The American electoral system is by no means the world’s most democratic one. Indeed, our “first-past-the-post” electoral model allows candidates at the state and federal levels to win office without majority support. Since candidates only need to get the most votes (a plurality) to finish “first,” they often “represent” their constituencies against the will of the majority of voters.
In national and state elections, first-past-the-post helps secure the interests of long-established political machines like those of the Republican and Democratic Parties. These parties use their political power and access to vast financial resources to make ballot access difficult for new rivals and, if the latter do manage to field candidates, voters often fear that selecting one of them is tantamount to “wasting” their votes. As a result our two party system effectively limits political choices commonplace in parliamentary systems around the world (e.g. Green, Socialist, Christian Democratic, and Nationalist parties). While such a system may encourage stability, it also stifles and marginalizes new voices.
Few democratic countries find the American model attractive. In Europe, for example, 21 out of 28 countries use some form of proportional representation to ensure that legislative bodies actually reflect the spectrum of political opinion in the society. Tellingly, virtually none of the new democracies in Eastern Europe adopted American electoral practices after the end of the Cold War. While by no means perfect, these countries all offer a wider range of political choices than is true of the United States
Adopting proportional representation on the state and national levels in the United States is a tall order that can only be achieved after a long political struggle against deeply entrenched interests. On the local level, however, where a variety of electoral approaches are used, matters are more open to change. In Salem, for example, we require candidates for City Council seats to win at least 50 percent of the vote plus one before claiming victory. Failure of any candidate to achieve that threshold in the May primary elections triggers a run-off election between the top two candidates in the fall. The advantage of this method is that the winners can claim legitimacy based on the will of the majority. The disadvantage is that campaigning is prolonged by six months forcing candidates to expend enormous amounts of money, time, and energy to compete for what are volunteer jobs. Such a prospect is daunting, even if one has the resources to give it a try.
One way to improve matters in Salem would be to introduce Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). Sometimes called “preference” or “choice” voting, IRV is used in a variety of places including San Francisco, Portland, Maine, and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Under IRV voters rank candidates for a single seat in preferential order. If no candidate is the first choice of 50 percent of the voters, then the candidate with the least number of first choice votes drops out of the running and his ballots are awarded to the remaining candidates in accordance with their preferences. This process repeats itself until one candidate has a majority.
In the short term, IRV would guarantee majority representation while allowing a greater range of voter choice. It would limit the campaign season (preferably to the more high turnout fall elections) and save money and time for all concerned. Long-term it would remind voters that electoral systems are not fixed in stone but can be changed for the better.
Salem Weekly editorial board members:
Russ Beaton, Jim Scheppke, William Smaldone,
Naseem Rakha, A.P. Walther.