Sam Seitz

I think we can all agree that the American electoral system is crazy. The elections are chaotic, and one can only choose between two (thoroughly mediocre) parties. This is not an inevitable political outcome. Instead, it is the result of the flawed electoral system used in the United States: the single member plurality system. In a single member plurality system, one candidate is elected per electoral district, and that candidate needs only to receive the plurality of votes to be elected. In other words, the candidate just needs to possess a greater percentage of the votes cast than his or her political rival(s). This can lead to bizarre situations where candidates that only receive 30%-40% of the popular vote get elected, meaning that there are many districts that have representatives who received less than half of their constituency’s votes. This is obviously absurd, and it disenfranchises major interest groups. Moreover, Duverger’s Law means that single member plurality systems almost always lead to two party systems. This inexorable trend towards two parties occurs due to one simple fact: any emergent third party will inevitably be somewhat ideologically closer to one of the two established parties (see, for example, Nader). Thus, if a third party runs, they will split the vote and ensure that the party they least align with always wins. In short, if you are a communist or a libertarian or a green, it’s too bad for you. You’ll never be represented in the United States federal government.

Now, to be fair, there are arguments for majoritarian systems. Because they always produce one clear winner, single member plurality systems ensure that one party always has an explicit mandate. Everyone knows which party is in control after a given election, so there is no need to waste time creating complex coalitions. Moreover, because people directly select an individual candidate instead of voting for a party, there is theoretically more accountability between politicians and citizens. Nevertheless, most of the arguments for single member plurality systems are unconvincing. For example, a lack of a clear mandate is not necessarily a hindrance, and it allows some degree of checking and balancing as small coalition partners garner inordinate power, thus keeping the larger governing parties in check. It’s also unclear that there is direct accountability at the local level. After all, if your local representative is of the different party, do you really feel a connection? Not only are the benefits of single member plurality systems overstated, but the problems they cause are very real. First, they disenfranchise major segments of the population. For example, consider an American presidential election. If 46% vote Republican, 6% vote Libertarian, and 48% vote Democrat, Democrats win 100% of the executive despite 52% of the country supporting other parties. This leads to strategic voting where, for example, Libertarians are forced to vote Republican, a party they have major disagreements with, in order to prevent a Democratic victory. In other words, they vote for their least bad option instead of their best option. This strategic voting is not just academic; it has very real effects on voter turnout and political apathy. When people have to vote strategically instead of voting with their hearts, they just don’t vote. Silencing minorities is not how democracy is supposed to function, but by giving them no chance to be heard, the American system ensures their voices are forever suppressed.

So, what’s the solution? The German electoral system. Like many things from that country, it is elegant, well-designed, and incredibly over-engineered. In short, it is orders of magnitude better than the American system. Aber es ist komplizierter als das amerikanische Modell.  The German model is a mix between direct voting and proportional voting. Each citizen gets two votes: one for a candidate, one for a party. First, the votes for candidates are tallied, and whichever candidate wins in each district (by single member plurality) is guaranteed a spot in the Bundestag. Then, the party votes are tallied up and aggregated across the entire country. The remaining seats are allocated based on the national proportional party vote. So, for example, let’s say the center-right CDU (Christian Democratic Union) wins 40% of the national vote and has 178 candidates directly elected from the districts. To determine how many extra seats they would be allocated from the party vote, we would multiply 455 (the number of seats in the Bundestag) by .4 and subtract 178. In this example, the CDU would earn four extra seats beyond the 178 won by the directly elected candidates. Of course, the system is more complex because sometimes more people are directly elected than proportionally speaking the party should have earned. For example, if the CDU had received 40% of the party vote but had 206 candidates win outright, they would actually have more seats than they proportionally deserved. This situation leads to the infamous Überhangmandate. The Überhangmandate is where the system starts becoming over-engineered, as the German Supreme Court has developed ever more Byzantine systems to try to rectify the seat disparity. Regardless, the nuances of German electoral law are beyond the scope of this post. What should be clear is that there are effective electoral systems that allow proportional representation of many different interests while still allowing voters to pick a particular candidate instead of just a party platform.

One can debate the specifics of electoral reform ad nauseam. I like the German system because it makes sense to me and, as someone studying Germany, I’m probably a tad biased. However, regardless of which model one prefers, I think we can all agree that the American electoral system is a complete disaster, and it would be much better for this country if we had the political will to reform it.