Should the U.S. adopt alternative, pro-multipartisan voting systems?


Our existing election laws were written, and practically all of our state constitutions drawn up, by Democrats and Republicans. They are designed to freeze out third-party competition. In some respects, as with ballot-access laws that require third-party candidates to gather petition signatures to get on the ballot while the major-party nominees get placed automatically, this intention is plain and obvious. In other respects, the two-party tendency of the system is not so obvious until you look closely.

I say this is a Bad Thing. That is not based on any assessment of the characters of the two parties we’ve got now. It would not improve matters significantly if the Reform Party were simply to replace the Democrats or the Republicans the way the Republicans replaced the Whigs, leaving us with a new two-party system. I say a TWO-PARTY SYSTEM is a Bad Thing, or at least not as Good a Thing a MULTIPARTY SYSTEM. The truth is there are MORE than two sides to any important question, and we don’t really have an effective democracy unless all sides have a fair chance to get a fair hearing in the public forum. In our present system, everything gets simplified to the least common denominator, and all political argument is pitched to the tiny minority of “swing voters” in the middle, who are the only people whose votes really count, in that they are the ones whose votes can make an election go one way or another.

There are three major reforms we can adopt to pave the way for a multiparty political system in America. In order of increasingly radical effect, they are ballot fusion, instant-runoff voting, and proportional representation.


In “fusion” or “cross-endorsement,” one candidate can run as the nominee of more than one party, making it possible for several small parties to pool their strength. The candidate might get a line on the ballot for each party nomination, or might get just one ballot line with several parties’ names after the candidate’s name.

If the candidate is also a major-party candidate, that gives the minor parties who endorsed him/her continued influence after the election – e.g., an acceptably progressive Democrat, who got into Congress because the local Greens also endorsed him/her and tipped the balance, knows he/she had better please the Greens while in office, at least a little, for the sake of re-election. In some situations, several minor parties might form a coalition and elect a non-major-party candidate.

Fusion is legal in New York, Vermont, Connecticut, South Carolina, Mississippi, Arkansas, South Dakota, Utah and Idaho. In all other U.S. states, fusion is illegal or effectively banned.

The New Party, a non-socialist left-progressive party founded in 1992, made fusion the core of its strategy. It was effective, but only at the local and state levels and only in states where fusion was legal or possible. The New Party brought a First-Amendment-based court challenge to Minessota’s ban on fusion; it went up to the U.S. Supreme Court – I can’t find the cite, but I think the case was styled “Timmons v. Twin Cities New Party.” The New Party lost. You can read the details in Micah Sifry’s recent book, “Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America.”

After the Timmons case, the New Party became more or less inactive on the nationl level, though New-Party-spawned local organizations still exist at the state level – most notably the Working Families Party in New York. There are also NP groups active in Arkansas, Illinois, Massachusetts, Montana, Oregon, and Wisconsin. The New Party, as a national organization, still maintains a nominal existence, and a website at (which has not been updated in a long time), but most of its leaders’ energies have gone into a new organization, the New Majority Education Fund – – which is a single-issue organization, dedicated to spreading the word about fusion.

In any American partisan election where more than two candidates are running, a third-party supporter faces a dilemma: Hold your nose and vote for “the lesser of two evils”; or vote your conscience and split the opposition, increasing the chances of victory for the candidate you like the LEAST. Nader supporters faced this dilemma in 2000, Perot voters in 1992 and 1996.

Instant runoff voting eliminates this dilemma. It works like this: If more than two candidates are running for a particular office, you, the voter, instead of picking just one, get to rank-order them by preference, e.g.

1st choice: Ralph Nader (Green)
2nd choice: Al Gore (Democrat)
3rd choice: Harry Browne (Libertarian)
4th choice: George Bush (Republican)
5th choice: Pat Buchanan (Reform)

(That’s how I would have ordered my choices, anyway.) If your first-choice candidate does not get a majority, your second-choice vote still counts toward electing your second-choice candidate, and so on. This eliminates the “opposition-splitting” problem. Nader could have run without taking votes away from Gore; in fact he would have provided more votes for Gore by increasing voter turnout. At the same time, Nader supporters, even if they couldn’t elect their candidate, would have had the chance to make a very visible and effective protest vote – just look at all those “Gore” voters who really preferred Nader! That’s something President Gore could not ignore in making policy decisions. IRV also substitutes for, and eliminates any need for, a costly runoff election between the top two finishers (hence the name, “instant runoff”).

San Francisco recently adopted IRV for its municipal elections, the Vermont town meetings recently endorsed adoption of IRV for state elections, and the following organizations are working to publicize and promote IRV:

The Center for Voting and Democracy –

California Instant Runoff Voting Coalition –

Coalition for Instant Runoff Voting in Washington –

Fairvote Utah –

Fair Vote Massachusetts –


Reform America Inc. –

The Independent Progressive Politics Network –

Instant Runoff .Com –

Massachusetts Voting Reform –

Fusion and IRV are designed for “single-seat” elections, where there’s just one office to be filled and several candidates competing to fill it. This is the best we can do when the office is an executive one, such as president, governor or mayor. Whoever is elected, even if elected as a candidate of several parties, necessarily represents just one point on the political spectrum or compass, one set of views and values.

When we elect a multi-member policymaking body, on the other hand, we (potentially) have the luxury of making it much more representative of the whole people and the whole range of views among them.

Suppose you’re a Reform Party supporter. Suppose, in your state’s next round of legislative elections, a whopping 20% of voters in your state vote Reform. How many Reform members get seats in the legislature? NONE! Because even with that level of support, there will not be enough Reform voters in ANY ONE DISTRICT to elect a single candidate! That’s what is called the “single-member-district,” “winner-take-all”, or “first-past-the-post” system. We inherited it, more or less, from the British in the 18th Century. At the time, it was state of the art, but since then, a better system has been invented: Proportional representation.

Proportional Representation comes in many forms and mechanisms. All are designed with the same goal: In such a situation, if the Reformers get 20% of the votes, they should get (roughly) 20% of the seats.

MOST OF THE WORLD’S DEMOCRACIES USE PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION, in one form or another. The only ones that don’t are France, Britain, and most of Britain’s former colonies, including the U.S. New Zealand, however, switched over to PR a couple of years ago, and Australia is seriously looking at it. South Africa adopted a PR system when Apartheid was abolished. That was a necessary political compromise: A single-member-district system, combined with universal suffrage, would have left the white parties with no seats in Parliament at all; under the PR system, they at least have a minority bloc.

Most of the countries that use PR have done well by it. Israel and Italy change their governments with alarming regularity but I think that says more about their political cultures than their electoral systems. Furthermore, their instability comes from combining PR with a parliamentary system, where the majority in parliament, or a coalition of minority parties, have to “form a government.” In the U.S. this would not be a problem because we use the separation-of-powers system at both the state and federal levels: The chief executive, the governor or president, is elected independently of the legislature, has an independent mandate, and “forms a government,” that is, a cabinet, on his or her own authority, with varying degrees of legislative advice-and-consent, depending on the state.

I do not think PR would lead to political instability in America. Quite the contrary. Instability is what we’ve got now, when a minor fluctuation in the public mood among the “swing voters” can throw Congress to one party or another. The famous “Republican Revolution” of 1994 resulted from an aggregate, nationwide Republican Congressional vote that exceeded the Democratic vote by less than one-half of one percent. What is more, if the nationwide Democratic vote had exceeded the Republican by the same margin, that still could have produced a total Republican victory, depending on how the votes were distributed among the various districts and states. This makes elections, and the resulting public-policy environments, hard to predict and hard to plan for.

Under PR, on the other hand . . .

The winner-take-all system forces very different groups and viewpoints to huddle under the “big tent” of a single major party, if they want to have any hope of success at all. This produces a system where the parties are ideologically incoherent, party labels are not very useful guides for the busy voter, and, in any given race, the Democrat might easily be more conservative than the Republican. I’m sorry, but a party that includes both Jesse Jackson and Al Gore makes no sense. Neither does a party that includes both Jesse Helms and John McCain.

If we adopted PR, conditions would change. There would be a period of instability as the two major parties split up along their natural fault lines, into smaller, more homogeneous and coherent parties. The Republican Party likely would break up into a Christian social-conservative party, a purely pro-business party, and an enlarged Libertarian Party (not the same thing – Libertarians are pro-MARKET, not pro-business, and would never endorse “corporate welfare”). The Democratic Party would break up into a centrist party, socially conservative but economically populist; an enlarged Green Party; and perhaps a new democratic-socialist or social-democratic party. There might also be a Buchananite populist-nationalist-isolationist party (he’s already started one – the America First Party), and a sort of populist-libertarian grouping along the lines of Jesse Ventura’s new Independence Party. (I do not allow for a revival of the original Reform Party, which is effectively dead and never had a coherent ideology in the first place, as evidenced by the radically different parties its breakup produced.) There might, just might, be a white supremacist party – a distasteful prospect, but it might be useful as a safety valve. Maybe if Timothy McVeigh had been able to look to Congress and see David Duke, or somebody like him, drawing a government salary to spout racial hatred in the public square, then he might not have felt so frustrated he had to turn to terrorism and murder as means of political expression. By the same token, Louis Farrakhan might lead the formation of the black nationalist party – again, useful only as a safety valve.

There would be a period of instability and reorganization, but after a few election cycles, everything would settle down and STAY SETTLED. Each party would have reached total saturation of its target-market, each and every potential Libertarian would have become a regular voting Libertarian, etc. From that point on, there would be no more electoral revolutions. The change in any party’s vote share would be slow and incremental – gain 2% more in this election, 3% more two years later. Drastic realignments would happen only on a generational time-scale.

As far as business (and everybody else) is concerned, this would be a salubrious state of affairs because it would be easy to plan for. The results of any election would be known pretty well in advance.

As for the effects on public policymaking: A lot of different kinds of politicians would get to say their say on any question – not just in floor debates and floor votes, but in all committee meetings, which is where most of the important legislative work gets done. Many of those would be people you consider nuts. On the other hand, NOTHING WOULD ACTUALLY GET DONE unless it were worked out as a compromise between several very different political camps. Therefore, the merits of any measure would have to be pretty clear and demonstrable before it were adopted. This is not a dangerous scenario.

The most important PR organization in the United States right now is the Center for Voting and Democracy, Their website has a library of materials that explain PR in far greater detail, including all the various mechanisms that can be used to achieve it, and the curiously forgotten history of PR in state and municipal elections in 20th-Century America. You might also check out:

Californians for Electoral Reform –

Illinois Citizens for Proportional Representation –

Midwest Democracy Center –

FairVote Minnesota –

Washington Citizens for Proportional Representation –

Fair Vote Canada –

Electoral Reform Society (UK) –
[The UK already uses PR for elections to the European Parliament, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Regional Assembly. Tony Blair got elected on a promise to hold a referendum on switching to PR for elections to the national Parliament at Westminster. No sign of it yet.]

PR Society of Australia –
So what do you think?

IRV: Yes. These makes a lot of sense in light of the past three elections, plus has the potential to increase voter run-offs.

BALLOT FUSION: Not sure about this. I guess I don’t really understand how it would work for Federal elections.

PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION: I guess I don’t understand how this works either. How do you know which candidates your actually voting for? Does the party present a list with a ranking or something, and the top people on the list get would get a seat before the others?

Something else:

We definitely need to get rid of the electoral college. It’s unfair (because it violates the one-man/one-vote principle). If we switched to IRV, it’s not necessary in any case.

Erp. I mean voter turn-out, not voter run-offs.

I generally like the two party system. And I like the big tent system. And I like that some Democrats are more conservative than some Republicans. In essence, we have a multiparty system. You see Democrats break ranks and vote with Republicans, or Republicans and Democrats getting together to sponsor a bill that would make the Green party or the Libertarian party happy just because that’s how they feel.

I don’t see the harm in fusion - if more than one party wants to put the same guy on their nomination, go for it. But why can’t they just do this informally, with the several parties deciding which party is going to send a representative on the ballot and then telling their party members to vote for that guy?

Instant Runoff is stupid. You vote for who you vote for, none of this going down a list crap.

I don’t like proportional representation, either. The nice thing about having single seat representation is that that person is your representative. They know your community, they know what that group of people wants. If you are having a problem, you can go to your representative who WILL do everything they legally can to help you out. Much better than some impersonal party clone.

Anyway, the system isn’t broken so don’t mess with it.

Nice argument.

In March 2000, both major party nominations were already decided–before over half of the country had an opportunity to vote in their primary. John McCain, when he dropped out of the race that March, was leading in the polls. Not broken my patootie.

Well, I’m originally from New York, a state with cross-endorsement, and don’t have a problem with it, because it gets them on the ballot at least (unless it backfires on them, like it did with the Liberals in New York this year).

More generally, though, the two party system does limit diversity of thought, but that’s not neccesarily a bad thing. The way it is now, both major parties try to be majority, “big tent” parties, so neither can adopt a position that would offend enough people to cause it to lose its majority.

Having a lot of parties can also set you up with a situation like this…

Lets say you have 3 parties who have to divide up seats in a 100 person legislature, by proportional representation. Parties A and B are large, diverse, multi-issue parties, while Party C is a single issue party. So, in the elections, the results go:

Party A gets 47 seats, Party B gets 47 seats, and Party C gets 6 seats. In this situation, which is the most important of the three parties? Party C, because neither Party A or B can form a majority without Party C’s support. It doesn’t matter that only 6% of the population backed Party C, or even (maybe) that only 6% of the population supports the issue that Party C supports…that issue has now become the most important matter for the government, because whichever side can win over Party C controls the government.

The argument matches the suggestion.

Oh please. Cite? Leading in the polls over who? And among who? What polls?

Bush won California, New York, Ohio, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, and South Carolina. By the time McCain dropped out, Bush had already won 617 of the possible 1,034 Republican delegates.

The system isn’t broken, just because the candidate you liked didn’t win. McCain couldn’t get much support from Republicans, so why should he be the Republican nominee? If he was so ahead in the polls, why didn’t he run for president independently?

Crap. Can someone fix that code?

Seems like the folks whining for proportional representation are always the ones on the losing end. Sounds like a way of rigging the system. Americans like to see winners and losers. Sorry, it’s just part of our “natonal character”. Whatever you might think about “alternative voting systems”, it’s not going to happen. Fun to debate, but just not going to happen. Keep in mind that even a small change (electoral college) has to get a constitutional ammendment passed and we all know how difficult that is (as well it should be).

I’d be in favor of eliminating the electoral college before I’d go to a system of proportional representation. The EC seems so unnecessary and outmoded.

It would be interesting to see what would happen under a system of proportional representation. I’m not crazy about the current two-party system myself. But, as John Mace points out, the political Powers That Be are happy with the status quo, so I’m not expecting any changes within my lifetime.

Proportional voting is not necessarily a very simple way to run an election; indeed, it is quite subtle. However, it sacrifices simplicity in favor of fairness, efficiency, and diversity. Its fairness—to the individual voter, to each group of voters, and to the candidate—far outweighs its subtlety.

Proportional voting implicates important choices of policy and principle. It is easy to miss the forest for the trees by focusing too narrowly on the mechanics of proportional voting, rather than on these choices. The principle behind proportional voting is that representatives ought to reflect the makeup of the whole electorate rather than the view only of a majority. The representative body ought to represent a pluralistic census of opinions, not a consensus of opinion. A more diverse, pluralistic representative body results.

Proportional voting is a form of preferential voting. Each voter ranks the candidates in order of preference. A key concept in proportional voting is the “threshold” needed for election. The threshold is 1/(n+1), where “n” is the number of representatives being elected. (This concept is already familiar as the basis for the simple majority needed for election in a single-representative election: if the number of representatives being elected is one, the threshold is 1/(1+1), or 1/2.) Any candidate who reaches the threshold is elected. In a multi-representative election, proportional voting gives a representative to any minority that can reach the threshold, rather than let the majority (or even a mere plurality) control all the representatives and exclude every minority candidate.

A simple analogy describes proportional voting: Think of each candidate as carrying a “bucket” to catch votes. The threshold is one full bucket. If a candidate’s first-choice votes fill the bucket, he or she is elected. If nobody has a full bucket, the emptiest bucket is eliminated, and its contents are poured among the other buckets according to the next choice on each ballot. (This transferability of votes preserves each vote as long as at least one candidate ranked by the voter is still in the running. It also conserves the strength of any voting group, since each vote will migrate to whichever candidate the rest of the electorate most prefers. Without this step, too many candidates who appeal to the same group can split their support into fragments too small to elect any of them.) This process continues until one bucket fills.

If the fullest bucket overflows, the overflow is poured among the other buckets. For example, if a bucket overflows by one-third, then only two-thirds of each vote in the bucket was needed to exactly fill it up. The remaining one-third of each vote is poured into the bucket of the next choice on that ballot. (This step conserves the full strength of the vote, so that there is no incentive for strategic misrepresentation. Without this step, the voter may be tempted to rank a less-preferred but shaky candidate over a more-preferred but safe one.) This process is repeated until all the remaining buckets are full, or the number of buckets left equals the number of spots to be filled.

Captain Amazing, bear in mind that the tail-wagging-the-dog scenario you describe – one minor party exploiting a “swing” position between two major ones – isn’t what we’re likely to get in a U.S. multiparty system. In the UK, yes – one reason, I think, that Blair is hesitant to keep his promise to hold a PR referendum is that he knows if it is implemented, there would never again be a majority party in Parliament, and the third-largest party in it would be Britain’s centrist third party, the Liberal Democrats. Under the British parliamentary system, this would put the LD’s in a position to call the shots by going into government-forming coalition with Labour or the Tories as they see fit. But in the U.S., we don’t need to “form a government” in the legislature, as I’ve already pointed out. Furthermore, we wouldn’t simply see the emergence of a new centrist party analogous to the LD’s. Our major parties are too center-seeking as it is. I would expect emergence of several new parties on the fringes – far right, far left, and hard-to-classify. The new radical parties in Congress, being from all sides, would more or less balance each other out, while playing a useful watchdog role on the centrist parties, which still would be the largest.

Neurotik, you point out that under a single-member-district system, you always have a representative who is your representative, whether you voted for him or her or not. Quite true. However, it’s possible to preserve this relationship under a PR system. There are several forms of PR systems. The purest form, used in Israel, is “party list”: Each party puts forth a list of parliamentary candidates, most popular on top; you don’t vote for a candidate, you vote for a party; the seats the party wins are filled from the top of the list down. But there’s also the “multi-member district” system: Take, say, ten congressional districts and merge them into one big district with a ten-seat delegation; allocate the seats by a PR vote; then you would be represented by a delegation of, say, three business-republicans, three labor-populist-democrats, one America First isolationist-nationalist, one Christian conservative, one green, one libertarian, one socialist. Each of them is equally responsible for your problems as a constituent; and there’s bound to be at least one or two in the delegation whom you feel comfortable talking to, who really represents YOUR political views.

Well, no, under the American system, the parties don’t need to “form a government”, but the legislature does need a majority to get bills passed. And I wasn’t thinking of Britian when I gave my example…the Torys, Lib Dems and Labour are all pretty broad parties, but Israel, where the religious parties are able to get their policies passed, even though the policies are distinctly minority ones, and opposed by most of the population, just because they have the swing votes.

American politics tend to be highly polarized, and alternative systems break down under polarized issues.

(e.g., you really don’t have a “third choice” in the abortion debate: yer fer it or yer agin it.)

A strong opposition party has the power to hold the majority party to account, and limit what they can get away with.

With three major parties, it would be too easy for them to pair up on various coalitions and make deals with one another, such that, on any particular issue, a majority of the people would be unhappy with the result!

Kenneth Arrow won the Nobel Prize in economics for his mathematical proof that no election system (or market system) can ever be perfect. They are all susceptible to flaws. However, some systems break down more readily under a highly polarized situation: the two-party-system is the best suited for highly polarized issues.


It sure can, but it’s rarely that big of a problem.

I’m from Denmark, 8 mainland Danish parties in Parliament, plus 2 MPs from Greenland and one from the Faeroe Islands, plus 2 MPs who dropped their party affiliation while in Parliament. Danes know a thing or two about shifting voting blocks.

Generally speaking, if Party C’s issue is so unreasonable that only 6% of the voters will back it at all, Party A & B will meet, hammer out a compromise, tell their MPs to “vote their conscience”, and Party C’s voters will have wasted their vote. So Party C can’t dictate something completely outlandish, or they’ll be sidelined.

Remember also that Party C’s issue might be reasonable enough, but just not a huge priority for most voters. The 6% of the voters (after all, a pretty sizable minority) who feel strongly enough about Party C’s issue to make it a priority actually do get a voice in Parliament, where a two-party system would tend to drown them out.

Finally, it’ll most often be more than 3 blocks. With 7 or 8 blocks adding and subtracting their votes, it’s pretty rare to have one group able to dictate terms. Compromising becomes essential: “I’ll give you X millions for public transportation to show your environmentally-minded voters, if you give me these tougher laws on drug abuse for me to show my law-and-order crowd”.

That being said, there have been situations where small groups carried an unreasonably large weight in Parliament. I do recall a State Budget whose majority was based on the one MP from the Faeroe Islands, and guess what islands all of a sudden saw an influx of public means ? :mad:

I would favor Electoral College (obviously this is only effective for presidential elecvtions) reform more than a complete change in the manner of voting. Set up a system (like that of Maine and Nebraska I think) whereby the overall winner of the popular vote in the State gets the two “senate” electoral college votes from the state and the other votes are divied up based on the winner of the popular vote in each particular district. This has the effect of making the votes of those outside of the big population centers of a particular state count more evenly.
To advance the cause of “third parties” in congressional and other races, I would eliminate the possibility of “straight party ballots.” This reduces the temptation to vote blindly for one party, and could have the effect of making candidates of third parties more attractive options. As these parties win more and more elections on the lower rung, they will become more viable for Presidential elections.
Finally, while it is undeniable that writing the rules for elections certainly is an advantage to the major parties, it is only part of the story. Just as important (if not more so) is that the two major parties run their campains directed specifically at these rules, rather than running to make a point or advance a cause. One obvious exception to this (with the predictable results) is the manner Barry Goldwater ran his campain after Kennedy was assassinated and he knew he couldn’t win.

I beg your pardon, Trinopus. Abortion is a perfect example of an issue that seems to present a clear either-or choice but really doesn’t. I’m fairly certain that most Americans don’t have a cut-and-dried “pro-choice” or “pro-life” opinion on the subject; they have a position somewhere in the middle that is defined by the terms on which they want abortion to be available or unavailable, under what circumstances, through what month, etc. And that’s not counting the substantial plurality who want a clinic to be there in case their teenage daughter gets pregnant but, otherwise, just wish desperately the whole thing would go away. Under a PR system the whole range of opinion here, including the get-it-off-the-table-already people, would have their fair share of representation in Congress.

You also wrote, “With three major parties, it would be too easy for them to pair up on various coalitions and make deals with one another, such that, on any particular issue, a majority of the people would be unhappy with the result!” Huh? What you’re describing is just what would make the majority of the people HAPPY with the result, each and every time! Everything that got enacted would be backed by a coalition of parties representing a majority of the people! What’s wrong with that?

How would proportional representation work on the national level? I could see it working with representatives, but not with senators, since each state only gets 2.Thus we’d still have a bipartisan senate(and it would be split down the middle too!).

What brian melendez was describing sounds like a mix of PR & IRV. Simple party-based PR need not require voters to list multiple choices. There’d be a standard percentage threshold for a party to get a seat, & a list of the party’s candidates, as described by BrainGlutton.

To Trinopus, I say: American politics is polarized because of the system, not the other way around. Think about it.

Fusion is a good idea, and should be legal everywhere, but it’s hard to sell as necessary reform in much of the US, with little history of relevant third parties.
IRV–heck, just the principle of runoff!–would be a popular electoral reform in much of the US–except among those political-science types who don’t really believe in democracy, & just want a rubber-stamp for the anointed monarch, etc.

Oh, and in case it’s not clear, I seriously favor a multi-party system, but it’s hard to sell to Americans who believe the lies their high-school civics teachers told them.

(Like, “We’d have a parliamentary system, and turn into Italy!” when I’m just talking about reforming the legislative branch.)