Voting systems, democracy and the 2-party system

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:11 am

I know, this is skirting the edges of my ‘election-free zone’ pledge. I think I’ve been very well-behaved in ignoring the US election, even though I’m very interested in it, so I’m going to indulge myself a bit… And this is not at all about who you should vote for, or either of the candidates.

The voting system in Australia is preferential. That is, rather than just choose a particular candidate, voters rank candidates in order from highest preference to lowest. (Like Canada, and unlike the US, in Australia the vote is for the local member of parliament, and the party with the greatest number of seats forms the government, and that party’s leader becomes the Prime Minister. This is because Australia and Canada are constitutional monarchies, with the Queen of England as their nominal head of state. In the US the president is the head of state, and is directly elected.)

The US presidential ballot is based on a slightly complex system where voters in each state vote directly for president, but they don’t elect the president, they are represented by members of the electoral college on a state-by-state basis, and the electoral college then elects the president. Different states have different numbers of electoral college votes. The members of the electoral college are really only morally bound to follow the wishes of the voters, and actually can vote the other way if they wish. Anyway, this is too much detail for the broad point I want to make here.

Because of the way the US system works, with these kind of direct votes, the result is due to a simple count of the raw number of votes for each presidential candidate in a state. The small party candidates (Badnarik of the Libertarian party, Nader of the Reform Party) only get to have electoral college votes if they win a state outright. This never happens.

What that means is that, in the US, a vote for a small party is essentially a wasted vote, in terms of effecting the outcome. It might ‘send a message’, but it really disenfranchises anyone who chooses to vote for a small party. In turn, this reduces the vote for small parties, and marginalises them.

In Australia, you can vote for your most preferred candidate, then rank another one second, and so on. If your number 1 candidate doesn’t ‘make the cut’, your vote is then transferred to your number 2 choice, and so on until a winner is found. It sounds complicated, but it’s really not:

Bush 5
Kerry 3
Badnarik 1
Nader 4
John Doe 2

If Badnarik has too few votes to be a contender, this vote then goes to Doe. If he has too few, it goes to Kerry, and so on.

What this means is that a vote for a minor party is not wasted: at the very recent Australian election the Green Party polled about 10% of the vote. The Australian Democrats (not like the US Democrats in much except name) used to poll at those levels, but they got into bed with the government and were punished at the polling booth.

The US system is very well designed to perpetuate the 2-party system and limit alternatives. If that’s what you want, blessings to you – if not, what are you gonna do about it?

8 responses to “Voting systems, democracy and the 2-party system”

  1. TwizeeK says:


  2. Chaos Cobbler says:

    I vote for passing a bill that will do away with teh electoral college. Current technology would allow us to count every vote that is cast, tabulate it, and then use that to declare the winner.

    the votes are already counted, the results are already made public… so why is the outdated electoral college still around?

    I say we get rid of them.

  3. Marshdrifter says:

    The electoral college offers rural communities some form of representation during a presidential election. If not for the EC, the candidates would only have to focus on the 20 or so largest communities and leave the rest in the dust.

    Not that the electoral college process is perfect, it’s far from it, and I’d favor some important changes.

    1) Remove the actual college. Too many people, we can just divide the votes up as appropriate, thank you.

    2) Don’t give a whole state to the winner. The election should be broken down so you gain the same percentage of the state that you had in votes.

    Combine those two changes with instant runoff voting and I’d say we’d have a reasonably good election system.

  4. Bravus says:

    Yeah, I think those are very sensible suggestions: giving the whole state to the winner basically again means only the urban population really counts, doesn’t it? Some kind of proportional assignment of electoral college members makes sense. I wonder, though, if you’d then have the potential for a constitutional crisis where the big parties were deadlocked in numbers and the smaller parties wouldn’t agree to align with one of them to create a result?

  5. Marshdrifter says:

    Well, with the two parties we’re currently using, there’s already a mechanism in place (assuming it gets used correctly) to deal with numerical deadlocks. I don’t see why smaller parties would have to align themselves, unless they want to. Perhaps this is ignorance on the part of someone from a country with only two viable parties.

  6. Anthony says:

    Your quote

    “… giving the whole state to the winner basically again means only the urban population really counts, doesn’t it?”

    This is not necessarily true. Remember that not all people in urban centers always vote for just one party or candidate. The choices are varied within such an urban district, and combined rural small cities can outvote a section of urban vote. This does happen, and is possible.

  7. Marshdrifter says:

    Not all issues can be divided between urban and rural lines, but there certainly are some (issues of sprawl, farming subsidies, &c.). These are the votes where the opinion of the underpopulated rural areas are important, and possibly more informed than that of the urban dwellers.

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