The Problems with American Voting

Dominic Gordon, Guest Columnist

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I was in a discussion with a couple of members from a club on campus regarding the current dynamics of how they will select their next club president. I am friends with the candidates running, so I schemed to think of a way to guarantee them victory. I asked them how they conducted their voting. They said they used first-past-the-post, and I got my answer.

I went on to discuss how they can win 100% of the time with near 0% of the public support. They probably thought I was being ridiculous, but I was 100% serious. I explained that all they need to do to win is to pick an individual that is a clone of their opponent and they will win, as voters will split the vote. With minimal effort, the vote is rigged.

Playing dirty is not just easy to do, it is a valued strategy. We use primaries in America to avoid this, but primaries have their own problems. Because primary voters often stray from the general electorate, Americans are often left with only two choices, thwarting the ideas the country wants in the general election.

First-past-the-post is synonymous with losers. The least appetizing, most opposed and most contrasting candidates to the electorate win and the most appealing, most symmetrical and most similar candidates lose.

Further shown in 2016, Trump was the Condorcet loser (the candidate who would lose in any possible head-to-head matchup of the popular vote) while Bernie Sanders was the Condorcet winner (the candidate who would win in any possible head-to-head matchup of the popular vote). The candidates winning in America are currently the opposite of what the people want. America, in this regard, isn’t actually a democracy but an anti-democracy. It is a country that picks those most opposed to what the majority needs or wants. This isn’t fair, and it isn’t right.

An aside: Trump is the Condorcet loser out of the three big candidates (Sanders, Clinton, and Trump), but he isn’t the Condorcet loser of the entire election. He actually is ranked 21 out of 26 candidates of all candidates running in a Condorcet race, but all of the candidates below him are just other Republicans who were unknowns. For all intents and purposes, Trump is the Condorcet loser, but I figured I would give Trump the benefit of the doubt by explaining that.

I know many conservatives might say that this is a good thing. Those that benefit from this usually say, “Well it works for me, so what is wrong with it?” If you say that, you aren’t in favor of democracy. The majority of the country should obviously not have a candidate elected whom they didn’t vote for. Why should a minority’s favored candidate be picked despite the distaste of an overwhelming majority of the electorate? If you were that minority, wouldn’t you be angry? The fact that Trump was elected president seems counter to the way government should be orchestrated.

Giving the majority total control isn’t right either. Democracy is rule by the people, so rule by 51% of the country is a half-democracy. It isn’t fair and it isn’t right. Giving the Democratic Party total power would be equally unfair.

The truth is that the American system may be one of the worst-designed in the world. It’s a winner-takes-all system that allows losers to win. It doesn’t just pick losers, it picks those in dead last. I would make the argument that picking a president out of a hat might be a better way to vote. This is a government that is not of the people. This is a government against the people, yet our society does little to correct this. Many Americans view themselves as simply trapped in a bad system, but there are ways to fix this.

First, we could switch to approval voting. It’s a voting system that recently was passed in Fargo, North Dakota. It’s the simplest and probably the cheapest voting system to switch to. It also would lead to electing leaders with the most satisfaction amongst the total American population. In approval voting, you simply mark all candidates of which you approve. It’s a little like you and your friends deciding which restaurant you all want to go to. You aren’t going to go to a restaurant if it is unpalatable to your friend.

Score voting is basically the same thing, but you are allowed to number choices by your degree of approval from one to 10. If we are to maintain a single-winner system, approval or score voting are by far the best systems to use. These systems are cheap (they actually cut costs by removing primaries), easy to understand, and they can be adapted for almost any election. Of course, this system still has a flaw. While it finds the candidate most appealing to minorities, it still doesn’t give minorities fair representation.

This leads me to proportional voting. Proportional voting allows all groups to be represented. Many people would say that this system would only lead to more partisanship, as more extreme groups would get elected. I would counter that this is not necessarily so, as STV, which stands for “single transferable vote,” in Ireland has actually led to the least partisan government in the world. It allows voters to number their choices, and if their first choice either wins with a surplus of votes or is eliminated, their vote can be transfered to their second choice.

The main problem with proportional systems is that they are confusing for people unfamiliar with them. They can also be expensive to run, and they can often lead to unpredictable results in legislative leadership. It is a very different world with proportional systems, and frankly, I don’t know if Americans are ready.

Finally, there are other options besides those two, but I will admit I have a problem with them. One of those options is “instant runoff voting,” which is better than first-past-the-post, but it has its own problems. IRV is basically a system involving numbering candidates in the order of preference that you feel for them. I dislike IRV because while it removes the spoiler effect mentioned earlier, it still tends to lead to a two-party system, and it is not a proportional system that allows minorities to have a say. It also can select candidates who are more extremist than normal first-past-the-post would. It is still an improvement because it prevents minority rule, but I don’t think that people should pursue switching to it because of these many problems. It’s a system that will guarantee the majority rules, but as I mentioned earlier, this might not be as democratic as you think.

An aside: The STV system I mentioned earlier, is a form of IRV, but it does not suffer from any of the problems mentioned for reasons that are kind of hard to explain. It basically is a proportional form of IRV that tends to elect centrists.

(Here are links to my podcast and the Cornell study)



A link to a Condorcet election for 2016