Most of the problems with our elections are related to the fact that we have a duopoly (a system where only two political parties have a realistic chance of winning most elections). Complaints about being forced to choose between “the lesser-of-two-evils” are common among voters. Most Americans are not aware of how the manner in which conduct elections makes the dominance of two political parties nearly inevitable.
In the 1950s, French sociologist and political scientist Maurice Duverger conducted an extensive study of political systems around the world and observed a strong correlation between the electoral systems of various countries and the number of viable political parties in a country. He found that systems with “winner-take-all” elections, with plurality winners, combined with single-member districts for legislative bodies, tended to have two dominant political parties (a "duopoly"). On the other hand, countries with some form of proportional representation nearly always had more than two viable political parties.
This observation has come to be known as "Duverger's Law". And while there are occasional exceptions to the pattern Duverger noted, unfortunately the United States is not one of the exceptions.
Most of the flaws within our electoral system are related to, and/or made worse by, the fact that we have a two-party system with plurality winners and single-member districts.
This video (one of many excellent civics videos from CGP Grey) explains several of the major problems resulting from "winner-take -all" elections (also known as "first-past-the-post" elections). The main problem is that this type of system nearly always results in a duopoly (a two-party system) with plurality winners.
This video also explains gerrymandering and the "spoiler effect" (which is why supporting minor parties is unwise without ranked choice voting ).
What’s worse than a choice between the “lesser-of-two-evils”? No choice at all.
Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing congressional district lines (or legislative district lines) in such a way as to give one of the two major political parties an unfair advantage – making most congressional (or legislative) districts “safe” for one party or the other. Both of the major political parties in the United States engage in gerrymandering. The Democratic Party is actively trying to eliminate gerrymandering. The Republican Party seems intent on perfecting the art of gerrymandering to give it as much of an advantage as possible.
Gerrymandering is nearly impossible within a system where multiple parties have a realistic chance of winning but is fairly simple to accomplish within a two-party system, especially when the process of redrawing district lines can be effectively controlled by the party in control of the government in each state.
The two basic methods applied as part of gerrymandering are “cracking” and “packing”. Cracking is the practice of breaking up a bloc of voters who are likely to vote for the opposition party, dividing them among several other districts in a manner that dilutes their voting strength. Packing is the opposite of cracking. Voters who are likely to support the opposition party are packed into a single district making the surrounding districts safe for the party in power.
These methods are used in whatever combination is most likely to maximize the number of seats for the party in control of a state’s government and minimize the number of seats won by the opposition party. The end result is that there are very few districts left that are competitive. In other words, there are very few elections where the candidates both major parties have a realistic chance of winning, leaving voters in most districts with no real choice at all, other than the primary elections of the party in control of a district.
Every two years elections are conducted for all 435 seats in the U. S. House of Representatives, in most election years there are fewer than 30 districts total throughout the entire United States that are contested closely enough that individual voters can realistically make a difference by voting. In more than 90 percent of the country, voters who feel that their vote does not really matter are absolutely correct.
Despite the fact that minor party and independent candidates seldom have a realistic chance of winning, some voters cast votes for them either as a matter of principle or to simply register their frustration with the lack of choices they are offered within the present system. In the handful of congressional or legislative districts that have not been rendered “safe” for one or the other of the two major parties, the fact that five or ten percent of the voters cast their voters for minor party or independent candidates often results in the winning candidate receiving less than a majority of the votes cast. This violates the most basic element of democracy – majority rule.
With a winner-take-all system, the really perverse reality is that voters having more than two viable candidates to choose from increases the chances that the winning candidate will receive less than a majority of the votes cast. As the number of viable candidates increases, the percentage of the votes needed to win decreases. When voters have three viable candidates from which to choose and the vote is split somewhat evenly, the winning candidate may have as little as 34 percent of the total vote. With four viable candidates, the winning candidate may have as little as 26 percent of the total vote.
Although there are occasions when a minor party or independent candidate gets a significant percentage of the votes in a competitive district, this happens most frequently in primary elections. This is not theoretical. In the Democratic primary for the 4th Congressional District in Massachusetts in 2020, there were nine candidates and the winning candidate won with 22 percent of the total vote.
This leads to two other related problems: wasted votes and “the spoiler effect”.
When voters have the opportunity to vote for a minor party or independent candidate who would truly be their first choice if they had a realistic chance of winning, the fact that they are viewed as not having a realistic chance of winning keeps most voters from voting for them because they don’t want to cast a “wasted vote”.
The added danger with casting what is likely to be a wasted vote is the “spoiler effect”. Especially in an election that is closely contested by the candidates of the two major parties, a voter who might otherwise vote for a minor party or independent candidate may hesitate to do so because they don’t want to spoil the chances of the major party candidate they view as “the lesser-of-two-evils” by casting a “wasted vote” for a minor party or independent candidate with no chance of winning. As a result of the fear of casting wasted votes and the spoiler effect, the belief that an otherwise excellent minor party or independent candidate has no chance of winning becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A significant percentage of the money raised to support political campaigns is spent on advertising. And a significant percentage of that advertising qualifies as “attack ads” that demean the primary (major party) opponent of the candidate paying for the ad, or a “Super PAC” that is supporting a candidate. Attacks ads routinely exhibit little regard for the truth, often bordering on, or even crossing the line into, libel and slander. If Crest and Colgate used similar methods to market toothpaste, most people would be afraid to brush their teeth. The end result is to convince most voters that all politicians are venal and to convince any candidate who would rather not be subjected to nasty, vicious attacks on their character and integrity, not to run for office.
All of the problems with our elections discussed above are related to the fact that we have a duopoly. We can address all of these issues by breaking the duopoly. And we can break the duopoly by instituting a system of ranked choice voting and multiple-member districts (or at-large elections for Congress and state legislatures).
Research has shown that the effects of gerrymandering are neutralized in multiple-member districts with at least five representatives. Gerrymandering is eliminated completely with state-wide, at-large elections for seats in a legislative body – there are no district lines to be manipulated.
The tabulation process for ranked choice voting in an election where there can be only one winner (president, governor, U. S. senator) ensures that the winning candidate will have received the votes of a majority of the voters (at some level of support). There are no plurality winners.
Since voters are able to cast votes for all of the candidates they support (in order of preference), the problems of wasted votes and the spoiler effect are eliminated.
And attack ads are not only less effective when there is more than one opposing candidate to attack, but they typically backfire on candidates who go negative by alienating the supporters of other candidates who might otherwise support them as their second or third choice.
Ranked choice voting does not address the problems related to the dominant role of money in our elections.
“Unlimited political bribery” is certainly a serious problem within our electoral system, and it is a problem that has been made much worse by the dramatic escalation in the cost of running for office, especially at the federal level. The problem goes well beyond corrupting presidents and members of Congress.
The need to raise enormous amounts of money in order to have a realistic chance of winning an election is a significant barrier to entry for potential candidates. Getting your message out and building the name recognition needed to win an election is expensive. Some candidates for office at the state and local level may be able to get by without hiring a campaign manager or other paid staff, but it is virtually impossible to conduct a winning campaign for federal office without paid staff. The numerous advantages that accrue to incumbents running for reelection makes it difficult for candidates who wish to challenge incumbents to raise money.
Our vaunted “free press” covers most elections in the same way they cover sporting events, spending an inordinate amount of time reporting on which candidates have raised the most money and who is ahead in the polls. Pundits prove their bona fides by accurately predicting the winners (a relatively simple matter in most cases since few races are competitive). For candidates with good ideas but little money or name recognition, the lack of media attention is typically fatal.
The need to continually raise money interferes with the ability of legislators to do the job they were elected to do. Especially at the national level, senators and representatives spend hours and hours most days sitting in cubicles in buildings blocks away from the Capitol making phone call after phone call to raise money. Evenings and weekends for elected officials are filled with fundraising events. And the people who write the biggest checks have far greater access to our elected officials than the average voter.
The growth of political activity on the Internet has led to more money for political campaigns coming in small dollar amounts from a large number of contributors. These small contributions generally flow to candidates as a show of support for what they have already said and done and cannot be accurately classified as a form of bribery. The “unlimited political bribery” that President Carter lamented comes from corporate interests and tax-averse billionaires and comes with strings attached.
Most citizens realize that money has corrupted our political system and that both major parties have been corrupted but are less aware of the differences in the nature and extent of corporate influence within the Democratic and Republican parties. In their book Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer – And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, Jacob S. Hacker & Paul Pierson explain the differences:
Business interests “gave much more heavily to the Republican Party organization, helping the GOP to outperform Democrats in closely contested elections. Money to Democrats plays a different, if no less critical, role. It was a form of insurance. Revealingly, the money went largely to individuals rather than to the party as an organization. It was destined for the powerful and “moderates,” with the goal of minimizing any prospect of distasteful legislation. Carefully targeted contributions could effectively exploit the multiple channels American political institutions make available for blocking, dilution, or delay. Even grudging or quiet support from a handful of Democrats – particularly well-placed ones – could make a huge difference. Such allies could help keep issues off the agenda, substitute symbolic initiatives for real ones, add critical loopholes, or insist on otherwise unnecessary compromises with the GOP. Willing Democrats could also provide valuable bipartisan cover for business-friendly Republican initiatives. Here, as in so many ways, Democrats and Republicans could play distinct but complimentary roles in supporting business interests.”
The corporate agenda is actively promoted when Republicans are in control of Congress or a state legislature and despite the fact that the Democratic Party Credo and platforms are filled with calls for legislation favored by solid majorities of voters, the combined efforts of corporate-friendly Republicans and corporate Democrats, operating quietly behind the scenes, is nearly always successful in keeping legislation opposed by corporate interests from passing, or even being brought to the floor for debate and a vote.
One final problem that contributes as much, if not more, than these other problems, to our elections being terrible, horrible, no good, and very bad, is the lack of any serious discussion of the issues and problems we are facing as a nation.
Advertising is the focal point of campaigns for Congress and the presidency and there is virtually no useful information included in any of that advertising. Debates are rare, and with the exception of presidential debates, not viewed by many voters. The format used in most presidential debates limits candidates to fairly brief statements. (Which lends itself nicely to consultants prepping candidates with pre-packaged responses, but rarely leads to a meaningful discussion of any issues.) Moderators phrase questions in ways that are designed to provoke heated exchanges between candidates, even among candidates from the same party in the case of primary debates. There is a simple reason for this. Conflict and angry exchanges draw viewers. Viewers drive ratings. And ratings drive profits.
All of our major media organizations are now owned and operated by corporations. And over the past few decades, corporations have come to focus on maximizing profits and protecting the corporate agenda. The fact that corporate interests are strongly opposed to nearly everything that voters want provides a strong incentive for corporate-owned media to avoid meaningful discussions of issues that would enlighten voters and awaken them to the fact that, while we remain bitterly divided on the “wedge issues” (abortion, gun control, gay rights, and immigration), there is a great deal of agreement on most of the main issues that should concern us (a federal job guarantee, a public option for health care, an effective response to the threats posed by global warming, et cetera). A focus on the issues that matter most to voters might also lead to candidates who put people ahead of profits winning more elections.
Candidates with fresh or novel ideas, but little money or name recognition, garner little attention from the media, especially if they are running as a minor party or independent candidate. (In which case, they are routinely excluded from debates.)
It may come as a shock to most Americans, but most of the 55 delegates to the Federal Convention (the "Framers" of our Constitution) had a negative view of democracy and the system they put in place was designed to appear to be democratic, but largely created only the illusion of democracy.
Although most of the Framers were not fond of democracy, they knew that the Declaration of Independence had stirred the passions of Americans with the promise of democracy. And the governments in place in most states under the Articles of Confederation were democartic. The Framers knew that if the Constitution was openly antidemocratic it would be difficult, if not impossible, to get it ratified. So, the men who drafted our Constitution reluctantly allowed the people to elect one-half of one of the three branches of government (the House of Representatives) and then put three "checks" in place on any legislation passed by the House:
The Senate had to concur on any legislation passed by the House. The president could veto legislation passed by Congress. And the Supreme Court could declare a law to be unconstitutional.
And neither the Senate, the president, or Supreme Court justices were elected directly by the people. The Senate was originally elected by state legislatures. The president was (and still is) elected by the Electoral College, not by popular vote. And Supreme Court Justices were (and are) nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.