Election Integrity: The Problems with the Two-Party System by Janet Maker
This is the second article in our series examining election integrity.
A Gallup poll in August, 2017 showed that only 16% of respondents approved of the way Congress was doing its job; 79% disapproved. The last time that Congress had an approval rating as high as 50% was in 2003. Dissatisfaction with the two parties is a likely reason that voters were so attracted to Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in 2016; neither candidate followed his party’s line. For most of his political career, Sanders had identified as an independent rather than a Democrat, and Trump was never part of the Republican establishment. A recent poll showed that more than 40% of voters considered themselves independents, a much larger group than those who identified with either major party. In a 2016 Gallup poll, 57% of respondents said that a third party is needed.
It is likely that the dissatisfaction that voters feel for the Democrats and Republicans is because the two parties don’t represent the interests of the majority of voters. Since at least Bill Clinton’s presidency, and arguably since Jimmy Carter’s, the Democratic Party has moved to the right, and now both parties seem to represent the interests of big donors like Wall Street and the military industrial complex. Most politicians are forced to depend on those big donors to get and to keep their jobs. In contrast, Bernie Sanders refused corporate cash, and Donald Trump at least gave the appearance of having enough money of his own to preserve his independence. Although Hillary Clinton denied that her acceptance of corporate cash influenced her policies, voters seemed to feel (rightly, in my opinion) that politicians will do the bidding of those who pay them. Although taxpayers pay the salaries of elected officials, politicians need donors to fund their very expensive campaigns. The Clinton campaign, along with the Democratic Party and pro-Clinton committees and PACs, spent a total of $1.2 billion on her 2016 campaign. Last year, winning Senate candidates spent an average of $10.3 million for their seats, and outside spending, including party committees, nearly doubled the average cost of winning a Senate seat to $19.4 million. A House seat is a relative bargain, at only about $1.5 million before outside spending, depending on the district, but a Senate term is six years and a House term is only two.
So what do the big donors want from politicians in return for all that cash? They want (1) an economic policy that keeps money and power in their own hands, and (2) an aggressive, interventionist foreign policy that nets them even more money and power. Both parties have obliged, including presidents who have been labeled “liberal” such as Obama. (For a detailed explanation of the parties’ economic and foreign policies, click on Neoliberals, Neoconservatives, and Neofascists.) To increase their number of voters, Republicans have captured the Evangelicals and “alt-right” by pandering to them on issues like abortion, immigration, and gay marriage. Similarly, the Democrats pander to their group of voters on issues such as debt relief for college students, gender equality, and a living wage. However, on the two issues that really matter to donors, a neoliberal economic policy and neoconservative foreign policy, the two parties are pretty much identical.
If voters are not offered the possibility of voting for candidates that will support their interests, it means that we don’t have a democracy. Many people realize this and don’t even bother to vote. Others feel that their only choice is to vote for the “lesser evil.” I always vote, but in the last two presidential elections I refused to vote for the lesser evil because I don’t want to vote for evil at all. Instead, I voted for the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein. Since I don’t live in a swing state my vote did not count anyway, and I wanted to make a statement about how I think the United States should be governed. (For a discussion of why votes only count in swing stages, click on the Electoral College.) I am a left-winger, so the Green Party platform reflected my values. Right-wingers not satisfied with the Republicans would be more likely to vote Libertarian than Green.
In the United States, third parties serve the purpose of allowing voters like me, who are unhappy with the dominant parties, to register a protest, but that’s about all. The system virtually never allows third parties any role in governing. Currently the only members of Congress who are not Democrats or Republicans are three Independents: House Delegate Gregorio Sablan, from the Northern Mariana Islands at-large, Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont, and Senator Angus King from Maine. An explanation for why third-party candidates cannot win elections in the United States was provided by Maurice Duverger, a French sociologist who researched the viability of third-party candidates in the 1950s and 1960s. Subsequent researchers have found his conclusions so compelling that they are now called Duverger’s law, which holds that the number of major political parties in a country is determined by the country’s electoral structure.
There are two relevant elements to the electoral structure, or how votes are translated into seats:
First is the number of representatives elected from each district. A single member district (SMD) elects only one representative. A SMD can range from very small to very large: for example, in the U.S. presidential elections, the entire population of the United States is treated as a single district, since it elects only one president. A multi-member district (MMD) elects more than one representative. There are a number of different ways that MMDs can operate; an example found in some state legislatures has multiple candidates running against each other for two seats from one district, and the two receiving the most votes are elected. SMDs are used in most U.S. legislative elections, but eleven state chambers and many municipalities use some form of MMDs.
The second element is how voters can make their choices, and there are three main systems: plurality electoral systems, majority electoral systems, and proportional representation.
In plurality electoral systems, also called “first-past-the-post” systems, the winner is the candidate who receives the most votes, whether or not he or she gets a majority. Plurality systems usually occur in SMDs. In the United States, we use a plurality system for the House and Senate, but because of the Electoral College, presidential elections combine plurality and majority systems.
In majority systems, also called “second ballot” systems, the winner must get a majority of votes, which means more than 50%. If no candidate wins a majority, then there will be a second round of voting (second ballot) between the candidates who received the most votes. As in plurality systems, majority voting usually occurs in SMDs. U.S. presidential elections combine plurality and majority systems: candidates must get a plurality of votes in each state to win all that state’s electors (with two exceptions—Nebraska and Maine), but they must get a majority (270 electors) in the Electoral College to win the election. If neither candidate gets a majority there is no second ballot; instead, the election is decided by the House of Representatives.
In proportional representation (PR) systems, parties gain seats in proportion to the number of votes cast for them. For example, if a party won 30% of the vote, it would receive 30% of the seats. Since it’s impossible to distribute votes proportionally if there is only one seat, all proportional representation systems use multi-member districts (MMDs). Commonly used in parliamentary systems, PR is the most widely used system in the world. Since the U.S. has mostly SMDs, PR is rarely used, but some city council elections use some form of PR.
Duverger’s law says that plurality-rule elections (such as first-past-the-post) within single-member districts tend to favor a two-party system and that majority systems and proportional representation tend to favor multi-party systems. The reason is that, in a plurality system, only the winning party is represented in government. The other parties get nothing, no matter how much of the vote they receive. In a presidential election, this is especially disadvantageous to parties that are geographically spread out. For example, in 1992 Ross Perot’s third party won about 19% of the vote, but because those voters were in different states, he did not win even one vote in the Electoral College.
In the United States, the major parties further deter third parties by passing restrictive ballot access laws. Since the United States allows each state to determine how a presidential candidate can get on the ballot, third party candidates must satisfy ballot requirements in all 50 states. This can be prohibitively expensive for a small party.
In addition, the major parties also restrict third-party access to public debates. The presidential debates are crucial because they offer the only opportunity for third party candidates to reach more than 50 million voters at one time. The debates used to be controlled by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, which treated third party candidates seriously. However, in 1987 Democrats and Republicans teamed up to create a private nonprofit corporation, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), which wrested control of the debates from the League. The only third-party candidate the CPD ever allowed to participate in the debates was Texas billionaire Ross Perot in 1992. The CPD wanted to bar Perot, who at the time was polling around 7%, but they were overruled by both the Republican candidate, George H.W. Bush, and Democratic candidate Bill Clinton. Both candidates thought that Perot would hurt the other candidate. It turned out that Perot got 19% of the vote and mainly hurt Bush. Four years later Perot wanted to debate again, but both the parties and their candidates barred him. Beginning in 2000, the CPD has required that candidates must appear on enough state ballots to win, and they must also register at least 15 percent in five national polls, even though most polls don’t include them. No third-party candidate has been able to surmount those hurdles. Libertarian Party candidate and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson said, “The game is rigged. There’s no way a third-party candidate can compete unless they’re on the debate stage, and you can’t get there unless you’re in the polls.”
Third parties also usually have tiny campaign budgets compared to the major parties. As a result of their lack of exposure, many voters are not even aware of what the platforms are for third parties. Even when voters are aware, there is a tendency for them to desert parties that have no chance of winning elections, and there is also concern about splitting the vote. For example, many people blame Ralph Nader, candidate for the Green Party, for Bush’s win in 2000, even though the blame belongs to apparent election fraud and the Supreme Court. Some have even tried to pin Trump’s win in 2016 on the small number of votes that the Green party won, saying that Jill Stein siphoned votes away from Hillary. (Gary Johnson likely siphoned even more votes away from Trump.)
Rather than keep losing, third parties often consider it wise to ally with one of the major parties. Candidates do the same thing; in 2016, Ted Cruz, a Tea Partier, and Rand Paul, a Libertarian, ran in the Republican primaries; and Bernie Sanders an Independent, ran in the Democratic primaries. Joining the major parties gives the candidates a political infrastructure, greater credibility, and access to money and media. The benefit to the major parties is the opportunity to expand their base: Republicans hope that Tea Partiers and Libertarians will vote for their candidate, and Democrats hope that Bernie supporters will vote Democratic. The candidates also aim to influence the platforms of the major parties; for example, the Tea Party moved Republicans to the right, and Bernie Sanders moved the Democrats to the left. Because of Bernie, Hillary Clinton was forced to debate issues from Wall Street reform to Social Security expansion to trade that she would likely have preferred to avoid. Nevertheless, the Democratic Party never moved as far to the left as Bernie, and the Green Party’s platform was far to the left of that, which is the reason I voted for Jill Stein. Furthermore, if Clinton had won the election, she would likely have moved right again, as Democrats always seem to do, in order to serve the big donors. So, while the minor parties can have some influence, their lack of representatives in the government means that various points of view are not represented as well as they would be if third party candidates could actually be elected. To the extent that voters are unrepresented, democracy is diminished. When you add in gerrymandering and the power of incumbency (more on that in another blog), partisan media, and lax campaign finance laws, it means that the power of the political establishment always overwhelms the voting majority. That’s not democracy.
When multiple parties are represented in government, it tends to mean that no single party has a majority, so parties are compelled to work together to develop coalitions. Examples of nations with democratic multi-party systems are Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Lebanon, Mexico, Moldavia, Nepal, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, the Philippines, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Tunisia, and Ukraine. Are all these countries more democratic than the United States? I don’t know, but it’s likely that more of their voters are represented in their governments. For that reason, voter turnouts are also usually higher in elections with multiple parties.
So how can we reform the two-party system to make it more democratic?
We probably can’t switch to a parliamentary system or eliminate the Electoral College without a constitutional amendment, although there is a legal way to transform the Electoral College: Support the National Popular Vote bill as we discussed in a previous blog.
The route chosen by Bernie Sanders has been to try to reform the Democratic Party from within. This is what conservatives did with the Republican Party; in the1960s they rejected the idea of forming a new right-wing party in favor of transforming the Republican Party to suit their ideology. As we can see, the conservatives were very successful in moving the Republican Party to the right. Bernie also seems to have made some progress in moving the Democratic Party to the left. For example, as of this writing, some prominent Democrats have co-sponsored his Medicare for All bill. However, the problem is harder for Democrats than for Republicans, because moving to the right did not require Republicans to stop prioritizing the interests of the big donors, but Democrats moving to the left would require exactly that. Bernie was able to get his campaign funded by small donors, but it’s unlikely that all Democrats could do the same. Many years ago, when Democrats better represented the working class, candidates could get funding from powerful unions, but the unions are not very powerful now. In order to win future elections, Democrats might have to give lip service to progressive values, but, short of a total reform of campaign finance, I don’t see how the Democrats can truly be reformed. Bernie is politically astute, and I imagine he has a plan to address this problem, but I don’t know what it could be.
Bernie’s movement has formed a new group called Our Revolution, headed by Nina Turner. Turner is a Democrat who served as a member of the Ohio State Senate from 2008 to 2014. Here is their mission statement:
Our Revolution will reclaim democracy for the working people of our country by harnessing the transformative energy of the “political revolution.” Through supporting a new generation of progressive leaders, empowering millions to fight for progressive change and elevating the political consciousness, Our Revolution will transform American politics to make our political and economic systems once again responsive to the needs of working families.
They don’t mention the Democratic Party or any other party. In the category of empowering progressive leaders, they say this:
Our Revolution will empower the next generation of progressive leaders by inspiring and recruiting progressive candidates to run for offices across the entire spectrum of government. From school boards to congressional seats, a new generation of political leaders, dedicated to transforming America’s corrupt campaign finance system and rigged economy, will become involved. Our Revolution will provide leaders inspired by the “political revolution.”
I assume they mean for the new progressive leaders to run as Democrats, but they don’t say so.
There are two new organizations on the left, the Progressive Independent Party (PIP) and Draft Bernie for a People’s Party, which are trying a coalition approach. PIP and Draft Bernie have partnered with Socialist Alternative to try to form a new progressive party to represent the 99%. They put together a conference in Washington, D.C. in September, 2017 called The People’s Convergence, with streaming video to sister groups across the nation. Sessions were devoted to tactics for building a people’s party, and speakers included progressive icons Jill Stein, Cornel West, Lee Camp, Chase Iron Eyes, Kshama Sawant, and Jimmy Dore. There was also a Draft Bernie Town Hall, and a petition was delivered to him. They hope he will join them. Here is what they say about Democrats:
Should we come together in the old Democratic Party or form a new one? The Democratic Party is in many states hollow below the federal level. Senator Bernie Sanders and a contingent of young Progressives have therefore been trying for a year to fill those levels with clean candidates, with some success but only to be repeatedly kneecapped by the party’s corrupt, deeply entrenched Neoliberal leadership.
Apparently this group believes that forming an entirely new party will achieve their goals more effectively than using the existing Green Party would. I’m not sure what the reasons are, but apparently Jill Stein must agree, since she has lent her support.
If either movement ever succeeds in getting state level offices filled by progressives, they could possibly change laws to ease ballot access so third parties could be more competitive. Maybe third-party candidates could even manage to meet the CPD requirements and qualify for inclusion in debates.
Another option does not address the issue of changing or creating political parties. Instead, it aims to change the electoral structure to solve the problems of plurality voting in single member congressional districts (SMDs). The nonpartisan election reform group FairVote.org is advocating Fair Representation Voting, and U.S. Representative Don Beyer (D-VA-8) has introduced the Fair Representation Act (HR3057). Under this Act, there would be a form of proportional representation (PR) called Multi-Member Ranked Choice Voting (MM-RCV). Congress would remain the same size, but congressional districts would change.
To start, each state would create an independent commission of ordinary citizens who would draw multi-member districts (MMDs) without gerrymandering. States with more than six representatives would draw districts with three to five representatives each, and states with five or fewer representatives would have one statewide, at-large district.
Representatives from each district would be elected through ranked-choice voting (RCV) with instant runoff, in which voters rank candidates in order of choice. If no candidate reached the cutoff needed to win, then the candidate with the fewest votes would be automatically eliminated and the candidates ranked again. If a voter’s first choice candidate were eliminated, then his or her vote would go to the candidate that the voter ranked second. That way, third party candidates would not split the vote. To make RCV easier to understand, let’s give an example using a single member district (SMD): If I voted for Ralph Nader for President in 2000 and he was eliminated, my vote would have automatically gone to Al Gore, or whoever I ranked second, and so on until somebody won. For a visual explanation of RCV, you can look at this You Tube.
When it comes to multi-member districts, the same principles apply, but since voters are electing more than one candidate, things are a bit more complicated. This You Tube shows how RCV would work if we were electing three representatives from a field of five candidates. Representatives would be elected proportionately to their share of the vote. Voters would be much better represented and third parties more likely to thrive.
The Fair Representation Act applies to the House of Representatives, which is a good place to start, but some of its principles could apply in other elections. FairVote supports parallel efforts in states and cities around the country to bring RCV to elections at every level, including both SMDs and MMDs. In SMDs we would not have proportional representation (PR) because we are electing only one member, but RCV would still help third parties because voters would not be afraid of splitting their vote, nor would they feel compelled to vote for the lesser evil. For example, if a progressive voter lived in a swing state in 2016, she could feel free to vote for Jill Stein without fear that her vote might help to elect Donald Trump.
FairVote says on its website that ranked-choice voting “has improved elections in cities and states across the United States” and “has majority support in every U.S. city that uses it.” Those cities include San Francisco, Oakland, San Leandro, and Berkeley in California; Telluride and Basalt in Colorado; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota; Takoma Park, Maryland; and Portland, Maine.
In November, 2016, voters in the state of Maine approved a ballot initiative on RCV, and Maine became the first state in the nation to adopt Ranked Choice Voting for state and federal elections. However, the Republican-led Senate asked Maine’s Supreme Court to rule on the system, and the court issued an advisory (not legally binding) ruling that RCV violates the state constitution. The problem is that RCV requires a majority and the state constitution only requires a plurality, so the state legislature can either repeal the new ranking system and go back to winner-takes-all voting, amend the state constitution to enable RCV, or face a lawsuit it would be likely to lose.. The real problem seems to be political: a 2016 poll of registered independents showed that they were closer to the Democrats than to Republicans, including sitting Republican Gov. Paul LePage, so RCV voting would likely favor Democrats. As it stands, the two parties have filed competing bills. The Democratic bill would amend the constitution and the Republican bill would repeal RCV. The voters favor RCV but the legislature has a slight Republican advantage, so it will be interesting to see how it works out.
If you want to get involved, you can help any of the organizations mentioned in this article. If you want to help Our Revolution, you can volunteer and/or donate. You can also volunteer or donate to existing third parties, such as the Green Party or the Progressive Independent Party. You can get involved in FairVote by contacting your Representative, signing a petition, or donating.