two-party system in U.S. politics can be explained by looking at the way our electoral system works.
For one, the way we count votes is not great for fostering a competitive electorate. The first-past-the-post system, or the plurality system, is the most common vote-counting method in the United States and has been used since the inception of this country. The first-past-the-post method ensures that the person with the most votes wins, regardless of whether they have a majority (50+1 percent of the vote share) or not. Under this system, it is not uncommon for two parties to emerge as the main contenders in elections over time. As this shift takes place, voters catch on; they buy into the notion that their third-party vote is useless. Consequently, fewer and fewer people vote for third-party candidates over time, further cementing the hold that the two major parties have in politics. As the viability of third-party candidates decreases, so do their funding and coverage – the two things needed to run a successful campaign. This cycle of cynicism and neglect contributes to the formation of the two-party system as we know it.
Besides operating under the first-past-the-post system, the U.S. also utilizes the winner-takes-all approach. That ensures that whoever wins an election will get all the representation, leaving every other candidate to settle for nothing no matter how contentious the election was (Lumen). That means that no matter how ethnically, economically, or politically diverse an area is, only one representative from one party will be sent to fight on their behalf at the Capitol. This contributes to the underrepresentation of certain viewpoints, which can depress voter turnout. We see this play out in both houses of Congress, but especially in the Senate. Each state gets to send two representatives to the United States Senate. As a result, California, a state with about 39 million people, gets the exact same representation as Wyoming, a state with about 580 thousand people (World Population Review). I live in Seattle, a city with around 720 thousand residents. With the way the Senate allocates representatives, the people of the entire state of Wyoming have more representation than those living in the city of Seattle.
It shouldn’t be that way. People should know that their ballot will matter in the long run. They should have the assurance that the number of representatives allowed at the Capitol will give more than two viewpoints a chance at exposure.
If we want to get rid of the two-party system and ensure that our electorate is competitive, an overhaul of our electoral system is in order. Here are some macro-level responses that could alleviate the issues we face under our current electoral system.
Instant Runoff Voting
Instant Runoff Voting, or IRV, is a voting method that allows voters to rank their preference for all the candidates running. During the count, the candidate with the least first-choice votes gets eliminated. However, the people who voted for them don’t have to worry about their vote not counting at all – their vote will count for their second-choice candidate. This process continues until one candidate has a majority (50+1 percent) of the vote share (MyOpenMath). This method ensures that no vote goes to waste. People can feel free to vote for a third party or independent candidate, knowing that there is a good chance that they might be elected. IRV also favors candidates with more overall public approval – the majority rule ensures that candidates who win will always be relatively popular.
Allocating representation fairly
We must make sure that representation at the federal and state level is proportional and consistent with the demographics of district populations. We should consider population size when allocating the number of senators for each state – states with larger populations will have more political diversity and this diversity should reflect in their political representation. This way, we would be able to use representation allocation methods such as proportional representation, where legislative seats are allocated according to the vote share various candidates garnered. Even if we still stuck to a winner-take-all approach, the negative effects of it would be alleviated – the more seats that states with bigger populations have, the more likely it is for a third-party to win one of those seats, especially if we adopted Instant Runoff Voting. This would allow for more diversity in viewpoints and would give third parties opportunities to thrive.
But… Is that enough?
The short answer to that is no. While IRV would ensure that candidates would win equitably, it does not guarantee the fairness of the campaign process. The campaign is an integral part of the electoral process. If you don’t campaign and do not have name recognition on your side, your name may as well not be on the ballot. This is the reason why people spend so much time and money on campaigning. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the 2020 election cost about $14 billion. That’s a lot of money – more than the GDP of Nicaragua and dozens of other countries (Worldometer).
What’s the problem with that?
A lot of the money candidates raise comes from small individual donations – these are donations of less than $200 that come from ordinary people. Most of the money – about 41.5% in 2020 – comes from large individual donations (Center for Responsive Politics). These are donations of $200 or more. Small and large individual donations are what make up the bulk of funds that go directly to a candidate’s campaign, with more funds coming from entities such as Political Action Committees (PACs). A PAC is a committee that raises money to campaign for or against a certain candidate. Most PACs either represent businesses, like the Amazon PAC, labor unions, or ideological interest groups, like the National Rifle Association PAC. However, PACs are limited by how much money they can donate to a candidate in an election cycle, so they can only do so much for each candidate they throw their support behind.
This is where Super PACs come in. Super PACs are a newer type of political committee that are a result of the 2010 court decision in the case SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission. In this case, the court ruled that because SpeechNow.org was an independent group that had not registered as a PAC, constraining the amount that individuals contribute to SpeechNow.org or the amount that the organization could spend was a violation of first amendment rights (Federal Election Commission). This allowed for the formation of independent expenditure-only political committees, known as Super PACs. Super PACs can raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions, organizations, and individuals, and they can also spend unlimited amounts of money to campaign for or against candidates. The caveat is that they cannot donate directly to a candidate, nor can they coordinate spending with a candidate.
Outside spending on campaigns has increased in recent years. Outside spending on the 2020 election totaled roughly $2.6 billion (Center for Responsive Politics). This money can come from political parties, Super PACs, and “dark money” donors. “Dark money” refers to money used to influence political outcomes that cannot be traced back to its donors (Center for Responsive Politics). “Dark money” can be funneled through Super PACs and political nonprofits using legal loopholes. The rise of Super PACs and “dark money”, as well as the existence of PACs, allows huge industries and multimillionaires to influence political outcomes. For example, the oil and gas and real estate industries donated around $540 million to various political parties, campaigns, and PACs from 2019 to 2020 (Center for Responsive Politics).
Corporations know how much money means to somebody running for office, and they capitalize on it. People who accept corporate PAC donations and enjoy support from Super PACs are essentially indebted to the industries that supported their campaign. As a result, we see many politicians prioritizing the needs of multimillion-dollar industries over those of their constituents.
What needs to change?
The best way to recenter the priorities of politicians would be to implement publicly funded elections. Research has shown that publicly funded elections have a positive impact on the political landscape of the places they have been implemented in.
What are people already doing?
I have presented you with the big picture, and it may seem daunting. But there are already politicians and activists fighting for these changes, and a great way to advance these reforms is to support their endeavors.
For the People Act
The For The People Act, a bill that was introduced to the House on January 4th 2021, covers campaign finance reform and proposes limiting the power of Super PACs and “dark money” donors (Brennan Center for Justice). It passed out of the House on March 3rd, and was introduced to the Senate on March 17th. Besides reforming campaign finance and expanding public funding, it also proposes changes that would make same-day voting easier across the country, as well as modifications that would reduce the likelihood of gerrymandering.
Ranked Choice Voting Act
The Ranked Choice Act was introduced to the House in 2019. The passage of this bill would mandate the use of Instant Runoff Voting countrywide. It got referred to the House Committee on House Administration where it awaits review (U.S. House of Representatives).
What can we do?
As a young person, it is easy to feel helpless in a system that invalidates our opinions and any issues we face. But us staying silent is exactly what people want us to do – it is exactly what we shouldn’t be doing. Here are some things you can do to push for electoral equity in your communities.
Before you go
I hope I was able to help you learn more about the U.S. electoral system. Knowledge is power, and it is super important for everyone to stay informed so we can do our part in enacting change. Before you go, please fill out the survey that will be linked below. If you have any other feedback feel free to comment your thoughts.