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How the two big parties got an iron grip on power — and turned off voters

The U.S. system of single-member districts and plurality winners retains power for the two big parties — and discourages some people from voting.

Balloons drop over the Ohio delegation at the 2012 Republican National Convention.
REUTERS/Mike Segar

This the third story in a series comparing the U.S. system of politics and elections with other democracies around the world.

So, yes, voter turnout in the United States is an embarrassment. In the previous installment, I listed some of the small, technical explanations that political science comparativists have suggested contributed to poor turnout, mostly having little to do with the motivation of the electorate. True, a motivated citizen can generally vote. And, surely, some of the gap in U.S. voter participation, compared to other nations, must have something to do with motivation.

Many of those comparativists believe that the way certain fairly fundamental aspects of the U.S. elections are organized and conducted also leave many U.S. voters wondering whether voting is worth the effort. One of the unusual features of U.S. democracy that may contribute to low turnout is what we might call the Republicrat duopoly — and the structure of the U.S. system that reinforces it.

The Duopoly

Since the Republican Party emerged in the 1850s, and replaced the (relatively short-lived) Whigs as the chief alternative to the Democrats (a party that dates back either to the Jeffersonian or the Jacksonian era, depending the version of the history you prefer), the Democrats and Republicans have totally dominated the U.S. political scene.

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No president has come from outside those two parties and only once has a candidate from outside the duopoly even finished second. (That was Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 when he attempted a comeback with his short-lived Bull Moose Party, but he had been a lifelong Republican. And the new party disappeared almost immediately after his candidacy.) In fact, no third party presidential candidate has carried a single electoral vote in 46 years. (The last one was George Wallace’s racist American Independent candidacy, which carried five deep-South states in 1968.)

Likewise, no other party since the onset of the duopoly has come anywhere near organizing a majority in either house of Congress. The number of senators and representatives from outside the duopoly are stuck in single digits, and even those (for example, Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent centrist, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a Democratic Socialist) have to caucus with one of the major parties in order to function. The last time third parties in Congress cracked into double digits was 1936, when 13 members of the House came from outside the duopoly (and, of local note, 12 of those 13 were either Farmer-Laborites from Minnesota or Wisconsin Progressives from, you guessed it, Wisconsin).

In the current picture, yes, it’s true: Minnesota does have the Independence Party, which is legally classified as a major party and which did win a gubernatorial election. (Does the name Jesse Ventura ring a bell?) And during the 1930s and ‘40s, the Farmer Labor Party actually dominated state politics (eventually merging with the Democrats and forming the DFL, which now functions as the Minnesota branch of the national Democratic Party). But these are rare and, in the big picture, minor exceptions to the rule.

Americans may think that this level of duopolism is normal in a democracy, but it is not. No other democracy in the world comes close to matching the United States for a durable two-party system, with the same two parties practically forever, and with the two big parties holding such an iron joint grip on power. (I’ve written about this before, on the very slim chance that you want even more.)

Duverger’s law

But if you are wondering why this is so, it turns out that a French political scientist named Duverger coined a law (called, by an amazing coincidence, “Duverger’s law”) which holds that if you want to have a political system in which two parties will dominate, you should organize your parliamentary (or, in our case, congressional) elections around the principles of single-member districts and plurality winners. (Duverger wasn’t particularly recommending the plan, just noting that such a system was most likely to produce a duopoly.)

Just to nail those terms down a bit, single-member districts means each member of parliament (or the U.S. House of Representatives) represents one geographical district and doesn’t share the district with anyone else, and plurality winners means a candidate can win a seat by getting the most votes, even if it is not a majority. This last feature is also known as “first past the post.” (That weird term for it, by the way, is a Britishism taken from horseracing.)

These features are so familiar to Americans that many of us probably don’t even think of them as features, just how democracy works. But, again, relatively few democracies employ them. There are a lot of other ways to organize a democracy. In Israel, for example, there are no districts at all. Each party puts out a list of those it will put into the parliament (Knesset). Voters vote for the party they prefer. A party that gets 10 percent of the national vote gets 10 percent of the seats and those seats are occupied by the top names on the party’s list. (In the United States, a party that got 10 percent of the national vote in House elections would likely end up with nothing, unless most of the voters were concentrated in a few districts.) In Israel, 12 parties are currently represented in Knesset; no one has a majority, so a coalition is necessary to govern. There are various systems in between, but most of them end up with more than two parties able to play a meaningful role, either as part of a coalition or in opposition.

There are many alternatives to first-past-the-post, including the one called “ranked-choice voting” recently adopted for municipal elections in Minneapolis and St. Paul. In that system, a mayoral candidate who is listed as first choice by the largest number of voters isn’t guaranteed to win if he or she is not the choice of a majority of all voters. Part of the justification for this system is that it allows a citizen to vote for the person they most want to support, even perhaps one who has little chance of winning, without giving up his or her chance of influencing the final outcome. In a race for Congress, a voter whose top choice is from the Green or Libertarian Party faces the “wasted vote syndrome” and may decide not to vote.

Which brings us back to turnout. At least some voters are less likely to bother voting if they feel that the candidate or party they most support has no chance.

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In a list of 31 democracies ranked by turnout, the four that have single-member districts combined with first-past-the-post voting all rank in the bottom nine.

Discouraged voters

Why does single-member-district-first-past-the-post discourage turnout?

A lot of reasons.

If you are not a strong supporter of the Democratic or Republican Party but would be more enthusiastic voting for a smaller party, you have little hope that your first-choice party can win. In fact, the party you really prefer is likely to end up with nothing at all, which is itself an invitation to not participate. If you vote for that party, your vote is likely to be “wasted” in the sense of not affecting the outcome, since the outcome depends on which of the two major parties gets more votes in your district.

Under a proportional representation system, a party with 10 percent support across the whole national electorate is likely to get somewhere near 10 percent of the seats in the parliament, and your vote will count, on the margin, toward getting that party one more seat.

But even if you are a loyal Democrat or Republican, single-member-first-past-the-post-ism is also a turnout turnoff in many cases. In House races, single-member seats require dividing a state into artificial districts every 10 years, which invites gerrymandering if one party is in a position to create a map. Gerrymandering creates safe seats in which the outcome is pretty much known in advance, which is hardly an inducement to turn out and vote.

In late-September, as I write this, the pundits who handicap political races believe that about 35 U.S. House races are, to some degree, competitive. That means 400 are not. If a voter might be motivated by the belief that their vote in a U.S. House race might make a difference in the outcome, 92 percent of them live in districts where the race for U.S. representative is pretty much over. (Even if you favor the candidate who is destined to win, it’s hard to convince yourself that your vote will affect the outcome.)

Senate elections are not gerrymandered, since the vote is statewide. Because of the (again, very unusual, on a global basis) feature of the U.S. system in which Senate seats are staggered, there are races in just 33 states (two states have two Senate races, so there are 35 races in total). By a fluke of the schedule, three of the five most populous states (California, New York, Florida) don’t even have a Senate race this year. The other two of the top five (Texas and Illinois) have Senate races this year, but both of those are considered completely safe for the incumbents who are up this year. There are plenty more states with no Senate race or an uncompetitive race, but just those five big states represent 36 percent the U.S. population in which there is not a competitive Senate race to stimulate turnout among those who need such stimulation to go to the polls.

Typically, there end up being only a few toss-up Senate seats in every cycle. As of this writing, Stu Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report rates just three of the Senate races to be pure toss-ups. Add in the four Senate races that Rothenberg rates as only “tilting” (meaning they remain quite close), or four that he rates as  “leaning” (less close than tilting, but still somewhat competitive), you get up to 10 Senate races around the country in which the outcome is currently in some level of doubt. (Minnesota is not one. Rothenberg rates Sen. Al Franken as “likely” to be reelected, which is not safe, but the next category over from safe before you get to the closer categories.)

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Even when we have a race for president, and even when that race is quite close, the Electoral College system divides it into 50 separate state races (plus one more for the District of Columbia), which are themselves each decided on a first-past-the-post basis and in which most of the outcomes are known long in advance. Furthermore, in the late days of a presidential campaign, the handicappers reduce the meaningful races to five or six states that are truly in play and in which a modestly motivated voter might be convinced that his or her vote might be important in determining the outcome.

Look, I favor eligible voters voting. I’m not interested in promoting excuses for non-voting. But, in the real world, it would be silly not to acknowledge that some voters are more likely to vote if they believe that their vote might actually make the difference in a close race for some important office. For those voters, our strange system provides a lot of excuses to stay home.

Coupla final points or facts or thoughts:

The U.K. also has plurality elections. In fact, of the 31 developed democracies, the four nations that use first-past-the-post (U.K., United States, Canada and India) all derive from British tradition. By a huge margin, the most recently developed democracies have not chosen first-past-the-post, and of those that have switched their systems on the subject, all switched away from it. None switched to single-member districts and plurality winners. Here’s a piece by a couple of Brits from a progressive think tank analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of first-past-the-post-ism and generally arguing that it has a lot of problems.

If you’re wondering whether this aspect of the U.S. system is rooted in the U.S. Constitution (and therefore couldn’t be changed without a constitutional amendment), the answer is mostly no, it’s not. The Constitution (Article 1, Section 2) establishes the House, deals with how seats will be apportioned by population (originally including the hideous “three-fifths” provision that provided for slaves to be counted as partial persons), and requires that members of the House be elected, but says nothing about districts, single-member or otherwise, or how the votes are to be counted.

In the early years of the Republic, multi-member House districts or at-large seats were common and the system varied from state to state. Since 1967, single-member House districts are required by federal law. So that law would presumably have to be changed to experiment with multi-member districts, but it wouldn’t take a constitutional amendment. A national organization called FairVote has developed a complicated system that would utilize multi-member districts again, which I’ve written about before.