What's the Key to Real Reform?
It's the Voting System!
by Matthew Cossolotto
"Reform" has never been more popular. During the shortened
presidential primary season, leading candidates in both major political parties
made impassioned pleas for reforming everything from our current campaign
finance laws, to our education system and Social Security. In his heated battle
to fend off the John McCain challenge for the Republican presidential
nomination, Governor George W. Bush claimed to be a "Reformer with
Results." Vice President Al Gore has embraced the cause of campaign finance
reform with the intensity and alacrity of a recent convert, calling it his
number one legislative priority.
But even as major political figures are tripping over themselves to pick up
the "reform" mantle, one thing is missing: Meaningful proposals for
"real" political reform. I have yet to hear a major candidate even
mention "voting system reform" - which happens to be the single most
significant step we could take to reform our political system. Many other
countries - including the United Kingdom and Canada - have held high-profile
public debates about voting system reform for many years.
It's the Voting System, Stupid Why is the voting system so important? Simple.
A country's voting system determines how the votes of the electorate get
translated into representation and political power. In the United States, we use
what political scientists call a "plurality/winner take all" system
for electing most of our public officials. With very few exceptions the
candidate with the most votes wins.
We inherited our plurality/winner-take-all system centuries ago from our
British colonial masters. The country has changed dramatically over the years.
But our voting system has remained essentially unchanged as if trapped in an
18th century time warp. By contrast, most of the other mature democracies began
adapting some form of "proportional" voting as early as the mid-19th
There's a big difference between winner-take-all voting systems and
proportional voting systems. Without getting too technical, one of the biggest
differences is that proportional systems tend to be associated with multi-party
democracies, while winner-take-all systems like we use tend to reinforce a
Many Americans accept our two-party system as an article of faith, as if it
was somehow enshrined in the Constitution. Nothing could be further from the
truth. The Constitution makes no mention of political parties. Nor does it
stipulate a particular voting system. We are completely free - Constitutionally
speaking - to scrap our antiquated winner-take-all voting system in favor of a
more modern, diversity-tolerant system like proportional voting.
Under proportional systems, seats in a legislative assembly are allocated in
rough proportion (hence the term "proportional representation") to the
votes received by various parties or candidates in an election. Under
proportional systems, a party or candidate that receives 10% of the vote
receives roughly 10% of the available seats. Nothing could be fairer than that.
And nothing could be more in keeping with the true spirit of representative
By contrast, under winner-take-all systems, a winning candidate in a
two-person race need only receive one vote over half of the votes cast (50% plus
1) in order to win the seat. Thus, 100% of the representation from a given
district goes to the candidate who receives just over 50% of the vote, a
disproportionate share by any reasonable definition. Over 49% of the voters in
that particular election would go unrepresented. Those votes, in effect, are
"wasted" on a "losing" candidate. When candidates who garner
just short of 50% of the vote lose, something's wrong with the underlying voting
system. As Hamlet might say, something's rotten in our democracy.
Because our voting system results in such a high percentage of
"wasted" votes, it should come as no surprise that voter turnout in
the United States is so anemic. A mere 36 percent of eligible voters bothered to
cast ballots in the 1998 election, the lowest turnout for a midterm election in
over 50 years. Only 49% -- less than half! -- voted in the 1996 presidential
election, the lowest voter participation rate in 70 years. If you include voter
turnout for off-year, local elections - typically in the abysmal 5% to 10% range
- our democracy seems to be in the throes of a near-death experience.
Proportional systems, on the other hand, tend to be associated with much higher
voter turnout rates, typically in the 80% to 90% range.
As our democracy limps into a new millennium, saddled as we are with an
alienated, apathetic and cynical electorate, we should be willing to explore the
full range of alternative voting systems. Let's not be lured by the siren songs
of ersatz reformers. Self-proclaimed "reformers" in American politics
should be encouraging a far-ranging debate about changing our outdated and
unfair voting system. Reforming our voting system - and thereby breaking the
two-party duopoly -- holds the key to creating a much healthier and more vibrant
democracy for the 21st century.
About the Author Matthew Cossolotto, a former congressional aide, is the
author of the Almanac of European Politics. From 1992-1996, he served as the
founding president of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a non-profit
educational organization dedicated to educating the public about the benefits of
alternative voting systems