Alternative Voting Methods: How The Rest Of The World Votes, And Why The U.S. Is Strangled By A Failed Two-Party System

American elections are almost all held on the same principle: winner takes all, loser goes home. Majority rules, and all that. And while this may seem, at first blush, to be the fairest way to collect votes, this system is why America remains strangled by two parties. It’s also how this particular election has saddled voters with the two most unpopular candidates for President, ever, in any election in U.S. history.

Outside of the United States, alternative methods of voting, and of carrying out elections, ensure that several parties hold seats in legislatures. That means that everybody (or almost everybody) gets their voice heard in national legislatures, instead of forcing everybody to vote for one of two parties with whom they may not even agree.

Alternative voting methods
Eight political parties hold seats in New Zealand's federal legislature. [Image by Artist via Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and Resized | by License]

Here in this post, we’ll look at some alternative ways elections are held, and of how votes are counted, and we’ll see if they could work here in the U.S.

The Parliamentary System

Where It’s Used: Canada, Australia, India, Japan, most of Europe

How It Works: Before we go any further, we need to note that a parliamentary system is a system of government, not a system of voting/elections. However, it’s mentioned here because the system necessitates some different methods of voting besides the winner-take-all, majority-rules method. Since some of the voting methods we’re going to talk about in this post exist because of the parliamentary system, the system is going to be explained here.

Anyway, in a parliamentary system, as described by The Encyclopedia Brittanica, the Head of Government — for example, the President or Prime Minister — is selected, rather than elected, and whichever political party is in power (that is, holds the most seats in the legislature) gets to choose the Head of Government. So if an election is held that results in, say, The Pirate Party holding the majority (or a plurality) of seats in government, The Pirate Party would then meet and agree on one of their own to serve as President or Prime Minister. He or she would hold that job as long as his or her party retained power in the legislature.

The British Parliament in session. [Image by Kirsty Wigglesworth - WPA Pool/Getty Images]

How It Would Work In The U.S.: In a word, it wouldn’t. At least, not without rewriting huge portions of the Constitution. The Constitution makes it clear that the President is elected by popular vote, and is independent of the legislature. And even if the political will existed to switch to a parliamentary system (it doesn’t), the Constitution is, by design, extremely difficult to change. It would take years if not decades to get that to happen.

Public Funding Of Elections

Where It’s Used: Mexico, Most of Europe

How It Works: The specifics shake out differently from place to place, and are complicated by limits on donations to parties (or to individual candidates, or both), but in general, the federal government gives candidates, or their parties, a certain amount of public money to carry out their campaigns, although in most places private donors (and corporations) are also allowed to donate.

In theory, this makes it easier for more voices (political parties, individual candidates) to be heard, by blunting the role that private money plays in the outcome. For example, if each candidate starts with, say $10 million in government, then the playing field is level — at least at first. Depending on how much private money is allowed to come into play, the wealthier candidates and parties will still have an advantage, so how much public money is given mutes affects how big that advantage is.

How It Would Work In The U.S.: In some ways, public funding of elections is already here. If you’ve ever looked closely at your federal income tax returns, you’ve noticed that you’re given the option of donating a small amount of money (a few bucks) to the presidential election campaign. That’s where the money comes from.

And while no country’s elections are 100 percent (Norway’s comes the closest, with 74 percent of election money coming from the federal government), the problem is that the public portion of America’s election funding is almost laughably small, to the point that it’s all but irrelevant in the long run.

Bernie Sanders would like to see that changed. Speaking at a town hall in August 2015, Sanders said that he’d like to see more public funding here in the States.

“We’re going to introduce legislation which will allow people to run for office without having to beg money from the wealthy and the powerful.”

Compulsory Voting

Where It’s Used: Australia, much of South America

How It Works: Just like it sounds — you are required, by law, to vote, and if you don’t, you pay a penalty of some kind (like a fine). Enforcement varies by country. Some countries have compulsory voting on the books but don’t enforce it, while other places, like Australia, can and will fine you (in this case, $26 AUD, or about $20 USD) for not voting, according to ABC News Australia.

How It Would Work In The U.S.: It wouldn’t. For one thing, some religious groups in the U.S., such as the Amish and Jehova’s Witnesses, don’t vote, and compelling them to vote would violate their First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom. There’s also the matter of getting the old or the infirm to the polls. And who is going to decide if a person is so feeble or developmentally disabled that they shouldn’t be required to vote? For another thing, the right not to vote is considered just as important as the right to vote, and compelling Americans to vote on penalty of a fine or imprisonment is contrary to the very notion of freedom itself. It’s a non-starter.

Ranked Choice Voting/Single Transferable Vote (STV)

Where It’s Used: Australia, Canada, United Kingdom, some U.S. jurisdictions

How It Works: Voters select a number of candidates (say, four), and rank them from their top choice to their lowest choice. When the votes are counted, if a candidate receives more than 50 percent of the first-place vote, he or she wins. If no candidate gets a majority, then the candidate in last place is removed from the equation, and the process repeats until a winner is elected. In essence, no vote is “wasted” (a common reason given why Americans shouldn’t vote third-party is that their vote is “wasted”), and instead is allocated based on the voter’s preference.

The ins & outs of how a hypothetical election would work with ranked-choice voting is too difficult to explain in this post using just words, and involves tables and math. For a good explanation of a hypothetical situation, check out this Wikipedia entry on the metaphorical Tennessee capital election, which makes the situation much clearer.

How It Would Work In The U.S.: Actually, ranked-choice voting is already here, at least in some places. Specifically, in San Francisco, Oakland, and the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

If the practice were to spread, it could be applied to every race in which the candidate is decided directly by the popular vote, from Governor to Dog Catcher and everyone in between. When it comes to electing the President, however, things get trickier because of the Electoral College. If ranked-choice voting were to be employed in all fifty states, it’s almost guaranteed that other candidates besides the Democrat and Republican would wind up winning electoral votes. If that happens in enough states, no candidate would be able to win the majority of electoral votes — 270 — and the election of the President would fall to the House of Representatives.

Proportional Representation

Where It’s Used: In one form or another, Japan, Europe, South America, Australia

How It Works: Proportional representation takes many forms, but in the main, the system works like this: voters vote for the party, not candidates themselves, and the political parties are awarded seats in the legislature based on the percentage of votes they receive. The parties themselves then decide which men or women will occupy those seats.

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For example, say the Jedi Party wins 41 percent of the vote; the Ketchup Party wins 20 percent, the Mustard Party wins 11 percent, the Soy Sauce Party wins 11 percent, the Grape Jelly wins nine percent, and each of nine other parties each win one percent. Then the Ketchup Party will occupy 41 seats in a 100-seat legislature, the Mustard Party will occupy 20 seats in the legislature, and so on.

How It Would Work In The U.S.: It probably wouldn’t; at least, not without introducing compromises that are going to leave some voters cold. Already you can see several problems with this idea. For one thing, the Founding Fathers would be rolling in their graves, as they hated political parties, and the words “political party” do not appear in the Constitution.

There’s also the fact that the system only works where the legislature is composed of a nice, round number, like 100. And, in the U.S., the legislature is not elected at-large, but rather by representatives of each of the 50 states. And the Constitution is clear about how often those representatives are elected.

The system could possibly work in states, such as California, that send a large number of representatives to the House (in California’s case, 55). But even then, applying proportional representation to California’s contingent of House members would still result in some awkward math. And in states that send a very small number of members to the House, such as Alaska, with three, the system is a non-starter.

Other Voting Systems

You can be sure that statisticians, mathematicians, and political scientists have all devised and looked into ways to make the voting process fairer, and several others are or have been put into use, with varying degrees of success. Maybe some obscure voting method that I haven’t researched is out there and is perfect for the U.S. Or maybe not.

The Takeaway

One thing is clear:as long as candidates have to get their campaign money from an established political party, and as long as the winner takes all in every election, with no prize for second place, the top two parties – Democrats and Republicans – are going to be the only parties in power in the U.S.

Tinkering with the system, for example by increasing public funding of elections and allowing for ranked choice voting, may yet pave the way for representatives from third (and even fourth or fifth or sixth) parties to take seats in government, at first in smaller, local elections and perhaps, eventually, into the federal legislature.

Whether or not that ever happens here in the U.S. remains to be seen, but the rest of the world has figured out ways to include several voices, rather than just two, in their governments. It’s time for the United States to do the same.

[Featured Image by vchal/Shutterstock]