01 February 2021

Electoral reform at last? The case for representation

The institutions of democracy are supposed to represent the citizens' political convictions, but all too often they fail at this central task. The chief problem is that elections are more about winners and losers than about representation. And this could be exacerbating the current political crisis in the United States.

Both Canada and the United States operate according to what political scientists call a single-member-plurality (SMP) system, or what the popular media call first-past-the-post. In a single-member constituency candidates compete for one office, the winner being the one receiving the largest number, or plurality, of votes. Where three candidates are evenly matched, it is possible for one to win with only slightly more than a third of the total number of votes cast. In the last Canadian federal election in 2019, Justin Trudeau's Liberal Party received 33.12 percent of the votes cast--just under a third of the total! Yet Trudeau remains prime minister leading a single-party minority government against the preferences of two-thirds of Canadian voters. That this is considered acceptable in a democratic country skirts the edges of insanity.

In the United States elections are contested using the same principle. The House of Representatives is divided into 435 congressional districts, each of which elects a single member according to the plurality principle. Each of the 100 Senators is elected at large by all voters in the relevant state in the same way. The president is formally elected by an Electoral College, but because its members vote as instructed by a plurality of the voters in each state, the effect is the same. The entire United States might thus be said to function as a single-member district electing the president by a plurality vote, albeit on a state-by-state basis.

This system has worked for just over 230 years, but more recently it has stumbled along less adequately, casting doubt on its democratic character. SMP is based on a territorial conception of representation. In the early days of the republic this made sense, as the principal actors in the new federal system were the states and their governments, whose origins stemmed from the early colonial era. The US Constitution was fashioned for a pre-partisan context, although factions were already coming into existence at the time, developing into formal political parties somewhat later. 

Although political parties can and do represent geographical entities, principles and policy programmes are significant as well. Many voters vote for the party they believe best represents their political convictions. Because SMP creates winners and shuts out losers, it is not well suited to a polity in which political principles outweigh geographic loyalties. Given that SMP tends to favour a two-party system (see Duverger's law), it is up to each party to represent as much of the diversity of the electorate as they can manage. When one party fails to do this, there is a danger of a protracted period of one-party rule, along the lines of Mexico or the Canadian province of Alberta. When this occurs a huge proportion of the voter base may go unrepresented.

Whatever one might think of Donald Trump as a person and as a president, he did manage to mobilize a significant portion of the electorate in 2016 and 2020, although he proved unable—and perhaps unwilling—to unify the country beyond that support base. This translated into an exceedingly narrow electoral victory in 2016, when the electoral vote differed from the popular vote, which Hillary Clinton won. Because of Trump's personal aversion to losing, he successfully persuaded his supporters that the 2020 election had been stolen from him, leading to the events of 6 January on Capitol Hill. Although Joe Biden is now president, he is highly unlikely to bring unity to a divided country, especially if he follows some of the more divisive policies of the Democratic Party. In addition to opposing his policies, Trump's supporters will continue to distrust the process by which Biden attained office, thereby aggravating a crisis of legitimacy already troubling one of the world's oldest functioning political systems.

In the 1980s and '90s a political crisis in New Zealand moved that country to adopt a German-style mixed-member-proportional (MMP) system for elections to the House of Representatives. After 1993 and up until 2020, no party won an absolute majority of seats in this body, requiring the formation of multiparty coalition governments. This means that there are generally no clear victors after an election, while minority voices gain real representation. Under proportional representation (PR), political parties typically receive a percentage of seats roughly corresponding to their proportion of the popular vote. This prevents a single party governing alone, forcing it to compromise with other parties needed to form a government. While this might make governing more complicated than in the past, it does curtail the pretensions of individual parties and better reflects the convictions of the voting public.

Might the United States be at a similar crisis point? Last month's insurrection was a long time in coming, as the conditions leading up to it were already troubling the American polity. In the past the Democratic and Republican parties governed towards the broad middle of public opinion, as is typical of parties in a two-party system, even as they reached out to somewhat different constituencies at the edges. Today the marginal elements in each party dominate them, alienating a large segment of the American public. If the events of last month end up discrediting the Republican Party at the federal level, and if the party splits into competing factions, the Democrats could be in for a long period of uncontested—or inadequately contested—rule, which would be very bad for the health of America's democratic institutions.

Of course, PR cannot be implemented in a presidential election. However, there are a number of options available to make the presidency more representative. Here are two possibilities.

First, the Electoral College could be replaced by a direct popular vote for the presidency. If no candidate received an absolute majority in the first round, a second ballot could be held between the top two vote recipients. Alternatively, a single ranked ballot could take place, with voters ranking their preferences among candidates. Both mechanisms would ensure that the winning candidate received an absolute majority of votes cast.

Second, the Electoral College could be retained, with each state's electoral votes being divided proportionally among candidates according to the percentage of popular votes cast. Article II, section 1 of the Constitution specifies that, if no candidate receives a majority of electoral votes, the House of Representatives would choose the president, an event that might become more frequent if electoral votes were distributed proportionally. A House in which more than two parties sit might have to negotiate across partisan lines to support a particular candidate. There would still be a winner and perhaps multiple losers, but the winner would have to wear his or her partisan labels more lightly for purposes of co-operating with Congress.

Such proposals might seem like flights of fancy, except for two factors. First, PR has been used successfully in most democratic countries for decades, so it is hardly an untried option or the airy proposal of impractical academics. Second, the current divisions in the American polity mean that politics as usual within the current setup is no longer an option. Changing political conditions may call for institutional reform. I personally believe that the time has arrived to consider such reform seriously.

I could have subtitled this post: "The case for proportional representation." But given the current crisis in the system, the case needs to be made simply for representation.

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