Toward a Winner-Doesn't-Take-All Electoral System

David L. Wetzell
 
Issue CCLXI - October 3, 2010
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I got into election reform out of frustration with how the leadership of the two major US parties seemed to be stoking the cultural wars issues to crowd out other issues from being important in our elections.  I wanted to give outsiders, like myself, potentially more voice.  I thereby inferred from my studies of political-economy that this would require the use of winner-doesn't-take-all elections in part of the US political system.  I also inferred that it would not require a lot of strategic election reform to change the dynamics of the US political system and that the best way to get such reform was with political jujitsu.  We had to take for granted the superior power of the two major parties and work steadily to decentralize influence, not power, within our existing two-party dominated system. 

As such, the best way forward was to push for the use of winner-doesn't-take-all, or multi-seated, elections in only one of the two state legislatures.  This simple reform would be coupled with an affirmation of the wider use of winner-take-all elections and most other aspects of the US political system that maintained effective two-party rule.  After a while, I settled on the notion that a three-seated Hare LR election rule would be ideal.  This is because it has one candidate per party and one vote per voter, almost exactly like the one-seated Hare LR election rule, also known as First-Past-the-Post, already used in the US.  But 3-seated Hare LR would make it so that most of the time the top three candidates would win one seat each, unless the top candidate beat the third-place candidate by more than one-third of the total vote.  In which case, their party would win two seats, and (s)he would get to pick a team-mate to hold the second seat.  This reform could be coupled further with giving the leaders of the (major) party voted (by plurality) into power every two years by the state representatives more powers so they can get things done, even though their party has control of one-third-plus of the state representative seats.  This would make it so that neither major party could dominate our politics, and they would both be reincarnated on an ongoing basis to deal with the ongoing problems caused by changes in technology and social dynamics in the United States and abroad. 

Which is all very nice, but is it more than social science fiction?  Most election reform advocates agree that the use of some form of proportional representation in part of the US's elections would be helpful, especially for more local elections where de facto segregation tends to make the general elections not competitive.  But there are so many types of proportional representation that it is hard to rally around a particular reform in the face of serious institutional resistance from the two major parties.  In fact, top electoral reform organizations in the US, like FairVote, have focused their activism on the use of ranked choice voting rules in municipal elections, because of these problems. 

Yet what I learned from my study of the American Institutional Economics of John R. Commons in graduate school is that the best way to build consensus is to start with what is, not what we would ideally like.  We need to let the facts inspire us to think laterally and to use political jujitsu to move things forward.  What is in the United States is a system dominated by two major parties and a large number of low-information voters who very well may get confused by more complicated election rules.  The 3-seated Hare LR described above is the one rule that accommodates what is, while moving us forward.  This is why it ought to be the natural rallying point for pragmatic progressives in the US.

It would make our two major parties become reincarnated more frequently to position themselves around a de facto political center made more dynamic by a host of local third parties that specialize in contesting only local winnable elections and otherwise engage in civil issue advocacy through a variety of means, including voting strategically together in less local elections, that follow the politics of Gandhi to move the center.  Thus, we would have a contested duopoly, instead of a contested monopoly in the US's politics, and that small change might serve to expedite all sorts of much needed reforms.  Since when the two major parties realize that they cannot dominate our state and national politics, their incentive will be to work out compromises together on pressing issues, so as to preserve their duopoly power, rather than to game the system to keep the other party from getting a permanent majority.  This is why it was so hard to get Health Care reform in the US and why the Health Care reform we got was in dire need for additional significant reforms in the not-so-far-off future to contain costs and what-not. 

Those reforms are not likely to come from a top-down style campaign, but if autonomous yet interacting state-based campaigns for the use of 3-seated Hare LR in state representative elections got going, it would at least shake things up enough to goose the two major parties into working together to try to rebuild people's trust in their political system to adequate levels.

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