Building Democracy 2.0: The Dark Secret of Majority Voting
This essay examines the electoral system we know best: the single round simple majority system. This system became widespread in England during the 18th century through efforts to ensure members of Parliament represented roughly equal populations rather than variably sized communities. England exported it to the American colonies prior to the Revolution. On its face, this system seems like the most obvious and logical. In a single round simple majority system, there is only one round of voting, and the candidate who receives the most votes wins. However, we will see that our electoral system, which has such intuitive appeal on its face, harbors a darker side. Operationally, the majority system presupposes two rivals vying for a seat. But voters often want more than two choices, and in many cases more than two candidates appear on a ballot. This essay will explain what happens to social behaviors in a democratic system when more than two candidates run for a single office. These behaviors provide important context for understanding the profound challenges to democracy to be explored later.
Types of Majority Voting Systems
As noted, majority voting systems are straight forward. In the American system of single round simple majority voting, voters receive a ballot with a list of names for each office and have one vote for each office. The candidate who receives the most votes for each wins. In other words, the winning candidate does not have to receive an absolute majority or 50% +1 of the votes to prevail. Receipt of a plurality or simple majority is sufficient. This system is known as a “winner-take-all” or “first-past-the-post” system. These descriptions refer to the fact that any candidate or party that receives one vote less than the winner receives no seats in the legislature. In addition to the U.S., most of the British Commonwealth and nations with a legacy of British colonization employ the simple majority system. Of the 213 countries surveyed in the Electoral System Design Handbook, approximately 22% use a first-past-the-post or winner-take-all system.
There are a range of majority voting systems in addition to the single round simple majority system. While this essay will focus on simple majority voting, it is helpful to have a familiarity with these other systems for comparative purposes and for evaluating electoral reforms later. Other types of majority systems have either single member districts like the U.S. or multi-member districts (e.g., a district with more than one seat on the same ballot). Systems with multi-member districts use the Block Vote (BV) and Party Block Vote (PBV) systems. With a BV system, voters receive a ballot with a list of seats and candidates. Voters have as many votes to use as there are seats in a district (e.g., five votes in a district with five seats to fill). In most BV systems, voters can vote for individual candidates regardless of party. Candidates with a simple majority prevail. With a PBV system, each party puts up a slate of candidates in a multi-member district. Voters have one vote. The party which receives the most votes wins all of the seats in that district.
Systems with single member districts tend to use the Alternative Vote (AV) system or the Two Round System (TRS). Both of these approaches seek to address the challenge posed by multiple candidates or parties appearing on a ballot for one office. With the AV system, voters rank the candidates according to preference. This allows voters to express their views among candidates rather than only their top choice. Electoral system designers typically refer to this system as “preferential voting.” In the U.S., it is called “ranked choice voting,” and it is gaining support in the reform community. If a candidate receives more than 50% of the vote in the first round, the candidate wins. If no candidate receives an absolute majority of the vote, then the candidate receiving the fewest votes is eliminated and the second preference of that candidate’s voters are counted. This process is repeated until a candidate receives an absolute majority of the votes. Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea use this system. It is also used for the presidential election in the Republic of Ireland.
TRS represents another type of voting system used in single member districts. Like AV, TRS provides a mechanism that winnows the field of candidates so that one candidate can achieve an absolute majority of votes. TRS culls the number of candidates in the first-round election so that the top two vote getters (or some specified number of candidates) go on to a second round of voting. The second election typically occurs within a week or so of the first. In the second round, the candidate who receives the most votes is declared the winner. France uses TRS in its legislature, and many countries with a legacy of French colonization employ it. In addition, a number of countries use TRS for the direct election of a president. Some states in the U.S. are now using TRS. Here, the system is called a nonpartisan “blanket primary” or “jungle primary.” California and Washington State use it for some elected offices other than presidential primaries. Alaska has instituted it beginning in 2022 with the top four candidates passing from a first-round primary to a second-round general election, which will use ranked choice voting.
As noted, this essay will focus on the single round simple majority system used in the U.S. The distinguishing feature of this system is its effect on political parties. A simple majority system tends to generate and sustain a two-party system. Maurice Duverger first detected this aspect of our electoral system in Political Parties published in 1951. He wrote:
The simple-majority single-ballot system favours the two-party system. Of all the hypotheses that have been defined in this book, this approaches the most nearly perhaps to a true sociological law. An almost complete correlation is observable between the simple-majority single-ballot system and the two-party system: dualist countries use the simple majority vote and simple-majority vote countries are dualist. The exceptions are very rare and can generally be explained as the result of special conditions.
Political scientists now refer to this phenomenon as “Duverger’s Law.” Prior to Duverger, theorists and pundits asserted a wide variety of theories to explain why the U.S. and nations of the British Commonwealth tended toward two-party systems. Some pointed to “the genius of the Anglo-Saxon peoples” or “the temperament of the Latin races.” Spanish diplomat and historian, Salvador de Madariaga, connected the two-party system “with the sporting instincts of the British people, which lead them to view political campaigns as a match between rival teams.” At least this latter theory aptly describes the behavior of parties and politicians operating within a two-party system, and we will return later to the interplay between national identity and majority voting. Otherwise, these theories failed to consider the role electoral systems play in driving the behavior that Duverger described through his empirical research.
In retrospect, the answer seems obvious. Duverger identified a “psychological factor” that explains why simple majority voting produces a two-party system:
In cases where there are three parties operating under the simple majority single ballot system, the electors soon realize that their votes are wasted if they continue to give them to the third party: whence their natural tendency to transfer their vote to the less evil of its two adversaries in order to prevent the success of the greater evil. This ‘polarization’ effect works to the detriment of a new party so long as it is the weakest party but is turned against the less favoured of its older rivals as soon as the new party outstrips it.
This “psychological factor” explains why third parties struggle to compete in a winner-take-all voting system. Great Britain offers one of the best examples. Recall that many European countries adopted proportional voting systems in the early 20th century as liberal parties saw the threat posed by socialist or worker parties. Liberal parties found it hard to sustain efforts at coordinating with these new parties to avoid splitting the vote and handing conservative parties a victory. In response, liberal parties pushed for proportional voting, which allowed them to continue to win seats – even if their number of seats diminished. In contrast, the Liberal Party in Great Britain resisted proportional voting. It tried to convince its voter base to stick with it rather than siding with an ascending Labour Party. That strategy worked for several election cycles, but finally in 1918, the Liberal Party suffered a devastating loss of seats. That proved to be the tipping point. After that election, the Labour Party replaced the Liberal Party in a two-party system. It was too late for the Liberal Party to institute proportional voting. Members of the Labour Party no longer needed or wanted to change the electoral system once it replaced the Liberal Party as the second major party in a two-party system.
The U.S. has seen Duverger’s Law at work throughout the nation’s history. The Progressive Party, Independent Party, Reform Party, Green Party and Libertarian Party, among many others, have taken a run at creating a viable third party. Sometimes these parties gain traction and threaten to challenge one of the two major parties. However, these upstarts inevitably fail for the reason cited by Duverger. Voters ultimately realize that a vote for their preferred third-party candidate will risk handing the election to the party they dread most. Rather than risk such an outcome, voters default to the least objectionable alternative with the greatest chance of winning. This “psychological factor” provides a built-in bias for America’s two-party system.
The only instance a third party replaced one of the two major parties occurred in the 1850s. At that time, the Whig Party and Democratic Party competed for power. The Whig Party arose in the early 1830s when powerful members of the U.S. Senate came together to blunt Andrew Jackson’s aggressive use of executive authority. William Harrison and Zachary Taylor won the presidency as Whigs in 1840 and 1848, respectively. Whigs favored an activist economic agenda, protecting domestic industries with tariffs, spending on infrastructure and establishing a national bank as well as protecting minorities, modernizing industry and promoting meritocracy. They opposed militarist expansion to the west and a strong executive branch. Whigs drew support from urban professionals, social reformers, and planters. They had little support among poor farmers and unskilled workers.
Despite its detailed agenda, the Whig Party struggled to articulate a clear message on slavery. In particular, the Party equivocated on the expansion of slavery to new states, which ultimately led to major losses in the 1852 election. Thereafter, the Whig Party hemorrhaged supporters to two fledgling parties: the Know Nothing Party and the Republican Party. Both of these parties claimed to be the heir to the Whig Party by opposing a powerful executive branch. However, the Know Nothings also raised concerns about mass immigration, while the Republican Party opposed the expansion of slavery to new states. The issue of slavery cost the Republican Party in the South, but the issue proved more salient to voters than immigration. In the 1856 election, Democrat James Buchanan won the presidential election with 45% of the vote while the Republican and Know Nothing Parties split the remaining vote with 33% and 22%, respectively. After the 1856 election, the Republican Party emerged as the second major party in the U.S. as members of the Know Nothing Party realized that by splitting the vote, they were only aiding the Democrats. From that point forward, the U.S. has experienced the unyielding dominance of two major parties, acquiescing to the power of Duverger’s Law.
As described in the last essay, Rousseau set forth a framework for democracy that demands certain attributes of an electoral system in order to reveal the will of the people. That framework includes participation, formation of majorities, shifting coalitions, equality and choice. These attributes or characteristics make for a healthy democracy. By several measures, the American system performs well. The simplicity of the system encourages participation. Voting for one candidate for each office on a ballot is simple to follow. In comparison to other electoral systems, our system is one of the easiest for voters to understand. The fact this system arose prior to most others in place today speaks to its intuitive appeal.
Formation of Majorities
In addition to its simplicity, our system encourages the formation of majorities by facilitating the creation of majority-run governments. This happens almost by definition in a winner-take-all, two-party system. The party that wins the most seats has a majority when there is only one other major party. This aspect of the simple majority system comes close to Rousseau’s vision that the “general will produces law.” Of course, our Founding Fathers put in place protections to prevent a majority government from abusing minority interests. Federalism continues to place substantial authority with the states. The separation of powers creates checks and balance among the various branches of government. One party may control the House while another controls the Senate or the Executive Branch. These safeguards do not betray the logic of a majority voting system – just an acknowledgement of its awesome power to translate the will of the people into law. In this sense, the simple majority system speaks to the principle that elections have consequences.
In addition to the formation of majorities, the American voting system tends to encourage shifting coalitions. This feature is critical to prevent one faction from becoming entrenched to the detriment of other interests. The U.S. has experienced the ascendance of one party over several election cycles. The Democratic and Republican Parties have both enjoyed periods of sustained dominance. The Democratic Party prevailed in the early 19th century. The Republican Party dominated in the latter half of the 19th century. This pattern has repeated in the 20th century. Just in the last 12 years, both the Democratic Party and the Republic Party have controlled the presidency and both chambers of Congress, albeit briefly. It is very difficult for major parties to create a permanent majority because electoral success requires them to forge unstable coalitions comprised of disparate interests. Holding those coalitions together over multiple election cycles is impossible.
Throughout American history, we have seen certain constants: groups motivated by immigration, trade and protectionism, meritocracy, modernization, limited government, etc. While some issues remain constant, the external forces animating those issues change over time. In addition, demographics evolve and voters respond differently to external events. A coalition partner one election cycle may become a mortal enemy several cycles later. Witness the movement of working class voters – a mainstay of the Democratic Party from the 1930s through the 1970s – to the Republican Party in recent decades. Groups that had no political identity such as evangelicals have emerged, through the cultivation of partisans, to become critical voting blocs. The instability our two-party system imposes on majority formation provides a healthy incentive for parties to engage voters and work actively to attract and maintain new supporters. As a result, this system has kept our democracy vibrant.
The simple majority system falls short of Rousseau’s concept of democracy in two important areas: equality and choice. Our system leads to the unequal treatment of voters in a couple of important ways. First, a winner-take-all system can shut the interests of a minority out of government. Any candidate or party that fails to garner a majority of votes has zero representation in government – even if that candidate or party achieves near parity with the winner. This outcome would not be so dire if the principle of shifting coalitions manifested at all levels of government. However, governments at the state and local level can experience dominance by one party for years if not decades. We know from the term “battleground states” how few states fall into this category. For all those states that do not, one party tends to dominate election cycle after election cycle. As a result, supporters of the minority party in these states have no voice in government.
Another aspect where majority systems fall short on equality is the concept of “wasted” votes or votes that exceed the number needed to win an election. Wasted votes in a majority system can dramatically skew the translation of votes into seats won. The most familiar example of this concept is the practice of gerrymandering. This practice allows a party in control of redistricting to manipulate the boundaries of districts to assist that party in winning more seats than that reflected in the votes of an election. For example, after redistricting in 1992, the Democrats in North Carolina received about 50% of the statewide vote but won over 90% of the state senate seats. Likewise, after redistricting in 2012, the Republicans won nearly 70% of the state senate seats while only receiving 50% of the statewide vote. Jonathan Rodden’s Why Cities Lose provides ample data showing how wasted votes systematically rob urban-based parties of seats in state legislatures. The concentration of voters in urban areas means that an urban based party will win a few seats by overwhelming margins while the even distribution of voters in suburban and rural areas allows another party to win many more seats by smaller margins. In sum, wasted votes in majority systems amplify the voice of some voters and dilute the voice of others.
Choice poses another disadvantage for majority systems – the major disadvantage. This is ironic because majority systems seek to provide voters with a decisive choice resulting in a majority government that can enact new laws. In reality, majority voting undermines choice in the following ways: the outcome of an election sometimes does not reflect the choice of a majority of voters, minority candidates are often not presented as a choice, and most significantly, voters choose “strategically” rather than based on preference, which distorts the election outcome and produces negative feedback loops such as polarization. The subtle and not so subtle erosion of choice by the majority system reveals its dark side.
As shown by Duverger’s Law, majority voting produces two-party systems. However, many voters desire alternatives to the choices presented by the major parties. And when a ballot contains more than two choices, it can lead to outcomes inconsistent with a majority of voters’ preferred choice. Nicolas de Condorcet, a French mathematician and philosopher, identified the problem in his Essay on the Application to the Probability of Majority Decisions in 1785. In it, he showed that majority preferences can become intransitive when three or more options are presented. In other words, a majority of voters could prefer candidate A over B, B over C and C over A. This is known as Condorcet’s paradox. He argued that it can only be solved when one candidate wins all pair-wise elections between all candidates in an election, known as Condorcet’s criterion. Of course, there is no mechanism in our voting system for this to occur.
A more common problem occurs when a third-party candidate drains votes from the major party candidates. This happens frequently in presidential elections. Just in the last 40 years, we saw John Anderson get 6.6% of the vote in 1980. Ross Perot received nearly 19% of the vote in 1992. Ralph Nader garnered almost 3% of the vote in the 2000 election. In that election, 537 votes separated the two major party candidates in the State of Florida. Many speculated that Nader’s candidacy cost Vice President Gore the election in Florida and, therefore, the presidency. While it is impossible to know if any of these third-party candidacies affected the outcome, they expose the impact third parties have in a majority system. At a minimum, it can cast a shadow on the legitimacy of the winner.
Condorcet’s criterion has caused political scientists to devise different types of voting systems to ensure the outcome of an election aligns with a majority of voters. The AV system and TRS described above are designed so that voters can express their first preference while preserving the ability to choose a lower ranked choice once multiple candidates are winnowed from the field. Beyond the AV system and TRS, political scientists have devised many more such systems, including the Borda method, to meet the Condorcet criterion. Mathematical modeling shows that all of them can lead to different outcomes. In Liberalism Against Populism, William Ryker remarks on the challenge faced by all variants of the majority system:
Unfortunately, there is no fair way to ensure that there will be exactly two alternatives. Usually the political world offers many options, which, for simple majority decision, must be reduced to two. But usually also the way the reduction occurs determines which two will be decided between. There are many methods to reduce the many to two; but, as has long been obvious to politicians, none of these methods is particularly fair because their different ethical principles cannot be effectively ordered and, worse still, because all methods can be rigged.
What Condorcet identified over two centuries ago holds true today. Majority voting systems have no perfect formula to ensure the winner represents a majority of voters when more than two candidates are running.
Adherents of social choice theory defend majority systems despite the problem of translating individual preferences into social ones. Ryker notes:
Since social decisions are not, in liberal [or Madisonian] theory, required to mean anything, liberals can cheerfully acknowledge that elections do not necessarily or even usually reveal popular will. All elections do or have to do is to permit people to get rid of rulers…. The liberal purpose is then accomplished, even though one could not make a coherent ideological statement about what these voters did and even though their majority might be cyclical.
From this perspective, all that matters is the system allows voters to defeat bad rulers. This may be easier to do in a two-party system. After an election, the losing party can position itself as the loyal opposition, critiquing the majority until the next election occurs. Since the majority party has complete charge of the legislature, it is responsible for the actions it takes. At the next election, it must justify reelection based on its actions. This winner-take-all aspect of majority systems can make it easier to remove bad governments than other systems. This argument has some merit, but we will see later that more serious threats to the viability of democracy exist in today’s environment than merely the removal of bad governments.
Representation by Minorities and Women
The simple majority voting system also tends to diminish the representation by women and minorities in legislative bodies. For this reason, it unnecessarily limits choice. As noted, Duverger’s Law says that simple majority voting produces two-party systems. To compete, the major parties must constantly increase and maintain coalitions of disparate groups. That means nominating candidates perceived as broadly acceptable to those disparate groups. The “most broadly acceptable candidate” syndrome can discourage parties from selecting women and minorities as candidates in two-party systems. Strong evidence described in the Electoral System Design Handbook shows that racial and ethnic minorities fair worse in winner-take-all voting systems as reflected in their numbers in legislatures. Also, studies have found that other voting systems such as proportional ones have twice as many women holding elected office compared to majority systems. By favoring the selection of candidates who appeal to the lowest common denominator (e.g., a male voter who would not vote for a female candidate), the two-party system can exacerbate structural biases. This feature of our system may be one reason a woman has not yet reached our highest office despite the continued advances made by women in many fields. In sum, by disadvantaging certain groups from competing politically, majority systems unduly limit choice.
Lastly, the American electoral system distorts the way voters express their choice in an election. Because of the spoiler effect from third-party candidates, voters intuitively recognize the need to support a candidate with the best chance of winning to avoid “splitting the vote” and handing the election to an offensive alternative. That does not mean that voters must always hold their nose at the polls. Many times, a voter’s preferred candidate is also one of the major candidates. However, Duverger’s Law says the spoiler affect tends to polarize the electorate, placing the focus of campaigns on the negative aspects of the opposition. Campaign consultants like to say, “Everyone hates negative advertising, but negative advertising works!” It works because telling voters why they should hate the alternative enhances the chances they will vote for the least offensive alternative rather than a preferred alternative who could “split the vote.”
Part IV of the essays will look more closely at polarization. For purposes of electoral systems, it is important to note that majority systems fall short on choice for a simple reason: voters lack freedom to express their choice when it is exercised strategically. A choice made based on preference has greater value than a choice based on fear of ticket splitting. Recall the discussion of the collective brain. Democracy taps the power of a population expressing diverse and independent opinions based on decentralized information. An electoral system that forces voters to choose strategically based on the lesser of two evils rather than the independent judgment of the voter diminishes the power of the collective brain. This effect distorts the way governments are formed and hence the priorities a government places on public goods. This means the actions of government do not reflect the will of the people. Therefore, strategic voting encouraged by majority voting compromises a fundamental aspect of Rousseau’s notion of the general will.
The Dark Secret of Majority Voting
Majority voting arose out of a simple, intuitive idea about collective decision making. The candidate with the most votes wins. When enough candidates in a two-party system win an election to form a majority government, this electoral system can produce laws reflective of the will of the people. In this sense, Rousseau would be pleased with a majority system. However, there is a defect buried deep within the single round simple majority system. Structurally, it presumes only two candidates are running for a seat. But elections do not work like that. Voters often desire multiple candidates representing a range of views, and ballots often list more than two options. When more than two candidates appear on the ballot for one seat, the American system falters. Voters must adjust to the ramifications of ticket splitting, which can lead to a repugnant outcome. In response, voters gravitate toward two camps – two major parties most likely to assemble a disparate coalition that can defeat the opposition. This psychological effect identified by Duverger can become a detriment to democracy: in the way it treats voters unequally and in the way it undermines choice. And we will see later that, under certain conditions, it can be fatal to democracy.
Mack Paul is a member of the state advisory board of Common Cause NC and a founding partner of Morningstar Law Group.
Parts in this series: