Is a Fairer US Electoral System Possible?
16 March 2017
It is surprising when the victors of elections question the legitimacy of the process that brought them to power. Donald Trump, however, having won the Presidency through securing a majority of the Electoral College vote in the 2016 US Presidential race, has tried to explain away his 2.9 million popular vote loss to Hillary Clinton in terms of three to five million fraudulent votes being cast (see Table 1). In 2000, George W. Bush also lost the popular vote to Al Gore, while still winning the Electoral College vote and hence the Presidency. In a poll conducted soon after Bush’s election, four-fifths of Democrats regarded the election result illegitimate, though only 12 per cent of Republicans held this view.
Table 1. Electoral College and Popular Vote Margins for First Term elections of US Presidents since 1952
Orderly democracies, however, must accept the outcome of an agreed upon electoral process or risk anarchy. In addition, changes to electoral processes must be not be biased in favour of the individuals and political parties involved if considerations of representation, fairness, and justice are to remain paramount. We address the latter issues here, not with old paradigms and old tools, but with new knowledge and new capabilities. These approaches include improved technologies for neutral redistricting of state and federal districts, verifying results, and ensuring cyber security.
The strength of the US polity is arguably derived from the complex interplay of power at local, regional and national levels, as well as the separation of executive, judicial, and legislative powers at each of these levels. Most members of this polity either readily or grudgingly accept certain forms of inequity, if doing so is perceived to facilitate the greater good of power sharing by different components of the polity. A case in point is the two-senators-per-state principle, irrespective of state population disparities. Representational inequities that pervert agreed upon principles of fairness and justice, however, lead to dissatisfaction and promote dysfunction. For example, a measure of recent American voter dissatisfaction with the US Congress is reflected in recent Gallup polls that report an all time low in its popular support (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Sourced June 30, 2016, at http://www.gallup.com/poll/1600/congress-public.aspx.
Representational inequities in US Congressional and State elections have been promoted at various times by poll taxes, identity document requirements, voter intimidation, and gerrymandering of districts. These inequities have been a cause for civil unrest throughout the 20th century. Lessons gleaned from our deepening understanding of community-based conservation (CBC) offer a potential avenue for relieving such inequities and improving the US electoral system.
Community-based management is inspired by the idea that if the ‘commons’ are not managed cooperatively, the outcome is a tragedy with far-reaching effects. Electoral systems of government are the ultimate ‘commons’. CBC operates on the assumption that the commons can be optimised for the maximum possible utility to stakeholders. Insights gained from the successes and failures of CBC can offer a roadmap for non-partisan, grass-root initiated electoral reforms that boost faith in the representativeness and fairness of electoral systems and elections.
Community-based management provides a way of sustainably and equitably managing and conserving common resources. It developed in the 1980s as the result of a diversifying post-World War II conservation movement supported by both states and international donor organisations. The lessons of CBC over the past three decades, as articulated by Carlsson and Berkes (2005), provide a six-fold approach to joint institution/stakeholder management of a commons. These are community participation in: 1) defining the system, 2) mapping out tasks and problems, 3) clarifying the participants needed to solve each problem, 4) analysing the linkages among system components, 5) identifying needs and building capacity, and 6) prescribing ways to improve policy making and problem solving.
In the context of our political commons, electoral systems at local, regional, and national levels are stewarded by governmental institutions. Stakeholders comprise collections of individuals who hold little sway unless they are candidates for elections or play a critical role in organising relevant collectives (parties, lobbies, or interest groups). The consequence of this is a perceived disconnect between individual voting power and the seemingly-predetermined outcome of elections, reducing trust in the fairness and transparency of the system and encouraging the rise of radical, anti-establishment candidates. Disenfranchised voters often organise into groups that challenge democracy at rallies, which sometimes turn violent due to the actions of individuals, including officials charged with keeping the peace. CBC shares a similar history on a smaller scale, as disenfranchised fisherman, hunters, ranchers, or other participants have turned violent and crippled the commons.
CBC provides methods that promote participation of all stakeholders and diffuse conflict. Specifically, the six-fold CBC approach presented by Carlsson and Berkes provides a structure for the design of more representative and less contentious electoral systems. Yet, the problem of constituting viable coalitions of stakeholders remains: governmental institutions do not have mandates to carry out programmes of reform, and non-governmental organisations often have conflicts of interest. Exceptions exist, such as the League of Women Voters, Americans for Campaign Reform, and FairVote. Organisations trying to bring stakeholders together, however, will be treated with suspicion by other stakeholder organisations that have competing agendas. However, if sufficiently many stakeholder organisations concerned with electoral reform address the issues elaborated below, our hope is that this commonality of consideration (if not belief) will foster joint discussions. Ultimately, the best ideas are likely to rise to the fore, provided the participating groups understand that compromise is required to establish the right balance between competitive and cooperative processes needed to create structures that enhance the greater good.
Defining the system
Democracy in the United States has conventionally operated through indirect participation; single representatives are selected to represent the diversity of beliefs contained in each of the voting districts, be they Congressional representatives, senators, or members of the Electoral College. The established US electoral system, however, is one of many possible systems defined in terms of district magnitude (i.e. number of seats per district) and electoral formulation (i.e. vote tallying method). Ballots can also be scored with or without categorical preference for a specified number of candidates on a list. Multi-member-district electoral systems can be viewed as falling along a spectrum that is bookended by single-member districts and proportional representation systems.
Mapping tasks and problems
Electoral systems should embody the following six aims or ideals (Horowitz 2003):
Proportionality. The number of seats obtained by any political block (party, minority group, special interest group) should be in proportion to the number of votes cast by that group.
Accountability. A great strength of the single-member plurality system is that it forges a strong relationship between elected representatives and the plurality of constituents responsible for their election.
Durability. Durability can be measured at different (e.g. ‘cabinet’ versus ‘party in power’) levels, and is thought to promote policy consistency and responsibility.
Fairness. In contested elections, the less popular candidates should lose to more popular candidates—a straightforward concept when two individuals compete for one seat but one that becomes complicated when the number of candidates greatly exceeds the number of seats.
Conciliation. Politics naturally generates conflict through the differential impact of policies and legislation on various ethnic, religious, and special interest groups. A well-functioning electoral system mitigates conflict, rather than fosters it.
Minority office-holding. Although almost all electoral systems have outcomes that underrepresent members of small minorities, it is still important to get such representation on important political and legislative committees.
Horowitz’s six ideals cannot all be equally well met by a single electoral system because some aims are necessarily in conflict with others. An obvious case of this is simultaneously satisfying both proportionality (through multi-seat contests) and accountability (though single seat contests). Further, the best way to achieve durability of government might be contentious and lead to infighting at the expense of fostering conciliation. The current US presidential electoral system, for example, is widely perceived as weak or unfair. Shifting systems, though, will be contentious, and only achievable through an open and democratic discussion to abandon current, familiar practices in favour of new, potentially fairer ones. What we propose here is not a specific solution to the problems of an existing electoral system, but a shift in our political culture towards greater participation by non-partisan, grass roots organisations, using community-based methods to promote electoral reform that better meets Horowitz’s six ideals.
A critical weakness in designing and implementing change to electoral systems is that the members of the assembly that has the authority to enact such change, have been elected under the current rules. Hence, these members are likely to perceive the current rules as favourable for their reelection. This barrier to change is mitigated when legislation can be implemented through direct ballot measures, provided such instruments are part of the political system. Successful engagement of a direct ballot process can be enhanced through adoption of community-based methods. Again, we stress that initiatives for electoral change need to be led by grass-root groups who are non-partisan and whose only agenda is to improve proportionality, accountability, durability, and fairness, as well as foster conciliation and promote minority office holding aims. This can be achieved by: a) identifying the various political and activist networks supporting electoral stasis or change, as well as the individuals who are influential within these networks; b) understanding the values and interests of these networks and how they variously impact the system; and c) considering how the structure and dynamics of these networks might both allow and facilitate changes to the electoral system.
Once the system has been mapped out, the problems articulated, and the participant groups identified, the lessons of CBC suggest that it is important to understand how past and present relate to one another, and also how different geographical areas are connected. New technologies have the potential to be used to either reduce or increase participation of groups that have historically low levels of participation. One of the most contentious problems in US elections today, is the issue of gerrymandering, which has been used by both the Democratic and Republican parties and for which there is considerable evidence across the US House of Representatives. Technology provides an opportunity to identify and expose gerrymandering and to redraw districts objectively without partisan bias (Figure 2 and 3, also see https://nature.berkeley.edu/getz/GetzEtAl_SI_online.pdf).
Figure 2: A histogram of Cook’s Partisan Voting index (CPVI) values across all districts for the 2012 Congressional Representative Elections: Groups 1 and 2 refer to the Democratic and Republican values (data from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cook_Partisan_Voting_Index). Democratic values are significantly higher than Republican values (t test) indicating a strong bias of districting patterns that pack Democratic support into “democratic districts”, thereby enabling Republications to obtain a greater proportion of seats than reflected in the popular vote. The categories 1 to 10 of this histogram represent binned values in the ranges of (1:PVCI<0.5, 2:-0.5 to 4.5, 3:4.6 to 9.5, …., 10:PCI>39.5).
Figure 3: The proportionality of different vote recording and tallying methods, for an 8-seat district, as the fraction of votes for party A ranges from 0% to 60%. All non-transferable vote (NTV) tallying methods are extremely non-proportional, approximating a step function. Single-transferable vote (STV) methods are the most proportional. After correcting two common issues with the STV counting algorithm, (namely, making candidate eliminations temporary instead of permanent, and ordering all combinations of candidate to eliminate instead of simple cumulative elimination), STV using the Hare quota (votes/seats) is the most proportional tallying method (see https://nature.berkeley.edu/getz/GetzEtAl_SI_online.pdf for additional technical details).
Capacity-building involves nurturing and then utilising the skills and capabilities of people and institutions at all levels of society. With regard to electoral systems, the issue is not so much a lack of capacity as its orchestration. Considerable capacity currently exists in our emerging digitally-networked world with regard to designing user-friendly, accessible online voting (at home and at designated locations) systems, as well as to employing computer algorithms to redraw districts using fair and objective criteria. Cyber security remains a critical issue, however, and the electorate must perceive the system as safe for effective implementation. In addition, vote-tallying methods that best capture the diverse will of the electorate can be employed. A key element, however, is successful dissemination of relevant information. Online platforms, such as the popular data science website FiveThirtyEight.com, play a key role in better educating voters about the mechanics of elections and polling and offer significant promise in this realm.
Evidence-based policy reform requires empirical data supporting the need to shift to alternate electoral systems. Through increasingly accessible digital technologies, any interested non-expert stakeholder can use computational tools to access relevant information, provided effort has been made to ensure that technology is user-friendly. This way, non-expert stakeholders can themselves engage in empirical simulations of how different electoral systems would meet or conflict with Horowitz’s six ideals. A critical issue, for example, is to seriously consider whether electoral systems based on single-seat district systems can be enhanced by moving to multi-seat district system. The most appropriate number of seats per district will depend on an assessment of the tradeoff among goals, such as protecting against gerrymandering, increasing the diversity and proportionality of the electorate, keeping the ballot simple, and the cost to the candidates of running campaigns.
Resistance to changing the mechanics of democracy can be expected to increase with the scale and complexity of the system. Changes to electoral systems are likely to be easier for town councils than for state/provincial assemblies or national/federal bodies, because fewer individuals and institutional structures are involved. For states such as California, where a direct balloting system provides a mechanism for citizens’ initiatives to change the laws, the possibility of introducing multi-seat state-assembly electoral districts in large, predominantly urban states, is not an unrealistic decadal goal. Before change can happen, extensive discussion and debate initiated by non-partisan grass-root groups is needed to engage the electorate and to get their support.
Given that democracy is arguably our most valuable commons, the CBC experience suggests that alarmingly low stakeholder support for the recent 2016 elections represents a nascent threat to the security and stability of the US electoral system. Political activism by non-partisan grass-root groups in opening dialogue and fostering greater participation, has the potential to drive electoral system reform and restore the faith of the US electorate in democracy. However, reforms are not easily achieved. Without substantial engagement among interested organisations in the coming decades, irrespective of their differing political points of view, we can anticipate increasing frustration of voters with their electoral commons. Lessons from CBC provide a way forward for competing stakeholder groups to engage one another and ultimately cooperate among themselves to achieve robust electoral change for the good of the US polity as a whole.
Alexander R., Brown D., Kaseman J. 2004. Pinning a Face on the Electoral College: A Survey of the Class of 2000. Political Science and Politics, 37, 833-838. Google Scholar
Wayne Getz is a Biomathematician and Professor of Environmental Science at the University of California at Berkeley. Colin Carlson, Eric Dougherty and Oliver Muellerklein are Ph.D. students in his group. Kevin Baas is a Software Developer for the City of Milwaukee.