With accusations of corruption and cross-voting piling up in Alabama's elections, and more polarization than ever at the national level, young voters increasingly question America’s conflict-ridden two-party system.
Since the 2016 election, I’ve hardly met another person my age who calls themself a Democrat or Republican. Most call themselves independent or “more” libertarian but end up unhappily aligning with one of the major parties when elections come along. If no one’s happy with this system, we should change it!
Many assume that since we’ve had a two-party system for so long, that’s just the way we do things, so we shouldn’t question it. We’re America, so of course, our system is the best in the world. While I love America more than any other country, I completely reject such a mindset. Democracy is still a relatively young political system, and it is a huge benefit that we get to watch other democratic countries experiment with a variety of voting and party systems. We are fools if we never ask whether there’s a better way to do things. The two-party system is not enshrined in the Constitution.
Now, Alabama does have rules in place which enable third parties to secure ballot access. I was delighted to see that this year, for the first time in two decades, the Libertarian party of Alabama gained statewide ballot access for this year’s general election. Among other requirements, they had to submit a petition with 51,588 valid signatures. Looking at the website of the Libertarian party of AL, they actually aimed to collect 70,000 signatures, which required the work of countless volunteers and a budget of at least $250,000.
I know we don’t want our ballot clogged up by every random person and their cohort who wants your vote, but this list of rules sounds like gatekeeping by the parties in power who don’t want additional challengers. Some states even ban libertarians and independents from voting in primaries. How can anyone not see that as corrupt? Banning citizens from voting?
Why do we suffer this stagnant and chaotic pendulum of party politics when America’s entire political system relies on the concept of checks and balances?
A multiparty system may create better balance in our increasingly divided political landscape, yet in my investigation of other democratic systems, I wonder if the true problem lies in the way America collects votes.
America largely uses a first-past-the-post or simple majority voting system, which means the person with the most votes wins. Rules vary between states, but in Alabama, in the general election, the winner does not need an outright majority of votes to win, just a plurality. So even if the winner only receives 40% of total votes, if that’s more votes than any other single candidate received, they win, leaving 60% of voters unhappy, their principles not truly represented.
In such a system, even if third parties thrive and independents manage to get on the ballot, that doesn’t mean people will vote for them. Because voters, in a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy, decide third-party candidates can’t win, so they don’t vote for them - they want their vote to count.
Other methods of selecting representatives exist, which may result in a more balanced government. Some European countries use proportional representation, in which the share of seats allotted to a political party matches the share of votes their party received. So, if 40% of voters selected a candidate from a minority party, rather than losing outright to a candidate with a larger percentage of the vote, the party receives 40% of seats, while the majority party receives 60% of seats. This system is said to more accurately reflect public opinion. Countries like Britain and Italy made these changes to their national voting system after a push for reform.
Other countries used ranked voting, where voters rank candidates in order of preference, and if there is not a clear majority winner, the candidate who received the least votes is eliminated. The ballots that listed the defeated candidate as the top choice are reexamined and the votes transferred to the candidates listed as the second choice. In such a system, a voter could pick a lesser-known candidate, knowing that if they lose, their vote will still end up counting. Some U.S. states have actually started using this system, including Alaska, Maine and jurisdictions in eight other states.
A similar, but perhaps simpler, system is positional voting. Also a ranked voting system, candidates receive points of differing value based on rankings. For instance, if there are four candidates in an election, the one ranked first on a voter’s ballot receives 4 points, the second choice receives 3 points, the third choice receives 2 points, and the last choice only receives 1 point. All points are tallied and the candidate with the most overall points wins. This system seems to choose the candidate who is most “averagely” liked across all voters.
Is first-past-the-post voting the most effective way of tallying votes? Of all these systems, it actually seems to leave the most voters unhappy, and I wonder if America still uses this method just because it’s the easiest to understand and implement. If we’re the greatest country in the world, we should reject such laziness.
But if America, for example, implemented positional voting, more moderate candidates would likely see great success. Democrat voters would likely list their party’s candidate as their top choice and a libertarian as their second choice, and if Republicans did likewise, the libertarian would actually receive the most points overall. The more extreme ends of the political spectrum would grumble, but be happier than if the opposite party had won.
Then, would it even matter if America still technically only allowed two parties? Our votes would always count, which would empower citizens to vote more boldly for candidates they actually want, not just the ones they think have a chance to win. The resulting elected leaders might secure compromises more effectively, and actually represent the majority of Americans, who lean moderate.
Now, a brief survey of other voting systems cannot examine all their potential logistical or theoretical problems. Maybe all these systems are worse than America’s current one.
But now is the time to ask these questions. A house divided against itself cannot stand, and America is nothing if not divided these days. If we can save America and restore some respect and unity by updating our national voting system, shouldn’t we jump at the possibility?
Caylah Coffeen is the host of Prayers For Life Radio in Huntsville, and a millennial who speaks up for truth and a future as bright as the stars. Her column appears every Friday in 1819 News. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819News.com.
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