Talking Through the Two-Party System

Posted on July 11, 2016


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Pop quiz time: what is the most popular political party among registered American voters?

The answer may surprise you. The majority of US voters--almost 40 percent--are not affiliated with any political party. This is in contrast to 32 percent of voters who identify as Democrats, and 29 percent who identify as Republicans.

This is a confusing statistic, considering that our government continues to be dominated by two major political parties. While third-party candidates exist—and occasionally win elections—they continue to be an anomaly in mainstream politics.

Given the rise of unaffiliated voters, why does the US continue to be a two-party system? What do other countries do differently? And is there any possibility that our system could change?

We investigated this topic at our last informational happy hour, which took place at Uptown Tavern on June 2nd, 2016. Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

From its beginning, the US has been a two-party system.

While other minor political parties do exist, only two political parties at one time have had any major amount of influence in US government (with a few exceptions). The original two-party system was started by the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, and continues to this day. If you’re interested in learning more about the fascinating history of political parties in the US, check out this informative (and funny) video by PBS.

Not every country uses a two-party political system.

The two-party political system is not the standard around the world. Countries such as Bahrain, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia have done away with political parties altogether. There are also countries with one-party systems, such as China, North Korea, and Vietnam. One-party systems typically feature a rigid political structure where opposition is verboten—in other words, not a system we would want to implement in the United States.

Finally, there are multi-party systems, which are used by the majority of countries in the world. In this system, more than two parties have a realistic chance at controlling the government. Parties may work independently in order to accomplish their goals, or together in coalitions. 

The United States uses a “winner-take-all” voting system.

Our conversation then turned to how candidates are elected to represent their constituents. In the US, we have a winner-take-all system, in which the candidate who receives the most votes wins, while the “losers” get nothing.

In contrast, proportional representation—used by many multi-party systems—does not result in one “winner.” Instead, seats are allocated based on the number of votes each party receives. It should be noted that in many countries with proportional representation, citizens cast ballots for political parties—not individual candidates.

Let’s explain this concept with an example. Under the US “winner-take-all” system, every voter within a district gets to vote for one party: the purple, green, or orange party. Purple receives 50% of the vote, green receives 30% of vote, and orange receives 20% of the vote. The purple party is the winner! Those who voted for the green or orange parties don’t get anything—better luck next time, guys.

Now, let’s look at proportional representation. As in our last example, purple receives 50% of the vote, green receives 30% of the vote, and orange receives 20% of the vote. However, instead of there being one “winner,” the purple party receives 5 seats, the green party receives 3 seats, and the orange party receives 2 seats. Even though the green and orange parties “lost,” they still are able to represent the constituents who voted them in.

Proportional representation is hailed by proponents as being a fairer system of representation, as it gives citizens belonging to minority groups a bigger voice in government. Since the “losing” parties still receive some seats, these individuals will have someone in office who is fighting for their interests.

The downside to this is a lack of consensus. Having more people at the table makes decision-making exponentially more complicated. Multiple parties—as opposed to just two—can make reaching a consensus on complicated policy issues a daunting challenge. 

Some cities are changing how their citizens vote in order to increase representation.

Cities throughout the US are expirimenting with different electoral systems in an effort to increase voter participation and representation. One such example is ranked-choice voting, which allows voters to choose multiple candidates in a ranked order—as opposed to only picking one. Proponents argue that ranked-choice voting gives more power to third parties, and ultimately allows for better representation. Check out this video for an easy explanation of how ranked-choice voting works.

What do you think?

Keep the conversation going by commenting below, or join us at a future happy hour.

Office: Colorado Common Cause

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