What are Voting Systems and Why are They Important?
Douglas J. Amy
Mount Holyoke College
If you are new to the issue of voting system reform, you may be wondering what exactly voting systems are and why they are so important. The first question is the easiest to answer. A voting system is the set of procedures that determine how people are elected to office. These procedures include how the ballot is structured, how people cast their votes, how those votes are counted, and how the winners are decided. Or as political scientists often put it: voting systems are the means by which votes are translated into seats in the legislature. (Political scientists also often refer to voting systems as "electoral systems" a term you will see in various articles on this site. But I think "voting system" is a simpler and clearer term, and I will use it most of the time in my writings on this subject.)
Two Basic Kinds of Voting Systems
As an illustration, letís do a quick overview of two of the most common voting systems in Western democracies. The most prevalent system for legislative elections in the United States is the winner-take-all system--or in more formal parlance, the "single-member district plurality system." That rather technical phrase captures the two basic attributes of this system. First, votes are cast in single-member districts--districts in which only one member of the legislature is elected. All the candidates are on the ballot and we cast a vote for only one of them. Second, the winner is determined by who receives the most votes--the plurality of the vote. This voting system has become so familiar to people in the United States that we hardly ever stop to think about it. You may even assume that this is just how democratic elections work.
But of course there are many different kinds of democratic voting systems. The main rival to the single-member plurality system is called "proportional representation"--the system used by most European democracies. There are many different forms of proportional representation, or "PR." (For a more detailed description of the types of PR and of other voting systems, see Types of Voting Systems.) They use different ballots and different ways of counting votes. But all PR systems do have two things in common--two ways they differ from our plurality voting system. First, proportional representation voting systems elect people in multimember districts. Instead of one member of the legislature being elected in a small district, PR uses much larger districts where five, ten, or more members are elected. So instead of only one winner, there are multiple winners of office in each district. The second difference is that these multiple seats are distributed according to the proportion of the vote won by particular parties or political groups. For example, if we had a ten-member PR district in which the Democratic candidates won 50% of the vote, they would receive five of those ten seats. With 30% of the vote, the Republicans would win three seats, and if a third party like the Reform party or the Libertarian party won 20% of the vote, it would get the remaining two seats. You can see even in this very brief description that the way votes are translated into seats in PR systems is very different than in our plurality system.
Why Are Voting Systems Important?
The most obvious reason that voting systems are important is that they determine who is elected, which voters are represented, and ultimately who runs our local, state, and federal legislatures. Who is elected directly affects what kinds of policies are passed and who benefits or suffers from those policies. Since it matters greatly who wins elections, voting systems matter as well, because different methods of voting can produce different winners. For example, in winner-take all voting systems, only the candidate supported by the majority or plurality of voters in the district wins office. However, in PR systems, many different candidates and parties win office from a district, and so many more voters win representation.
Or consider the issue of which political party controls the legislature -- another area where the voting system can have a large impact. In single-member district plurality voting systems, it is possible that the party that wins the majority of seats in the legislature may not have won a majority of the vote. In fact, it is not unheard of in this system for a party that comes in second place in the polls to win the majority of seats in the legislature. In contrast, in proportional representation voting, it is much more likely that the party or parties that have a majority of seats in the legislature also received the support of the majority of the voters. Also, plurality voting systems tend to produce legislatures with a single-party majority, while PR systems tend to often result in a coalition of parties forming the ruling majority, and this can change considerably the politics in these institutions.
These are some of the obvious political impacts of voting systems, but there are some less obvious ones as well. Political scientists studying these systems have identified a wide range of political areas in which the choice of voting system has a large impact. Many of those impacts are discussed in greater detail in "What is Proportional Representation and Why Do We Need this Reform?" I will just briefly list some of them below.
Voting systems, then, can have a variety of important political impacts. So while at first glance, the study of these voting procedures might seem to be a pretty dull exercise, it quickly becomes clear that these rules can have some very significant and wide-ranging political implications -- like a crime novel in which a detective takes on what appears to be a simple burglary only to see it quickly develop into a more elaborate case of blackmail and murder. Once you begin to investigate voting rules and to follow the trail of political effects emanating from them, you soon start to uncover some provocative links between voting procedures and a number of serious issues surrounding American elections.
In fact, political analysts have now begun to draw connections between our current voting system and number of persistent problems with American elections. Traditionally we have placed the blame for many of our elections problems -- poor turnout, dull campaigns, alienated voters, etc. -- on individual politicians or particular parties. But the source of many of our election problems may go much deeper. These may be systemic problems--located in the very system we use to vote for and elect candidates to office. One political commentator, Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker magazine has made this very point:
A lot of the political pathologies we worry about in this country--things like low voter turnout, popular alienation from politics, hatred of politicians and politics per se, the undue influence of special interests, the prevalence of negative campaigning and so on--are not caused by the usual suspects. They are not caused by the low moral character of our politicians. They are not caused by the selfishness of the electorate. They are not caused by the peculiarities of the American national character and the American political culture. They are not caused by television. They are not caused by money (although money certainly makes them worse). Instead, they are artifacts of a particular political technology. They are caused by our single-member district, geographically-based, plurality winner-take-all system of representation.
For all of these reasons then, we in the United States can no longer afford to ignore the issue of voting systems. It is time that we begin to look more skeptically at our current voting system, begin to consider more seriously alternative voting systems, and begin to get more involved in voting system reform.
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