Candidates from more than six political parties ran in the 2016 presidential election. Odds are you’ve only heard of two, maybe four of them. Our electoral system is not inherently a two party system — no Democrats or Republicans are ordained in the Constitution. But under our rules, parties must consolidate or die. No electoral system is perfect, and even with all of the flaws in ours, the country still marches on. But what alternatives are out there? And are they actually any better? To find out, lets take a step outside The Echo Chamber.
The American system of voting is a first-past-the-post (FPTP) system — meaning you need to surpass the second-place candidate by one vote to win an election (or one electoral vote, in the case of a presidential election). The FPTP system has many downsides; namely, it is disproportional, highly sensitive to gerrymandering and falls victim to a two-party system rattled by the spoiler effect.
Much of FPTP’s disproportionality comes from gerrymandering — if each county elects one representative, then a party can have one more vote in each county and control the entire state when 49.99 percent of the population voted the other way. In this system, two parties is the mathematically optimal outcome — any third party will probably lose the election and will definitely pull votes from one of the other parties. But if a third-party candidate does decide to run, we are left with the spoiler problem, as many argue was seen in the 2000 presidential election when Ralph Nader received 97,488 votes in Florida and Al Gore lost by a mere 537. In an FPTP system, third-party candidates, while good at voicing a minority opinion, can do serious harm to the actual outcome.
An often-mentioned alternative to the FPTP system is an instant runoff voting (IRV) system, in which voters rank their candidates from most wanted to least, and mini-elections are run repeatedly — eliminating the candidate with lowest number of votes each time and transferring those votes to each voters’ second-ranked candidate. Proponents of this system argue that it allows people to vote their conscience without creating an undesired spoiler effect — but even this tends towards a two-party system.
Our two parties create two giant umbrellas for a whole slew of differing opinions — that’s why you have communists with corporate elites and neo-nazis with fiscal conservatives. In parliamentary systems, where coalitions are formed between smaller parties and the big players, small parties are given significant sway because they can be the tipping point in a coalition’s majority. In order for the United States to even support a multi-party system it would need to switch to either a parliamentary system or a proportional system, which would appoint party-selected representatives based on the percentage of votes each party received. In lieu of large-scale changes, the two party system is here to stay.
Our system is certainly not the best, but finding another one without a new set of flaws is nearly impossible. Does the unrepresentative nature warrant a change? Or is the seemingly functional status quo the way to go? That is for you to decide. For now, I just hope that you have enjoyed some time outside The Echo Chamber.