The Five Harmful Gremlins of Winner-Take-All Elections
The basic architecture of US democracy bedevils voters, candidates and political parties alike
Watching the polarized, paralyzed state of two party politics in the United States, one is tempted to ask: what would be the best form of representative democracy? That’s an easy or hard question to answer, depending on one’s perspective, since it really depends on what values and principles you want your political system to uphold. But certainly we can say that some forms of representative democracy are worse than others.
I still remember my great surprise when I learned that you can take the same votes, cast by the same voters, and count them using different electoral systems -- single-seat districts vs. plurality at-large vs. Winner Take All vs First Past The Post vs. instant runoffs vs. proportional representation -- and end up with completely different results, in terms of which candidates and parties win and lose. I was in my early 30s, and it was like realizing for the first time that humans don’t actually live forever -- a fact so fundamental to our existence that I am still shocked that I had never learned about the overwhelming power of electoral systems in any political science or civics classes. Just as shocking was the realization that I was not alone in my ignorance: previous professors, editors, academics and politicians all shared in this political illiteracy, as did the general public.
The particular electoral system used is so fundamental and crucial to any political system that when you select a particular method for your local, state or national elections you are selecting a set of values and philosophy of government, as well as a range of accompanying effects and externalities. Once you internalize the full import of this knowledge, you realize it is quietly revolutionary.
Winner Take All and its discontents
The US-style Winner Take All electoral system possesses an internal logic that stems from two basic characteristics inherent to the system: 1) Winner Take All, for the most part, is a geographic-based political system, in which elections usually are contested in single-seat district elections (including for all congressional seats, most state legislative seats, and most city council seats in major cities). You win representation based on where you live rather than what you think; and 2) Winner Take All, for the most part, is a proxy for a two-party system, since smaller parties almost never reach the high percentages of votes typically needed to win that single-member seat; by definition, a minority perspective, whether a geographic, partisan or racial minority, does not normally win a majority or the highest plurality of votes.
Our nation is galloping toward a multi-racial society that will see whites eclipsed as a majority, particularly in certain regions and key states. The very terms “majority” and “minority” are being turned on their heads. Will our political institutions and practices be able to accommodate this horizon? Or will they increasingly pit different races, genders, parties and partisans against each other for a scarce and precious commodity -- political representation?
Beyond its strained representational challenges, the Winner Take All system’s geographic and two-choice architecture unleashes a host of disruptive progeny that bedevil candidates, parties and voters alike. These mischievous gremlins often turn political representation and policy formation into frustrating, confusing and opaque exercises. To truly grapple with the dynamics of Winner Take All, we must understand these five gremlins -- the One-Winner Conundrum, Phantom Representation, Swing Voter Serenade, Artificial Majorities and Two-Choice Tango.
One-Winner Conundrum. Under Winner Take All’s two-choice menu, voters, candidates and legislators are confronted by a relentless series of polarizing dilemmas and zero-sum decisions for which there are no easy solutions. The One-Winner Conundrum ensures that elections and policy-making will be frustrating and disappointing exercises over impossible choices. Here are the operative principles:
If you win… I lose
If you have representation… I don’t
If I vote for my favorite candidate… it may help elect my least favorite
If we drive voters from their candidate… the only choice left is our candidate
If I run to the center to attract swing voters… I will alienate my base
If I appeal to my base... I’ll drive away swing voters
The One-Winner Conundrum is a by-product of our two-choice system, and it reveals so much about the underlying dynamics of what frustrates our politics today. For instance, one of the defining characteristics of the One-Winner Conundrum is that it promotes pointlessly adversarial politics. In an election where only one of the two choices can win, everything is at stake. That’s why it’s called “winner take ALL.” It increases the intensity, the fury of politics, whether during campaigns, between campaigns or during the legislative sessions. On a whole host of issues it is painfully obvious that the overriding agenda of both major parties is not policy, principle or ideology, but that each side stake out short-term positions contrary to the other side in their efforts to win the next election.
This presents political parties, candidates and voters with conflicting options. For political parties, they must always mediate between different constituencies, whether swing or base voters, trying to calculate which ones will help their side win the next election. For candidates, they must present themselves as the brand that is distinctly different from the other brand, much like a business would advertise different types of laundry soap. For voters, you must often decide whether to vote for your favorite candidate/brand or to hold your nose and pick the unpleasant lesser-evil candidate/brand, your enthusiasm dimming for this whole sordid game. All the actors in this uneasy drama proceed according to a script determined by the demands of Winner Take All.
Phantom representation and orphaned voters. A subset of the One-Winner Conundrum and the two-choice system is something I call “phantom representation.” It’s ironic, but the thirteen original colonies rallied into a nation around the slogan, “No taxation without representation.” Yet today, millions of voters cast votes for losers and, in the zero sum game of Winner Take All politics, effectively end up with no representation. In the 2020 congressional elections not a single Republican voter in Massachusetts or a single Democratic voter in Oklahoma cast a vote for a winning candidate. Seventeen more states have such monopoly representation by one party or the other (11 GOP and 8 Democrat), and eleven more states are only one representative shy of monopoly representation, a total of 30 out of 50 states suffering from a substantial degree of monopoly politics.
All across the nation, tens of millions of voters living in the wrong districts and states vote for losing candidates election after election. They should be thought of as “orphaned voters,” with no electoral home and no effective representation. To disguise this appalling deformity of our democracy, and to obscure the inherently disenfranchising nature of Winner Take All, it has been necessary to manufacture a truly odd notion that defies even second grader logic: that a legislator “represents” you just because he or she sits in the chair -- even if that representative is diametrically opposed to your point of view, and even if you in fact voted for someone else. It is “representation” defined in such a way as to be turned on its head and rendered meaningless. If the loser in an election somehow is represented by the winner, then what’s the point of holding elections? Why not flip coins, draw straws or rotate the office among the candidates?
Today, there are numerous legislative districts where, for example, a white Christian Republican lives next door to a Latina single mom Democrat who lives next door to an independent Korean small businessman living beside a Sierra Club member and Green Party supporter, etc., etc., ad infinitum. There are entire sub-regions where geographic minorities of many persuasions are swamped by the partisan avalanche that dominates their electoral districts. Consequently, under the geographic-based representation of single-seat districts, only a handful of voters ever win actual representation. Voters become sorted into two unequal camps -- winners and losers. Those who voted for an elected representative, and those who did not. Elected officials find themselves ever more hard-pressed to provide representation for increasingly diverse constituencies. Asking a single representative to straddle the divide between so many perspectives has become impossible in most legislative districts, despite the inclusive rhetoric.
Winner Take All proponents like to hold forth smugly with a little patronizing lecture that goes something like this: “If you would just get out there and work harder for your candidate, or for your political party; or if your party only ran better candidates; or if your candidate could only raise more money, then you would win representation.” But the paradox is that even if you do work harder or raise more money and your candidate manages to win, then somebody else is now a loser and has no representation. That’s the zero-sum paradox of phantom representation -- if you win, I lose.
Swing voter vs base voter serenade. In a Winner Take All system, swing voters are the mighty fulcrum that moves politics. They are the Copernican center around which everything else turns, and the reason why is simple: how they vote determines not only which candidates will win close individual races, but also which political party will win a legislative majority in a closely divided legislature (like the US House of Representatives).
Given a choice between Democrats or Republicans, most voters already know which party’s candidates they prefer, often because they are vehemently opposed to the other party. Most Americans don’t vote for a political party anymore, they vote against the other side. But in any given election, about 12 percent or fewer of voters, for various reasons, are fuzzy or unsure enough in their thinking that they cannot make up their minds. They are what Anthony Downs, the political economist and author of The Economic Theory of Democracy, called the baffleds -- the almighty swing voters. One campaign consultant describes swing voters as those voters who “by definition are those least informed and interested in politics...You motivate these people with fear, or 30-second sound bites that are simplified to make someone who is not interested or not informed take action. If you can’t tell them in eight words or less why you are the better choice, you’re probably going to lose.”
Ironically, these indecisive, baffled voters are the ones who politicians serenade the most in a Winner Take All system. Policy overtures are directed to them, campaign messages are fashioned for them. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on focus groups and opinion polls to determine their opinions, and then those opinions are targeted right back at them like heat-seeking missiles using slick TV and social media ads. Swing voters are extremely fortunate to have bestowed upon them vastly inflated influence in our Winner Take All system.
Beside swing voters, Winner Take All elections also produce swing districts -- those handful of close races in legislative districts that are not a slam dunk victory for one party or the other. Approximately 90% of the district races for the US House occur in one-party fiefdoms that are too lopsided for one party to be competitive (not primarily due to redistricting abuses – though in some states that is a factor -- but due to the natural partisan demographics of where people live, i.e. liberals dominating in urban areas, conservatives in the rural areas and exurbs). So in a legislature closely divided between Democrats and Republicans -- like the House of Representatives is today -- that 10% of swing districts will determine which party will win a majority of seats and control the legislature. The handful of swing districts acquire exaggerated importance, with more attention and campaign spending occurring in these races than in all others. This applies in presidential elections as well, where a handful of swing states determine which candidate wins the presidency.
Now, smash the two together -- swing voters in swing districts and states -- and you arrive at the utter pointlessness and absurdity of America’s Winner Take All system. A handful of muddle-headed, indecisive and least-informed voters -- those who are “best motivated by fear” and “30-second sound bites” and “need to be convinced in eight words or less” -- stumbling to the polls in a handful of close races can determine which candidate wins the presidency or which party wins a majority in the Congress and in numerous state legislatures. These voters influence national policy beyond the weight their minority numbers should warrant. Election after election, all the billions of dollars raised, all the strategies deployed, have been predicated on this dynamic of our Winner Take All political system.
Conversely, another category of voters that can have untoward influence over politics are the opposite of Downs’ baffleds -- those zealots who care passionately enough for a single issue or cause. This reality also is a byproduct of our Winner Take All system, where in a close race a small number of motivated voters can determine which candidates “win all.” This dynamic is especially prominent in party primaries, which typically have extremely low turnout (often 25 to 30% of voters), allowing a relatively small core of passionate voters to have overwhelming influence in the outcome of that primary. And with most legislative districts lopsided for one party or the other, the winner of the majority party’s primary is virtually a lock to win the November election. Reflecting these dynamics, one report found that only 10% of voters nationwide in U.S. House races in 2020 cast ballots in primaries that effectively decided 83% of those races.
A key part of this dynamic is that controversial topics (known as “wedge issues”) can acquire exaggerated importance, commanding national attention, in the “all-or-nothing” atmosphere of our geographic-based, two-choice system. The duopoly of our political system, when combined with modern campaign technologies and digital media platforms, allow the targeting of ever-smaller slices of undecided or base voters, cleverly triaging their messaging and micro-targeting different appeals to different audiences. “Swing voter” and “base voter” dynamics – much more than campaign finance inequities or redistricting abuses -- allow special interest groups like the National Rifle Association to thwart majority national opinion that has been demanding effective gun control. It will do the same for any number of issues, from climate change to reproductive rights.
Here is what is so deeply ironic about this -- many defenders of Winner Take All criticize alternative voting methods of proportional representation because of the latter’s propensity to elect small parties that may hold the balance of power in a parliamentary government and cause the collapse of the government-- the so-called “Italy and Israel effect.” Yet under Winner Take All, small slices of the most uninformed and uninterested spectrum of the electorate, or conversely of the most fanatical parts of the electorate, also can acquire vastly exaggerated power and determine which party wins a majority. They are able to hold hostage any semblance of sane policy, as the middle erodes and legislative bridge-builders disappear.
Artificial Majorities (that distort policy). The One-Winner Conundrum, Phantom Representation, and Swing Voter Serenade in turn can result in another broken, anti-democratic mess: Artificial Majorities. One of the purported strengths of the two party, Winner Take All system, which has been repeated endlessly by its defenders, is that it comes closest to guaranteeing “majority rule.” While it’s true that a two-party system guarantees by default that one party must win a legislative majority, it’s also true that the governing majority hasn’t necessarily been elected by a popular majority. Consequently, the policies enacted may not be the ones preferred by the majority of the public.
For instance, a number of analyses have shown that, for the urban-concentrated Democrats to win a bare majority of seats in the US House of Representatives, they must win 53.5% of the nationwide popular vote in all 435 House district seats. In some election years, such as 2012 and 1996, Republicans won House majorities despite Democrats winning more of the popular vote. But don’t feel sorry for Democrats; during the last several decades, the Republican Party has been consistently cheated out of seats due to such distortions, losing as many as 43 House seats in 1976, and losing an average of twenty-seven seats per congressional cycle from 1976 through 1988. Between 1945 and 1980, during the decades of Democratic congressional majorities, elections produced artificial majorities 17 percent of the time, where one party received less than 50 percent of the national vote yet ended up with more than 50 percent of the House seats.
Today's imbalance is due not so much to the partisanship of gerrymandered district lines but to natural partisan demographics, in which Democratic voters increasingly live in more concentrated urban areas, making it easier to pack them into fewer districts during redistricting. The resulting one-party fiefdoms ensure predictable outcomes, a decline in competition in all but a handful of districts, and declines in voter enthusiasm and turnout.
The structural anti-majority bias in the US Senate is even more severe than in the House. Every state receives two senators, regardless of population, elected in statewide single-seat districts. So Wyoming with a half a million people has the same representation as California with 40 million. At our country's founding, this large state-small state population bias was around 12 to 1…now it's closer to 80 to 1. Moreover, in the last few decades, the two parties have gradually undergone a dramatic urban-rural sorting that has made most low-population states reliably Republican. Consequently, while the U.S. Senate is currently split 50-50 Senators for each party, the Democratic half won over 41 million more votes than the Republican half and represents 56% of the American people. GOP senators have not represented a majority of the population since 1999, yet Republicans have held a majority of Senate seats for most of the past 20 years, passing or blocking key legislation.
Winner Take All systems, not only in the US but also in the UK, Canada and India, are notorious for producing disproportional results where the largest minority bloc of voters (i.e. a “plurality”) wins a majority of seats, leading to ‘minority rule’ that undermines one of the most fundamental principles of representative democracy – “that the sense of the majority should prevail,” as Alexander Hamilton put it in Federalist Papers No. 22. After a victory for Republicans or Democrats in the House, major media outlets caught up in the horse race typically blare headlines like “GOP wins stunning landslide victory” or “Democrats retake the congressional majority.” A more accurate headline would read, “Defects of Winner Take All electoral system give minority party a lopsided majority.” The media don’t report it this way because artificial majorities are considered normal, even as they generate toxic impacts.
Two-Choice Tango. Another subset of the One-Winner Conundrum is the Two-Choice Tango. Politicians and their political consultants have figured something out: in a two-choice field, the last candidate standing wins. Winning does not require positions on a broad range of issues, because if the goal in Winner Take All is to win more votes than your lone opponent, you can do that as easily by driving voters away from your opponent as by attracting voters to yourself. In fact, it’s easier, all you have to do is find a good wedge issue or two, or selectively strip-mine your opponent’s voting record for votes on taxes, crime or child pornography, or dig up some youthful indiscretion or inflated sex scandal that you can distort out of all recognition. Then use that information to target slickly-prepared campaign messages at the undecided, barely informed swing voters who determine the outcome in a close race. In a one-on-one, mano a mano campaign, the mudslinging dynamic inescapably boils down to a zero-sum choice: “if you lose, I win.”
This is especially effective whenever the field has been reduced to two candidates; that’s when the One-Winner Conundrum is maximized. Going negative on one’s opponent is an effective campaign tactic, as accusations fly and nuance and middle ground get eroded. Modern campaign technologies -- polling, focus groups, 30-second TV spots, direct mail and digital media data harvesting -- are uniquely tailored to this task of spin, hype and targeting. We can expect that scandal and mudslinging will always be excessively important under the intense competitive pressures of the Two-Choice Tango. With the specter of the modern “permanent campaign” that never ends, these dynamics now extend past the elections and into the governance process as well. Despite all the national disgust over negative politicking, there has been surprisingly little discussion by political scientists and pundits about how the two-choice, Winner Take All system substantially drives attack-style tactics. In fact, it is malignantly suited for it.
Once you have unleashed these Winner Take All gremlins into your political system, these puzzling dilemmas and paradoxes will frustrate voters, candidates and legislators at every turn. While the surface structure for electing representatives under Winner Take All appears simple -- deceptively so, what could be more simple than “highest vote-getter wins”? -- the underlying mechanics and the dynamics unleashed by the Winner Take All gremlins render it extremely complex, vexing and unfair.
Remedies for Winner Take All
There are fixes to these anti-democratic tendencies, but they will be challenging to enact within the straitjacket of Winner Take All. The most profound reform would be to get rid of single-seat, Winner Take All districts and change the method for electing all our legislatures to proportional representation (such as ranked choice voting in multi-seat districts). With PR, as it is sometimes called, voters win representation based on what they think, instead of where they live (though there are different configurations, including hybrids that allow both geographic and ideological representation). With PR methods, there is no phantom representation since the vast majority of voters actually help elect someone and the number of “orphaned voters” is negligible. Multiple parties can win representation in the legislature, including minor parties, and there are no artificial majorities since a majority of votes always wins a majority of seats. With a range of viable political parties from a wide ideological spectrum to choose from, there is more chloice, more competition and higher voter turnout because all voters become swing voters. Partisanship doesn’t disappear but it finds a softer voice, both during and between campaigns. Politics has a better chance of finding a win-win common ground among the different political forces.
This is not just a pipe dream. A bill has been introduced into Congress, the Fair Representation Act, which would create a uniquely American form of proportional representation that would tame these gremlins. House members would be elected in multi-winner districts of up to five seats, cultivating “moderate proportional representation” in which every part of the US would be competitive for both major parties. Monopoly representation by one party in any state (with more than one representative) would be a thing of the past. A well-organized minor party and independents would have new opportunities for winning representation and holding the major parties accountable. Parties would not be so beholden to their own fringe extremes, and the ideological diversity within each party would not get strangled by scheming, unscrupulous party leaders.
The tendency towards an anti-democratic, exclusionary, “I you win, I lose” politics is an inherent part of the Winner Take All system’s DNA. These challenges have been exacerbated as the US has become more diverse and socially complex. At this point, the Winner Take All political system and its five mischievous gremlins undermine political participation and authentic representation, increase polarization and nasty mudslinging campaigns, and undermine legislative majorities, cross-partisan bridge-building and government's legitimacy. Acting in devious concert, they could well continue to push the US down a worrisome path toward a future of post-democracy.
Steven Hill @StevenHill1776
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