Most Americans are unaware that the way we vote – how we cast our ballots and choose our winners – is inferior to the voting systems used by most other major democracies. We continue to use a voting system invented several hundred years ago, while other countries take advantage of newer, fairer, and more democratic systems. Our antiquated system of winner-take-all voting is a major reason our legislatures are not truly representative and also why they pass legislation that often mis-represents the public will. Winner-take-all voting is also a significant cause of a number of other serious political problems discussed on this website: it encourages gerrymandering, helps maintain the two-party monopoly, and discourages voter turnout. If the U.S. were to adopt a more modern voting system, like proportional representation, this would go a long way toward eliminating these problems and making our government more democratic and more responsive to the public.
What Are Winner-Take-All Elections?
We all know how winner-take-all (WTA) voting works. We vote for our favorite candidate and the one with the most votes win. Political scientists call this “single-member plurality voting.” Legislators are elected one at a time in single-member districts, and the winner is the one with the plurality of the votes – the most votes. If it is a two-way race, the winner is the one with the majority of votes. If there are three or more candidates, the vote may be so split up that the winner does not get a majority, but merely a plurality – say 45% of the vote.
When it comes to executive offices, such as mayors and governors, winner-take-all elections are inevitable – because there can only be one winner. But the situation is different if we are talking about legislative elections. As we will see, there are several different ways of electing people to legislatures, and WTA is just one of those. The fact that we still cling to WTA voting for our federal, state, and local legislatures undermines democracy in a multitude of ways.
The Basic Problem
The basic flaw with winner-take-all is that it does a lousy job representing American voters. All Americans should have a say in government, but this is impossible under our current system. It is designed to represent only one part of the public—those who vote for the winning candidate in a district. Everyone else gets no representation. So if you are a Republican in a predominantly Democratic district (or vice versa), an African American in a White district, or a minor-party supporter in any district, then you are usually shut out by our current voting system. Your candidate will not win, and you will have no one to represent you and speak for you in the legislature. Amazingly, this widespread lack of representation is intentional. In WTA voting, only the winners are thought worthy of representation. You would think that any real democracy would seek to represent both majorities and minorities in its policymaking bodies. But not us.
Any real democracy would seek to represent both majorities and minorities in its policymaking bodies. But not us.
Another way to think about this is that winner-take-all voting produces a lot of wasted votes. A wasted vote is one that does not help to elect someone to office – a vote for a candidate who loses. Typically, in U.S. House elections about a third of all votes are wasted. This means that more than 30 million Americans usually come away from the voting booth with no one to represent them in the House. It is no wonder that many Americans feel little connection with their members of Congress—they often are represented by someone they voted against.
Often the wasted votes in WTA election represent a minority of the voters. But sometimes they represent a majority! If there are three or more candidates running, there may be a plurality winner with only, say, 40% of the vote. That means that the majority goes unrepresented. Or to put it another way, the district is represented by a candidate who 60% of the constituents voted against. Not the way democracy is supposed to work.
Wasted votes not only disempower many voters, they also create unfair distortions in representation. Some political groups get more representation than they deserve, and others get less. On the district level, for instance, the party with 51 percent of the vote gets 100 percent of the representation and the party with 49 percent gets 0 percent of the representation – a very lopsided outcome. On the legislative level, the result is that parties often receive many more or many fewer seats than they deserve based on their proportion of the vote. In a healthy democracy, legislatures are supposed to mirror as closely as possible the strength of public support for the various parties. But a WTA system is more like one of those fun house mirrors that grotesquely distorts some parts of the viewer’s body. Winner-take-all routinely produces legislatures that over-represent the largest party, under-represent the smaller of the two major parties, and deny representation to virtually all third parties.
Consider this: all nine members of the Massachusetts delegation to the U.S. House are Democrats, even though more than one-third of Massachusetts voters cast their ballots for the Republican candidates. Don’t the Republican voters deserve some representation? Sometimes the misrepresentation is so egregious that the party that comes in second in the popular vote is able to secure the majority of seats in the legislature. In 2012 the GOP won a majority in the U.S. House, even though Democratic House candidates garnered 1.3 million more votes than Republican candidates nationwide. In sum, WTA voting routinely violates one core principle of democracy: fair representation; and at times undermines another principle: majority rule.
But this is only the beginning of the story about the ways that WTA voting undermines democracy in the United States. There are many other serious problems as well.
Winner-take-all elections also encourage gerrymandering – a process which helps to produce unfair election results. Gerrymandering is the manipulation of district lines to produce an unfair advantage for one party or another. (The is another article on this site that examines gerrymandering in more detail.) The dominant party in a state often redraws district lines to favor its own candidates. Gerrymandering is only possible when there are a lot of wasted votes – which WTA voting routinely produces. The object of gerrymandering is to have the opposing party waste as many of its votes as possible and thus be unable to elect its fair share of representatives. Republicans, for instance, might divide up a large mass of Democratic voters and incorporate them into two predominantly Republican districts—thus ensuring that all the Democratic votes are wasted, and only Republicans are elected.
Gerrymandering creates uncompetitive districts where only one candidate stands a real chance of being elected. If a district is drawn so that it is 70 percent Democratic, the Republican candidate has virtually no opportunity to win. So while voters think they are deciding who represents them when they go to the polls on Election Day, often that decision has already been made for them many years before by the politicians who drew their district’s lines.
Thanks largely to gerrymandering, 80-90 percent of House members reside in uncompetitive districts and are reelected as a matter of routine. Real competition—and real voter choice—is absent from these elections. In one recent election in Florida, 43 percent of the U.S. House seats were not even contested by the other party. And gerrymandering predetermines not only who wins a specific seat but also, often, who controls the U.S. House itself. That is why the parties fight so viciously over the redistricting process—they know that a favorable outcome can ensure a majority of the seats in the House even if that party does not get a majority of the votes. Gerrymandering is part of what helped Republicans win the majority of House seats in 2010 even though they came in second in the nationwide vote.
Maintaining the Two-Party Duopoly
Americans want more choices at the polls. Over 60% of Americans think both the Republican and Democratic parties are “out of touch” with citizens’ concerns, and two-thirds say they want to see other parties seriously challenge the Democrats and Republicans for office. But our legislative seats continue to be occupied almost entirely by the two major parties and the election of a third-party candidate is rare. Why is this the case? Much of the answer lies in our winner-take-all voting system. (Another article on this site discusses the two-party duopoly in much greater detail.)
In WTA voting, only large parties that can receive a majority or plurality of the vote stand any chance of victory. A very popular third party may pick up 20 percent or 30 percent of the vote but still fail to elect anyone. This discourages people from even voting for third-party candidates. Worse yet, if people do vote for a third-party candidate, they may actually help elect the candidate they like the least. This is the classic “spoiler” problem: voting for a Green candidate only takes away votes from the Democratic candidate and helps the Republican to win. In the 2000 election, votes for the Green Party candidate, Ralph Nader, allowed George W. Bush to win Florida—and the presidency. In short, our current voting system maintains the two-party duopoly by discriminating against minor parties and punishing people who dare to vote for them.
Discouraging Voter Turnout
Public participation is a core democratic principle. And voter turnout is a key form of participation. As another article on this website shows, the U.S. has lower voter turnout than almost all other Western democracies. There are many reasons for this, including lack of automatic voter registration, voting on Tuesdays, etc. But use of winner-take-all voting also plays a big role in this problem. Many of the problem of WTA mentioned above tend to discourage voting. For instance, people who know their vote will be wasted has less incentive to vote. Imagine you are a Democrat in a predominantly Republican district, or vice versa. The results of the election are a foregone conclusion. Your candidate is going to lose and your vote will be a wasted one. So why bother to vote?
Also, we know that the more competitive elections are, the more people turn out to vote. We also know that gerrymandering is rampant and creates uncompetitive districts. In these districts, even some supporters of the dominant party may see little reason to turn out, knowing that their candidate will win anyway. Finally, WTA discourages people from voting for third-parties and independent candidates. Their vote will likely be wasted or worse, may create a spoiler situation. So in WTA elections, people have a lot of reasons not to go to the polls. And the fewer people who vote, the less likely it is that legislatures will truly represent the public will.
Why It Matters
We know that Congress often fails to pass policies that represent the desires of the American public. Majorities of Americans want the federal government to raise minimum wages, do more about global warming, better regulate guns, and make higher education more affordable. But Congress does not follow suit. As we’ve seen on this site, there are many reasons for this including the role of big money in elections, a Senate that over-represent conservative rural areas, and so on. But we should add winner-take-all voting to this list. A system that does not produce representative legislatures is less likely to produce representative policies. Studies have confirmed that politicians in countries that still use winner-take-all voting tend to espouse political positions that are less likely to resemble the views of the average voter. In a country that claims to be a democracy, this is a serious problem.
Other Countries Do It Better
Most major Western countries have moved on to more modern voting systems.
Given the serious democratic shortcomings of WTA elections, it is not surprising that most major Western countries have moved on to more modern voting systems. Only the U.S., Great Britain, Canada, and France still cling to WTA voting systems. All the others use variations of a different voting system: proportional representation. Proportional representation (PR) was invented in the 19th century to remedy the many problems of WTA voting – and it does this quite well. (For a more in-depth discussion of PR, see Proportional Representation Library. )
How does PR work? There are several variations, but they use multi-member districts instead of single-member districts. Instead of electing legislators one at a time in many small districts, PR uses fewer larger districts in which several representatives are elected at once. The number elected per district can range from a low of 3 to 5 members to 10 or 20 members or more.
Proportional representation also uses a different way of choosing the winners than WTA. Each party puts up a list or slate of candidates equal to the number of seats in the district. Winners of seats in the multi-member districts are determined by the proportion of the vote that a party receives. So if 40 percent of the voters in a ten-member district cast their votes for Democratic candidates, that party would receive four of the ten seats – and the top four candidates on its list would get those seats. If candidates for the Green Party or the Libertarian Party win 10 percent of the vote, that party would receive one seat, and so on.
The Advantages of PR
The use of proportional representation allows other countries to avoid the many problems produced by winner-take-all elections. The key to PR’s advantages is that it produces very few wasted votes compared to WTA voting. In the U.S., 30%, 40% or more of votes are wasted – cast for candidates who lose. In PR, wasted votes may be 10% or less because voters from every party are able to win representation in these large multi-member districts. Instead of a winner-take-all approach, PR is an all-are-winners approach. This minimization of wasted votes in PR elections produces the following, more democratic, results.
Instead of a winner-take-all approach, PR is an all-are-winners approach.
Fair Representation. In the U.S., the use of winner-take-all voting means parties often get more or less representation than they deserve based on their proportion of the vote. Proportional representation (as the term implies) is explicitly designed to fix this problem and ensure that a party’s seats reflects its proportion of the vote. This means that legislatures more accurately represent voter preferences – and they become much more democratic bodies.
Multi-Party Systems. With PR voting, minor parties are not discriminated against as they are in WTA voting. All parties – both large and small – get their fair share of seats in legislatures. Legislatures become multi-party affairs that better represent the variety of political opinion among the voters. There also is no spoiler problem because votes for third parties win representation and don’t inadvertently help one of the major parties. So voters in PR countries can support the candidates and parties they believe in without fear of wasting their votes or aiding their opponents.
No Gerrymandering. PR countries are not plagued by gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is drawing district lines so that one party is forced to waste a lot of its votes and get less representation than it deserves. But there are few wasted votes in PR, so it makes no difference how the lines are drawn. For instance, a ten-member district may be drawn so that the Democrats have only 20% of the votes. But those votes are not wasted and the Democrats would win two of the ten seats. Also, every district is competitive because all parties – even the small ones – can win some seats. So redistricting has no impact on a party’s representation and becomes just a boring bureaucratic task – as it should be. In PR countries, the voters, not line-drawing politicians, decide who is elected.
Higher Voter Turnout. Countries that use PR tend to have much higher voter turnout rates than WTA countries. It’s not unusual for these nations to have 70% to 80% turnout rates – compared to 45% to 55% in the U.S. Again, a significant factor is the absence of wasted votes. Voters in PR countries know that their votes will count, no matter which party they support. So they have an incentive to go to the polls. Also, multi-party systems offer a wide variety of viable choices so that all voters can find candidates and parties that they are enthusiastic about. The more voters go to the polls, the more democratic the election outcomes are.
Better Accountability. A key democratic principle is accountability: citizens should be able to hold their officials accountable by removing them from office when they become dissatisfied. But WTA, especially with gerrymandering, produces a lot of lopsided “safe seats” where one party has a large majority of the voters – say 65-75%. Let’s imagine a significant portion – 15% – of that party’s voters become disillusioned with their representative. Chances are that official would still stay in office. But in PR, if a party loses 15% of the vote in a district, it loses 15% of the seats – much more accountability.
Party and Policy Centered Campaigns. In the U.S., election campaigns tend to be about individual candidates – their personalities and foibles. In PR countries, campaigns are more about parties and their policy platforms. That is because legislative candidates don’t run individually, but as part of a party slate. In essence, they are not saying “Vote for me,” but “Vote for us – my party.” Elections ads are much more about the party and its policy proposals – offering much more detail on how they differ from their various opponents. Party and policy centered campaigns help to produce more informed citizens and enable them to better hold parties and candidates accountable for their election promises.
Better Representation for Women and Minorities. Women and racial and ethnic minorities are under-represented in U.S. legislatures. For example, in 2019, minority groups (Blacks, Hispanics, Asians/Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans) made up over 40 percent of the U.S. population but had only 26 percent of the seats in the U.S. House. And only 24% of House members are women. These groups tend to be much better represented in countries using PR. For example, most PR countries do dramatically better than the United States at ensuring fair gender representation. In Sweden 47 percent of the lower house is made up of women—compared to 24 percent in the United States. In Norway the figure is 41 percent, in Belgium 41 percent, and in Italy 36 percent.
PR tends to increase the representation of women and minorities because more of them tend to be nominated under this system. Think of it this way: in five-member PR district, if all of a party’s candidates were male or all were white, this would be controversial. This creates pressure for parties to include some female and minority candidates on their slates. And many parties in PR countries have quotas requiring, for example, that 40 percent of the candidates on the slate be women. Such quotas are impossible to implement in WTA systems where candidates are nominated one at a time.
More Democratic Policy Outcomes. Ultimately, PR’s ability to produce more accurate representation for voters, groups, and parties is important because it makes legislatures more responsive to the demands of the public. G. Bingham Powell looked at twenty-two democracies and compared how well the policy positions of legislators reflected the positions of the general public. He found that policymakers in PR countries tended to have political positions that more closely resembled those of the average voter than policymakers in WTA countries. If the point of democracies is to enact policies that closely reflect the will of the public, then PR voting is much more desirable.
Given that PR is better at giving more people what they want from government, it is perhaps not surprising to learn that people in PR countries tend to feel better off than those with WTA voting systems. A study of 20 advanced democracies found “clear and robust evidence in support of the contention that people lead more satisfying lives in democracies with a proportional representation system.”
Given all these important political advantages of PR, it is easy to understand why most major Western democracies have adopted this reform and abandoned winner-take-all voting.
Best Solution for the United States
The best solution for the problems caused by our current voting system would be to follow the example of most other advanced democracies and adopt proportional representation voting. It could be used on the local, state, and federal level for legislative elections. On the federal level, it could not be used for Senate elections, because there can only be one winner in those contests. But PR could be used in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Constitution gives the states the power to choose what voting system it will use for House elections. However, it could not be used in small states that elect only one representative.
The form of proportional representation that is most often discussed in the United States is called multi-winner ranked choice voting. (Political scientists often call it the “single transferable vote.”) It is currently used in Ireland and Australia and Cambridge, Massachusetts. It has also been used successfully in several American cities in the past. Voters rank their candidates in order of choice. They mark their favorite candidate as their first choice, and then go on to mark a second choice, third choice, etc. Multi-winner RCV uses a variety of vote transfers to ensure that votes are not wasted and that each party gets it’s fair share of representation. For instance, in some counting rounds, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and his or her votes are transferred to their second choices – thus ensuring that their voices are heard.
Adopting this system, or another form of proportional representation, would finally allow Americans to enjoy all the benefits that other countries have experienced for decades: more citizens would have a voice in government, all parties would compete on a level playing field, more voters would turn out, both major and minor parties would get representation, and our legislatures would more accurately represent the views of the public.
Imagine the impact, for example, of a Green Party that had 10% of the seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Working with the Democrats, the presence of the Greens would significantly improve the chances of passing meaningful global warming legislation. Or consider how legislation might change if 40% of the House members were women. And what a relief it would be to not worry any longer about the scourge of gerrymandering. In sum, proportional representation may be the one reform that would have the most wide-ranging impacts on American government. It would be a major step toward creating a fairer, more representative, more inclusive, and ultimately more democratic political system.
Second Best Solution for the U.S.
There is another voting system reform that does not involve PR, but that would also address some of the problems caused by our current winner-take-all system. It is a different kind of winner-take-all system called “single-winner ranked choice voting” or “instant run-off voting.” In this system, legislators are still elected one at a time in single-member districts, but the method of determining the winner is different. Instead of voting for one candidate, voters rank the candidates in order of their preferences as they do for the PR version of ranked choice voting mentioned above – designating a first choice, second choice, third choice, and so on. All the first-choice votes are counted and if a candidate gets over 50% of those, he or she is elected. Otherwise, the last place candidate is dropped out and his or her votes are transferred to their second-choice candidate. This continues until one candidate gets a majority of the vote.
For example, if the Democratic candidate gets 40% of the vote, the Republican 45%, and the Green 15%, the Green candidate is dropped out and his or her votes are transferred to the Green Party supporters’ second choices. Assuming for the sake of argument that all of these votes would go to the Democratic candidate, he or she would then win with 55% of the vote.
Single-winner RCV addresses several problems with our current WTA system. First, in ensures that the winning candidate get a majority of the votes, which is not always the case currently. Maine adopted this reform in 2018 in part because 9 of the 11 governor’s elections between 1994 and 2014 were won with less that 50% of the votes. Second, single-winner ranked choice voting eliminates spoilers. Green Party voters can cast a vote for their candidate without fear that it will inadvertently help the Republicans. Or two conservative candidates can run for the same office without fear they will split the vote and help the liberal candidate to win. This kind of voting also seems to encourage more moderate and civilized campaigns. Candidates are less likely to aim vicious attacks at opponents, because they may want the opponent’s supporters to list them second on their ballots. There is also evidence to suggest that this alternative way of voting encourages more ideological, demographic, and gender diversity in the candidates running for office.
But while single-winner ranked choice voting would be a clear improvement on our current plurality winner-take-all systems, it lacks many of the advantages of proportional representation. Importantly, it doesn’t produce the same kind of fair representation that PR does. Because it requires a majority to win, third party candidates still have little chance to get elected to office. So it doesn’t encourage multi-party legislatures and the more representative policies those bodies produce. This system also still has lots of wasted votes – up to 49% — because only those supporting the winner get representation. So unlike PR, single-winner RCV could allow gerrymandering to take place. And it is not clear that this reform would increase voter turnout the way PR does.
Chances for Change: Improving
On the negative side is the fact that many elected officials and the two major parties routinely oppose voting system reform – especially a move toward proportional representation. However, on the state and city level, citizens can do an end run around the political establishment by using public referendums to pass voting system reforms. And in fact this is the most frequent way that voting system reform has been enacted in the United States in the past. On the federal level, it is also helpful that we would not have to change the Constitution to reform the way we elect the U.S. House of Representatives.
It’s also worth noting that the tide of history is on the side of reform. Over the last century, more and more democracies have moved from WTA voting to PR voting. And among the few remaining major Western nations using WTA, both Canada and Great Britain have growing movements promoting the adoption of proportional representation.
More and more citizens have become aware of the democratic problems with our winner-take-all system.
Also on the plus side: more and more citizens have become aware of the democratic problems with our winner-take-all system. And there has been a growing endorsement of proportional representation by some leading political opinion makers. In 2018 a New York Times editorial called for the adoption of PR for U.S. House elections, arguing that it would produce “a Congress for every American.” That same year, a conservative Times op-ed columnist, David Brooks, also called for the abandonment of plurality voting, noting, “There’s a reason voters in proportional representation countries are less disenchanted with politics than we are. Their systems work better.” In addition, a bill has been introduced in Congress—the Fair Representation Act—that would mandate the use of multi-winner ranked choice voting for U.S. House elections.
It is also hopeful that there is a growing grassroots movement to promote voting system reform, led by groups like FairVote in Washington D.C. But unfortunately, unlike the voting reform movements in Canada and Great Britain, our movement has largely chosen to promote single-winner rank-choice voting, instead of proportional representation, as the cure for our current voting problems. Single-winner RCV is now used in over a dozen U.S. cities, including San Francisco, Berkeley, Santa Fe, and Minneapolis. Maine adopted it for state-wide elections in 2018 and movements in other states are exploring this reform as well. So there is a distinct possibility for this reform to spread.
But it is unclear whether this emphasis on the winner-take-all version of ranked choice voting helps or hurts prospects for the more effective solution, proportional representation. Some reformers believe that its adoption could eventually lead to the adoption of PR as well. It is thought that once voters get used to rank-choice ballots in the single-winner version, this could increase interest in the PR version of ranked choice voting. On the other hand, by solving some of the problems of winner-take-all elections – eliminating spoilers for instance – single-winner ranked choice voting might actually make the WTA system more palatable and undermine efforts to replace it with PR. Also, voting system reform takes enormous amounts of political resources and a good deal of time. Once single-winner RCV is adopted, how likely is it that voters would then be interested in another change to the multi-winner PR version? The voting system reform train may only leave the station once in a generation – and thus the emphasis on single-winner ranked choice voting could hurt the chances of adopting proportional representation.
So the prospects for voting system reform are improving. But at this point it seems unlikely that American voters will benefit any time soon from the considerable political advantages of proportional representation that are being enjoyed by the citizens of most other major Western countries.
read the next issue: 13. Excessive Presidential Power