Alternative voting systems

I’ve never really considered voting systems other than the representative plurality and plurality-at-large system in the US, where a single person represents all, regardless of whether they received a majority of votes, or the relative proportions of votes for other candidates. Also known as “first-past-the-post” or “winner-take-all” voting, this encourages heavy, expensive campaigning, polarized views, and slate voting, and often produces a winner with 51% of the vote (and 49% of voters angered).

Wikipedia has a great explanation of many other voting systems and their effect on election results. Several of these seem like advances to our current system, and many are in use around the world.

I was particularly struck by the fact that most major democracies elect their representatives using a proportional representation system, “aimed at securing a close match between the percentage of votes that groups of candidates (grouped by a certain measure) obtain in elections and the percentage of seats they receive” (Wikipedia). Proportional representation has in the past been used to break up both Democratic and Republican party “machines”, and encourages the formation of smaller parties, who are able to effectively represent smaller groups of people. It also encourages higher voter turnout, since unlike plurality-at-large systems or our Electoral College, votes for second-place winners are still effective (in the 1994 Congressional elections, by comparison, only 21% of votes actually helped elect someone).

I also liked former Stanford housemate Clark Durant’s idea for “turn-taking terms”, which proposes to split a term into smaller pieces and have the candidates compete for how many pieces they will govern, and in which order. This, he argues, “creates the incentives for politicians to build broader supermajority coalitions”, and “coalitions are put in a position where they can hold one another reciprocally accountable”. It seems a bit like a shortened version of what we have at a national level today, with most offices carrying 2- or 4-year terms. Already those are at the low end of what is necessary for enacting change, and shortening them further could either paralyze the system or force more cooperation–what Clark calls “government by the golden rule”.

Our increasingly partisan Congress seems ripe for voting innovation. Perhaps one of these systems could break up both the Democratic and Republican machines, and start doing something new?

One Comment

  1. Ted
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Here’s an interesting article about “instant run-off voting” and how its effecting the Oscars: http://www.newyorker.com/talk/comment/2010/02/15/100215taco_talk_hertzberg

    Pretty interesting. It seems like both a “winner take all” approach, and a “forced compromise” approach have big potential pitfalls — I wonder if there’s a better system?

    Somewhat related: what about passing a law requiring TV news organizations to display at the bottom of the TV screen a non-partisan fact-check rating of their programs. This is sort of a half-baked idea, but maybe there is a way of making TV news more accountable and fact based..