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Americans are rightfully proud of the right to express their political opinions at the ballot box and expect a peaceful transition of government leadership to whoever wins a general election. Nevertheless, in most election cycles, substantial numbers of Americans are more motivated to vote against one candidate than wholeheartedly in favor of the other. Why don’t we have more, and better choices for our leaders?

Who Are Democratic Party Members and Primary Voters?

As they are currently constituted, both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party are dominated by the ideologically extreme ends of their memberships. On the Democratic side, union members accounted for 22% of Democratic National Convention (DNC)  delegates, and unions are major money contributors to the Democratic Party. Unions spent $1.1 billion on politics from 2005-2011 and another $3.3 billion on other activities such as lobbying, of which 92% was spent on the Democratic Party . This is so despite the fact that only 12% of workers nationally are union members, and 40% of union members are Republicans Party members or vote that way. Another 8% were “Greens” who favor much higher fossil fuel costs and more EPA Regulatory Rules which are cost multipliers for many businesses.

Who Are Republican Party Members and Primary Voters?

On the Republican side, as much as 50% of primary voters are Evangelicals and Pro-Lifers, about 10% of party members are Tea Party supporters who oppose new taxes as a means to repair the Federal fisc, and about 10% are also NRA members who believe that Americans should be able to carry assault weapons. There is considerable overlap amongst these segments.

Why Is the Composition of Political Party Members and Primary Voters a Problem?

The Democratic Party has about 30% of its membership with far left, non mainstream core beliefs. The Republican Party has about 30% of its membership comprised of those with far right non mainstream core beliefs. These extreme views are disproportionally represented in America’s political process because 30% of Americans consider themselves to be independents not allied or involved with determining policy positions in either party. Paradoxically, it is the vote of these independents that determines the outcome of general elections.

In order to incorporate the support of their extremist radical wings, each political party is forced to move away from centrist platforms that would likely appeal to the greater portion of the electorate. In particular, the Republican Party’s presidential candidate is perennially hobbled by conservative social policy declarations required to be made during the primaries to secure the nomination, only to attempt to backtrack during the general election campaign. As a result of these discrepancies between party participants and the general electorate,  the American Republican and Democratic parties are among the weakest in the world with respect to being able to present to voters a team of candidates united by coherent principles and a program for governing the country.

Why Does America Only Have Two Political Parties?

America’s founding fathers made many compromises in order the secure the approval by the states of a federally empowered central government under the Constitution. One of many checks and balances on federal power was the adoption of a bicameral legislative body with disproportional power given to smaller states in the Senate. Another was the adoption of the Electoral College. This indirect presidential election scheme is further reinforced by the congressional election methodology.

The main reason for America’s majoritarian character is the electoral system for Congress. Members of Congress are elected in single-member districts according to the “first-past-the-post” (FPTP) principle, meaning that the candidate with the plurality of votes is the winner of the congressional seat. The losing party or parties win no representation at all. The first-past-the-post election tends to produce a small number of major parties, perhaps just two…. Smaller parties are trampled in first-past-the-post elections.
—Economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, The Price of Civilization, 2011
The single member plurality of our voting system also results in the disgusting spectacle of gerrymandered districts which further distort the ability of alternative voices being heard in elections.

What Can Be Done to Fix the Problem?

In what may well be a surprise to most of the American electorate, there are two other national political parties, the Libertarian and the Green Party. While the Libertarians manged to place their candidate on every national ballot, they won no states and received no electoral votes. As I wrote in Why Do We (Still) Have the Electoral College?, a proportional voting or parliamentary system is the solution. Such systems are  inherently much more open to minority parties securing better representation than third parties do in the American system. Currently, Maine and Nebraska are the only states that proportionally split their electoral vote, but there is no legal impediment to the adoption of such policies in every other state.

What Would a Proportional Direct Vote World Look Like?

A direct proportional vote within each state would have the practical effect of making presidential elections a popular vote. It would not truly be one because votes would be sub-totaled by each states’ Electoral College votes, and there could be rounding errors. The change could be implemented without requiring a Constitutional Amendment.

Candidates would place greater efforts on larger population centers which might skew heavily toward another party, because electoral votes would be available at the margin. Voter participation would likely rise dramatically, particularly in deeply partisan states, because every vote would count. From a public policy standpoint, this would be presumed to be good for America. The following chart shows that the US election system is responsible for one of the lowest voluntary voter participation rates in the developed world.

The rise of more centrist third, fourth or even fifth parties could unleash a torrent of choices for American voters. Because each of these smaller parties would need to build governing majority coalitions, compromise would be required for political success. The current gridlock  in Washington would be history. More independents would be co-opted to participate in the system because their narrower concerns would be better addressed by smaller parties.

America is a center/center-left nation. We are ethnically and racially majority minority for the first time in our history. It’s about time that our politics and our politicians better reflected this new reality and gave new voices a chance to be truly heard.


  1. avatar

    david r says:

    This sounds reasonable. I’d be interested how Maine and Nebraska screwed up and did the right thing. It must have been very early on, because no state dominated by a two-party system WOULD EVER allow you proposal to gain traction.

  2. avatar

    Nelson says:

    The “Congressional District Method” (CDM) of choosing presidential electors was first used in Massachusetts in 1804, and has been employed at various times since. The winner of the state’s popular vote receives 2 votes and then the winner of a plurality in each congressional district gets one electoral vote. Maine changed to “winner take all” in 1828. The 1968 election, which split the vote between Nixon, Humphrey and Wallace prompted Maine’s return to the CDM.

    Nebraska adopted CDM in 1992. It is the only state to have a nonpartisan unicameral legislature, which was voted into place in 1934 partly as a means to save taxpayers money. The first time either of the states split votes was in 2008, when Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district, Omaha, went for Obama and the rest of the state went for Republican candidate John McCain.

    Dave, your comment has prompted me to reconsider how best to implement Electoral College system changes. The simplest way would be to have each state legislature approve CDM. On reflection, it is likely that at least several of the states would not approve the change. So perhaps the way to make presidential elections better reflect the popular vote would be a constitutional amendment to have all states adopt the CDM. Such a change would allow the smaller states to retain some of their disproportional influence on national elections while popularizing the results. The question of election methodology has been revisited many times in American history, and seven of the 27 constitutional amendments have dealt with election laws.

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