Global Ethics Corner: Should U.S. Elections be Reformed?

November 5, 2012

(This was originally posted on April 23, 2010.)

America is politically polarized. Part of the problem may be an outmoded electoral system, i.e. the combination of plurality voting, turnout, and primaries.

Most American elections are by plurality, "the winner takes all," and the winning candidate is "the first past the post."

The number of votes doesn't matter, as long as you get more than anyone else. For instance, 100 votes, ten candidates; one candidate gets 11 votes, the rest get equal shares; then the 11 wins.

The assumption was that candidates negotiate, compromise, and cooperate until a coalition of 51 votes is assembled. With this minimum winning coalition, policy moves toward the center, and compromise is the heart of the political process.

However, when voter turnout is low, only the most committed people vote. Primaries have especially low turnout; so winning a plural victory in a primary might require less than 10 percent of the general voters.

For primaries, candidates "run away from the center and to the party's base." The base is frequently the most ideological and the narrowest single-issue interest groups.

One solution is to increase turnout by simplified registration, weekend elections, or internet and mail ballots. However, high turnout rates are unlikely.

Another solution is to replace the plurality electoral system. Many alternative and proportional systems are effectively used around the world, and can strengthen the center in legislatures.

What do you think? Is it time to reform the U.S. electoral structure? Should more views be represented? Do narrow interests have too much power?

By William Vocke

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