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Winner Take All

Writer: Saipranav Golkonda

What’s happening to the current state of our elections and politics?

Our election system is completely flawed. It doesn't help our country, rather it makes it more anti-democratic. What makes matters worse is that the U.S. population isn't even educated about the process or how our elections and government work. Nearly a third of Americans cannot name any of the three branches of government according to a survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

Today, it may seem impossible to imagine the United States government without its two leading political parties, Democrats and Republicans. These same parties were originally feared by the founding fathers and now they control the course of our country. Alexander Hamilton stated that political parties were “the most fatal disease of popular governments”. Despite their warnings, our nation has evolved into a two party system that controls our elections. People in America want more options to voice their vote, but sadly there aren't any. There isn't room for new independent voices to be heard as these parties control our elections. They also want accountability and leadership from their leaders.

Winner Take All

The way that US elections are decided whether it be the House, the Senate, or even the Presidency, comes down to the system of ‘winner takes all’. The winner takes all system demonstrates the idea that you can either win or lose everything, with no in between. Furthermore, you don't necessarily need a majority to win it all.

In fact, we don’t even use a majority system when it comes down to electing officials. What we do use is a plurality based system. A plurality system means that a candidate must win more votes than anyone else, while a majority system is when one candidate must win more than half of the votes.

To put it in context, 48 states give all of their electors to the candidate who wins a majority or plurality of the state popular vote, regardless of how wide or narrow the victory. This completely freezes out even a large minority from gaining any representation in the Electoral College, and drastically magnifies the significance of a handful of votes in arbitrary swing states. As a result, this can be seen as a bipartisan issue as it's unfair to both Republicans and Democrats alike. It also creates another behemoth: a two party system.

How its affecting the prominent political parties

The two party system takes a toll on the Democratic party and the voters that align themselves with it. The Democratic party boasts that they have a ‘big tent’ that has many branches in their following. However this big tent is starting to do real damage to them, as it needs to court its moderate and more progressive base. Regardless of these various ideas, the moderates and progressives of the party unite under the idea that they are inclusive to everyone. However, this inclusivity at times can be very misleading. It can suppress various ideological viewpoints, and at times minority groups move to push a more moderate approach that they believe can unite the party.

A prime example of how quickly candidates change their agendas and ideas can be seen with Elizabeth Warren agreeing to endorse Joe Biden. Warren created her image of never backing down and fighting for Medicare for All as a basic right for the American people. Yet when she withdrew from the race, Warren doubled down on Medicare for All and many other policies she was fighting for. Warren then decided to endorse Biden and say that his policies were better for the country even though they were different from what she was trying to fight for. This can be compared to how sitting Republicans at first despised Trump, but came around to him after he secured the nomination of the party.

The fact that the American people have Donald Trump in the election comes down to the ‘winner take all’ system. This system has enabled Donald Trump to be the face of the Republican party. In the 2016 Republican primary, Trump never got a majority of voters. What he did recieve was a plurality, allowing him to garner around 14 million votes. According to the Pew Research Center, that’s about 5.5 percent of eligible voters. This translated to most Republican voters voting for the ‘not Trump’ option. Yet when President Trump secured the GOP nomination, everyone bowed down to their new face of the party. For example, Sen. Lindsey Graham went from slamming Donald Trump, “I think he’s a kook. I think he’s crazy”, to standing up for him, “What concerns me about the American press is this endless, endless attempt to label the guy as some kind of kook”.

As a result, the “winner take all” system leads to many of the problems that we see in our elections and politics as a whole in America. It targets both parties in that it suppresses the minority opinion. It gives the people a limited amount of choices, and very little chance of influencing the outcome of an election under winner-take-all rules, leading to voters choosing not to participate. Furthermore, It also creates divisive campaigns that fail to address challenging issues and ones that ignore entire constituencies. Under winner-take-all, there is no incentive to reach out to opponents or build cross-party support. At times negative campaigning is often seen as a sensible and effective strategy, and also leads to severe under-representation of women, communities of color, third parties, and young people. These systems do nothing to provide representation to any group making up less than half of the population in a given voting district, and the high percentage of the vote needed to win elections can be a severe barrier to minority candidates.

An Alternative: Can Ranked Choice Voting help solve this problem?

Taking a deeper look at different forms of elections and taking ideas from others will allow us to fine tune our electoral process on a much bigger scale.

One method for conducting elections is Ranked Choice Voting or (RCV). RCV is being implemented and used in many cities/towns all across the country.

Instead of voting for just one candidate, voters rank the options in order of preference. For instance, if anyone gets over 50 percent of the vote they win. However, if no one gets over 50 percent the rules change. The candidate with the fewest number of votes gets taken out. All of the ‘first ranked’ choice votes that particular candidate garners then go to the person you picked for your second choice. Now, after those votes are distributed whoever gets more than 50 percent of the vote wins.

San Francisco has used RCV for electing their Mayor, Board of Supervisors and other city officials since 2003. In fact, San Francisco excels in voter turnout compared to other cities nationwide. Due to this, there have been more and more candidates that don't necessarily come from a two party system. As a matter of fact, there have been independent parties sprouting up to target different needs in their city. RCV has also shown to produce accountability for its politicians and political engagement among its people.

Another great development that has come out of RCV is that it's actually empowering people to create change and lead. This is seen in Cambridge, Massachusetts where it has helped ensure that voters have a full range of choices and have given minority groups a voice. It has given Nadeem Mazen, a former Occupy Boston activist, to become Cambridge’s first Arab American city council member. The use of RCV was critical for Mazen’s election, and as a result the growing minority of voters in Cambridge are gaining more representation in their city.

Ranked-choice voting is increasing the share of racial minority candidates, female candidates, and female minority candidates running compared to similar cities. Research has proven that more minority and female candidates ran because under ranked choice, such candidates could reach out to other communities where they might not be the natural first choice and ask for second-choice votes. The research also shows the more women or minority groups were more likely to run because under the traditional winner-take-all elections, “women were deterred from running for office by …. negative campaigning that it produces.” So it's reasonable to assume that with less negative campaigning and even cooperative campaigning more people can run for office.

All of these examples shed light on the need to expand ranked-choice voting, which is gaining steam, and of more incipient efforts to move our elections away from zero-sum winner-take-all, single-plurality winner affairs, toward proportional multi-winner elections. This would give us a more fluid party system that is more in line with our constitutional design. It would also lead to more accountability among politicians, higher levels of turnout and a higher degree of empowerment in POC communities.

This means changing our electoral institutions. Although broad electoral system change is never easy, anything less at this point seems useless.

There are many important conversations to have on the best way forward. But first, we have to admit that we have a problem. And the problem right now is that the two-party system is trapped in a doom loop. It allows for limited choices and has given us the only two options in the upcoming presidential election. We must understand that it can’t get off of this loop on its own, and we have to be the ones to implement the change.


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