So, You Think Multiparty Would be Better? The Grass is Always Greener

Every presidential election season, debate abounds amongst pundits on the relative fairness of our national two-party system compared to so-called “multiparty” or coalition systems. Is our current system broken? Are multiparty systems superior? These debates reduce down, fundamentally, to the differences between proportional representation (PR) and plurality, or winner-take-all representation. The problem is, neither of these systems is actually ideal.

Duverger’s law states that plurality-based electoral systems tend towards duopolies (two parties) and proportional systems towards multiple parties. In a proportional system, votes are tallied as in a plurality system, but unlike a plurality system, seats are apportioned not by which individuals won which seats, but rather by what percentage their host party won in the broader election, be it regionally or nationally. It’s like in peewee sports where everyone gets a trophy, the first place team gets a bigger trophy, but most who play, win, politically speaking.

In plurality voting, the individual with the most votes for any specific seat, even if it’s not a majority of votes, wins that seat. This is more akin to professional sports where there is only one winner. It’s the lack of a majority requirement that facilitates the trend towards duopolies and away from marginal or minority political viewpoints. The majority requirement could be done away with by adding an instant run-off or multi-ballot function to our existing system.

The primary difference between the two systems is that in one, plurality voting, up to half of participants may end up with a representative they didn’t vote for, and in a proportional system those with marginal ideas, like anti-gay nativists groups for example, are given the same platform as those with more broadly accepted ideas like tolerance and internationalism.

Suppose, for example, that this election season there were 100 seats available in the Oregon Senate. 41% of the population votes for Republicans, 41% votes for Democrats, and the final 18% is split equally between parties like the Oregon Working Families Party, the Green Party, and the Libertarian Party.

In a multi-party system, 41 seats would go to Dems, 41 to Reps, and the final 18 would be split amongst the three smaller parties. Under a plurality voting system, in every race where a candidate won the plurality, they would win that seat, and smaller parties are much less likely to gain representation.

The need to reach a plurality, as opposed to a majority, represents a systemic barrier for novel, marginal, or minority political viewpoints. Compounding this is the natural tendency for individuals to self-sort into ideologically homogenous groups. This behavior, when coupled with a geographically defined plurality-based voting system, tends towards duopoly in the political sphere akin to the kind seen today. It’s because of this phenomenon, and the potential for up to 49% of a population to be represented by someone they did not vote for, that proponents of proportional representation maintain that plurality-based voting systems are less democratic.

While that may be true, it’s also true that in a plurality-based system 51% of a given population can drag the other 49% kicking and screaming in one direction, as was the case during the Civil Rights era, and today with the debate over marriage equality.

While a plurality-based system may hamper the efforts of third party candidates, in PR systems a minority ideology of the population can keep 70-80% of a divided population from making any decisions, formally known as a “Hung Parliament” or “divided government”.

While the Tea Party is nominally part of the Republican party, their voting behavior differs wildly from traditional Republicans, and demonstrates the danger in coalition governance found in multiparty systems. The Tea party is able to wield disproportionate authority vis a vis their coalition with the broader Republican Party, something that is common in PR systems, and amongst ideological minorities that they have nothing to lose from leveraging the inherent weakness of coalition governments.

These coalitions are more susceptible to factionalism, and the gridlock that occurs as a consequence is just as toxic and dangerous to democracy as the kind afflicting the duopoly in the United States right now. Imagine how deadlocked and toxic Washington would be if not only the Tea party faction had a voice, but so too did the Occupy faction, an equally small but marginalized ideology.

Furthermore there is little to no debate about whether or not proportional voting engenders more third party access to political power. And there’s no agreement on whether one system is “better” than the other. There are a host of issues that plague both systems, from factionalism and corruption to gridlock and partisan brinksmanship.

Proponents of PR systems argue that plurality-based systems are less democratic because sometimes one’s preference is not a popular one—this is simply not true. One tacitly accepts that when voting for one candidate over another, should one’s preference not be selected by the plurality, one still goes along with the plurality—or at minimum acts as part of the loyal opposition, eschewing obstructionism for reasoned debate.

Conversely, just because the system appears to be “more democratic” doesn’t mean it will be “better” for a given population. An excellent example of this is the far right anti-immigration populist parties that have infiltrated otherwise liberal governments in France, Norway, and Finland. These groups are responsible for burqa bans, draconian immigration measures, and various other populist nativist proposals.

So while PR might be nominally more democratic and might increase access to alternative candidates, it also opens the door for minority reactionary parties who are opposed to modernity. Furthermore, PR disproportionately benefits larger states while weakening the political autonomy of smaller states in national elections.

If despite the risks you still want a multiparty system, you get to it by changing how our society apportions seats in government. There exists no law that stipulates that the United States only have two parties, it’s an effect of the way by which we tally voter opinion. Simply put the United States will not have multiple viable parties unless and until it changes from a plurality-based allocation of seats to a proportional system.  So long as we continue to follow the one person one vote one seat model we will likely always have two dominant parties, not because of a grand conspiracy to silence minority viewpoints, but because of the physics of the system itself.

A majority requirement in plurality voting systems necessitates something akin to either multiple ballots per election, which according to Duverger’s law, leads inexorably towards coalition governments, or instant runoff voting in which individuals rank their choices—instead of choosing one candidate, voters rank their choices by preference. Should no clear majority for first choice candidates exist, the candidate with the fewest votes is removed and those who voted for him first have their votes for second preference apportioned. Should no clear majority exist the process is repeated until there is.

While this sounds good in practice, instant runoff voting and multi-ballot voting would require a tremendous amount of additional time, effort, and computing power to tally and tabulate the final results of a national election. Instant runoff, as opposed to multi-ballot, initiatives would likely make our system fairer without saddling it with the weakness inherent in coalition based governance.

By William Tatum