It’s time to change our country’s voting system


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Sarah Michels

In a little over 11 months, we will elect the next president of the United States. Millions will rush to the polls to perform their civic duty.

But millions will not. Convinced their vote doesn’t mean anything, they will choose to stay home. With the current voting system, I can’t say they’re wrong.

The United States operates on a voting system called SMDP, a single majoritarian district plurality system. It sounds complicated, but really, it’s the simplest of all voting systems. Voters cast a single vote for a candidate in a district with only one seat, and the candidate who wins the most votes wins that seat in office.

Sounds great, right? In my opinion, the weaknesses of this system greatly outweigh its singular strength of simplicity.

First, the label of “majoritarian” is misleading—unlike some other voting systems, candidates do not require an absolute majority, 50 percent of all votes, to gain office. They simply need a plurality of the votes; as long as they are the candidate with the highest percentage of votes, whether that’s 70 percent or 40 percent, they win. This isn’t a huge deal in the US’s two-party presidential system, where one party usually gets an absolute majority of the votes, or pretty close to one after factoring in third party candidates and write-ins. But it is still less representative of the voters’ true preferences than it could be.

The second disadvantage of SMDP systems is decidedly more problematic. While no electoral system completely erases the possibility of strategic voting, SMDP encourages or even requires it. Strategic voting is when voters do not vote according to their true preferences. This may mean they don’t vote for the Green Party or Libertarian Party candidate because if they did, their vote would be wasted. They would rather vote for their second or third choice in place of their first choice so as to avoid their last choice getting elected.

This doesn’t have to be the case. Changing the voting system can allow voters to simultaneously vote according to their sincere preferences while not wasting their votes.

The SMDP system is not the best choice in state and district elections either. It incentivizes candidates to only focus on a small group of constituents’ wants, which can lead to pork barreling, when legislators agree to pass a bill after they’ve added subsections granting their specific district money for localized projects. This leads to extremely lengthy bills whose purpose by the end of the process isn’t entirely clear.

Candidates are not necessarily rewarded by their constituents when they do something to further the nation’s general needs, but they are rewarded when they pander to extremely local policy points. I personally see this as a negative.

I am by no means a political science expert, but I think the weaknesses of the SMDP system are not worth its simplicity. I would encourage the government to begin consideration of a new proportional voting system called STV, single transferable vote.

STV is a ranking voting system. Voters receive a ballot with multiple candidates on it from multiple parties. They then rank the candidates according to their preferences, even across party lines if they would like.

This system occurs in multimember districts, which means there is more than one seat up for grabs in each district. But it also includes a quota, a required percentage of votes, for a candidate to qualify for office consideration. This allows for more representative legislators while avoiding the potential election of extreme or niche candidates. This means minorities have a greater chance to be represented in office than in the SMDP system.

When the votes are first tallied, only the first-ranked candidates are counted. If any candidate receives an absolute majority in the first round, they win a seat. If not, the candidate with the least percentage of votes is dropped from the tally, and the first-choice votes they received are redistributed to the other candidates according to their voters’ second choices.

This process goes on until someone wins a majority. In STV systems, since there are multiple seats, it goes on until all seats are filled.

This system ensures that most votes are not wasted. Even if your first-choice candidate is a long shot, you can rest assured that at least your second or third choice vote will count. There is a much smaller incentive for strategic voting. Therefore, the candidates who win office give a truer picture of what the population’s actual preferences are, which can aid legislators in making more appropriate policies for the nation.

The STV system gives candidates a reason to appeal outside their typical constituency, since they know that the voters who choose them as their second-choice candidate will likely become vital to their success. This keeps the link between candidates and constituents strong, but not so strong as to sacrifice urgent national needs for less urgent local ones.

There are weaknesses to the STV system, most obviously its complicated and costly nature compared to our current system. However, I think it’s an insult to Americans to say that we wouldn’t be able to handle this voting system.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 90 percent of Americans over 25 had at least a high school degree, as of 2018, and our literacy rate is off the charts. The system is complicated, but not that complicated.

The time and money commitment is great. However, the Untied States has consistently ranked as one of the lowest democracies in terms of electoral integrity on the PEI scale, according to the Electoral Integrity Project. For a nation that boasts about how democratic and free it is, we can do better.

If we enact a ranking voting system like STV, I believe the longevity of the United States will increase. It’s time to invest in our nation’s future and start giving voters the chance to tell the government what they really want