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Imagining some other ways to run elections

One in a series of articles. You can read the whole series here.

Imperfect Union: The Constitutional roots of the mess we're inThe previous installment explored why the United States political system discourages the development of parties beyond the Democrats and the Republicans.

Perhaps, conditioned by the relentlessness of the U.S. system, you can’t think of any other way to run an election. But there are several in use around the world, and even around the United States. (And, yes, very good if you already thought of it, even in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and other jurisdictions that have recently experiment with “Instant Runoff,” also known as “Ranked Choice Voting,” in which voters can vote for several candidates but assign them a rank according to the strength of the voters’ preference.)

Just to mess with your mind, here’s another system that is most hospitable to the creation and survival of minor parties. It’s the Israeli system. Members of the Knesset (the Israeli unicameral 120-member Parliament) do not represent districts, but are elected off of lists assembled by the party. A voter does not vote for an individual but for the list of the party he or she supports. Every party that attracts at least 2 percent of the total vote will have at least one member in Knesset. Once the tiny, less-than-2-percent parties are disqualified, the rest of the seats are apportioned according to the percentage of the total vote each party received. If a party receives enough votes to get 10 seats, the top 10 candidates on the party list are seated. Since a supporter of a relatively minor party knows that his party needs to get just 2 percent to get into parliament, and each vote might tip the number up to another seat, the fear of “wasting” your vote is greatly reduced.

The current Knesset has members of 13 different parties. The smallest have three or four seats each. The largest have less than 25 percent. So every government is a coalition comprising enough parties to make up a majority of at least 61 members, usually led by one of the two biggest parties. The coalition is based on negotiations among the parties, which requires the big dominant parties to make concessions to the policy preferences of the small parties in order to get them to join the coalition.

MinnPost illustration by Jaime Anderson

I’m not so insane as to think that Americans would prefer the Israeli system. It’s such a big change from what we’re used to that our heads would explode. There are worrisome downsides to such a system. A small party might gain undue influence because their few votes are needed to form a coalition. A coalition made up of many parties can be unstable and fall apart, forcing frequent election. But it does illustrate that if you get away from single-member districts, plurality voting (SMDP) and remove voters’ fears of wasting their votes, more parties will thrive and become relevant and voters will have a wider array of political choices.

But here’s one last surprising fact that runs slightly contrary to the overall argument of this series. Most Americans (including me, until I did the research for this series) probably think that the SMDP system is mandated in the U.S. Constitution.

What the Constitution says

But it isn’t. The Constitution doesn’t require that states be divided into House districts, nor does it require that plurality winners will be elected. And, of course, the Constitution makes no reference to political parties at all (since the Framers deluded themselves that there could be politics without parties). So the Constitution doesn’t literally enshrine a two-party system or any other party system.

All that Article I, Sec. ii does is explain how House seats will be apportioned among the states, according to their populations (with, of course, the odious and now obsolete provision under which a slave counted as three-fifths of a person for such apportionment purposes).

Other than that, the Constitution requires only that the members of the House be elected for two-year terms “by the People of the several States” and that the representatives be, at the time of their election, an “inhabitant” of the state from which they were elected. As the current Minnesota case of Michele Bachmann establishes, the representative does not have to be a resident of the district from which they were elected because (as I just mentioned above) the Constitution does not require that House elections be conducted by single-member districts.

MinnPost illustration by Jaime Anderson

In fact, this is not merely theoretical. Most of the original 13 states used multi-member districts in the early rounds of Congressional elections. Single-member districts with plurality winners soon caught on, but by 1842, six states were still electing whole slates of House members on a statewide, at-large basis. That year, Congress attempted to mandate the use of single-member districts but some states refused to comply and got away with it. As late as 1960, several states still had mixed systems in which there were House members who represented individual districts and others who represented the state at large.

After a century of back and forth with congressional laws and Supreme Court decisions, Congress finally passed in 1967 the most effective mandate for single-member districts. By then, only two states – Hawaii and New Mexico, if you must know – still had at-large elections. (This is an overview of the history of the single-member district.)

Under a strict states-rights, 10th Amendment approach to the Constitution, one could argue that Congress exceeded its enumerated powers by telling states how they had to choose their members of Congress, since the Constitution left it in the hands of the individual states. But think about the potential, in today’s highly partisanized environment, for mischief. Imagine if the two most populous states – California and Texas – changed to a system of statewide at-large elections to the U.S. House. Would blue California elect a statewide slate of Democrats to fill all 53 of its House seats (19 of which are currently occupied by Republicans)? Could Texas, which currently has 23 Republican representatives and eight Democrats, send an all-Republican delegation to Washington? That hardly seems like a step forward, but such a system clearly would have been constitutional when the ink on the Constitution was still drying.

Tilting the playing field

I doubt Texas or California could get away with it now (although who knows how far things might swing in an era of total partisan combat). But in our current system, as evolved and practiced, the parties certainly seek and often succeed in tilting the playing field.

I just mentioned that Texas currently has 23 Republican House members compared with eight Democrats. That’s a 74-26 percent split. But, although Texas is a solid red state, it isn’t as red as that. In presidential, senatorial and gubernatorial races, Republicans generally win in Texas but they don’t get 74 percent of the vote and they generally don’t break 60. The reason Republicans get a percentage of House seats that exceeds their overall support is that the party controls the decennial drawing of the House districts and uses its control to draw a map that maximizes their net haul of votes in the House.

This kind of manipulation is an unpleasant side effect of our system, as evolved, and has become more pronounced with polling and technological advances that improve a controlling party’s ability to maximize its advantage. It’s less true in California because of their tendency to elect Republican governors and not true at all in states like Minnesota which, despite being reliably blue in presidential election, have seldom in recent history had single-party control of the governorship and both houses of the Legislature. In cases like that, the House districts are drawn under relatively non-partisan court supervision.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 10/09/2012 - 08:38 am.

    Great article!

    And good to know we are not constitutionally wedded to this SMDP electoral system. Still, I wonder how, in the present system where one’s vote counts in only the slimmest, most marginal sense, the party powers that be can be moved or will move to a change that threatens their stranglehold on power. It looks like a “chicken or the egg” dilemma.

  2. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 10/09/2012 - 10:30 am.

    Eric, your prejudices are showing

    “It’s such a big change from what we’re used to that our heads would explode. There are worrisome downsides to such a system.”

    Eric, we’re not worried about our heads exploding. Any system has its downsides, including the current system, so this is not a valid argument against the alternative you examine.

    In the case of the current system, these downsides are not worries, they are a real world burden. Gerrymandering, a brazen method of manipulating elections, is not merely “…an unpleasant side effect of our system…”, as the Texas example shows. It deprives a significant number of voters in Texas the equal and due impact their votes deserve.

    “A small party might gain undue influence because their few votes are needed to form a coalition.” You mean, like the Tea Party??

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/09/2012 - 11:14 am.


    I rest my case.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/09/2012 - 01:01 pm.


    One of the appeals of our current system – or ANY current system – of election and governance is that people grow up learning and then knowing the rules, and after a while, they / we don’t think about them any more. Inertia is one of the more powerful forces in the universe, and changing old habits is very difficult to do, as any former smoker will tell you. We go through elections and terms of office on automatic pilot.

    I don’t think our collective heads would explode were we to adopt an electoral system substantially different from the one we currently have, but that’s because the adoption of a substantially different system wouldn’t happen in a vacuum. There would be lengthy and, in the current environment, heated discussion of what was involved, both in practical and theoretical terms. By itself, that kind of discussion – requiring thought and consideration – might be something an old history teacher would welcome, but it also might well rule out any significant chance of major changes. Or, it might serve as a spur to really examine the assumptions built into our current system.

    I’m inclined to think that the general public would probably lean more toward the former outcome than the latter. If nothing else, I’d expect to hear frequent variations on the theme of “It’s been good enough for more than 200 years, why change it?”

    That said, this has been a fun series. Especially in an election year, these are worthwhile issues to consider.

  5. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/09/2012 - 03:31 pm.


    The problem with changing our system is that the people who control it are the ones currently elected; they’d have to jeopardize their own positions to make a dramatic change in the system.
    Under the Constitution, it takes 2/3 of the state legislatures to propose an amendment to the Constitution, and 3/4 of the state legislatures to ratify it.
    It’s not clear that a major revision to the Constitution (or the substitution of a new one) would qualify as amending the present Constitution.
    As Ray points out, people tend to be conservative (with a small ‘c’); the odds of any sudden and dramatic change in our system of governance is vanishingly small.
    What would be most likely is for an individual state to initiate a change such as RCV. This would be a small step past Oregon’s adoption of universal mail voting.

  6. Submitted by Wilhelm Achauer on 10/10/2012 - 12:50 am.

    Great Article

    Germany has one of the best systems in place. It was created after World War II with the assistance of the Americans. The Bundestag elects half it’s members from districts and half from party lists. A voter casts a vote for a represenative, and a party.

    The post war coalitions have been with the small centrist Free Democrats with either the liberal or conservative party. For 18 years the Free Democrat leader Hans Dietrich-Genscher was the foreign minister and the most popular leader in Germany because the centrist party was seen as the stabilizer. Proportional representation allows small parties with new ideas to form and hold power. The Green Party was formed and gained the 5% threshold.

    Imagine in America if you voted for the Reform party candidate who would lose, but the party vote allows Reform party to get seats proportional to their vote. In 1992 we could have had 25% of the congress as Reform. They could have brought real issues to the fore. Today the Tea Party would get a lot of representation, but the likely effect would be that a more moderate Republican bloc could coalition not with Tea Party, but threaten to form a centrist coalition with Democrats.

  7. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 10/10/2012 - 11:44 am.

    Voting for Lists

    I think you could sell the Israeli plan to a lot of people. One of the biggest reasons for our gridlock is that we have a tremendous amount of safe districts. As a non-Dem living Minneapolis, my vote is virtually useless. A non-GOP’er in certain suburbs faces the same problem. It would be nice to change that.

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