The way we elect people in this country is a broken system.
In America, representatives at every level are elected using a single-member-district, winner-takes-all system. This means that for every constituency — every little bit of land that has people who need representation — there’s only one representative. It also means that the candidate with the most votes wins the election, even if they fail to win a majority of the popular vote.
On a basic level, this makes a lot of sense. Representatives would represent relatively small constituencies, which would allow the standard voter to get nice and cozy with the person who takes care of their interests on Capitol Hill or in the state capital.
In the United States, the SMD system works pretty darn well in this regard. More often than not, it’s easy for the average constituent to get buddy-buddy with their representative and have real, substantive discussion on local issues.
But there’s a dark side.
When you expand the system and let it work itself out over time, it becomes less and less representative, less and less democratic. For starters, the amount of political parties will always be whittled down to two giant parties. In America, this leaves a whole fringe of voters who feel that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans really understand the kind of issues they deal with.
Secondly, the system marginalizes voters and wastes votes for anyone who dares to vote for the losing candidate. For a two-party system, this can sometimes amount to 45 percent or more of the vote that is ostensibly ignored, leaving a bitter losing side that will either stew in anger for two or more years or leave voters feeling as though they have no voice in the system that’s supposed to represent them.
It’s no wonder Americans turned out in the lowest numbers in years for the 2014 midterm elections.
But what if there were a solution? What if districts had multiple members and the seats were handed out proportionally? Good news! It exists!
And it also happens to be used by most of the world’s democracies. Ninety-six countries (not counting the European Union) use some form of the multi-member district system, though admittedly a hefty 76 countries use the plurality system, like the U.S.
Ultimately though, the draw is a democratic one. Proportional systems are by and large more democratic than their single-member counterparts because they allow multiple parties to flourish. Since most parties only need to meet a threshold in the voting, say 5 percent of all votes, votes are no longer wasted. Parties who would ordinarily be shafted will now maintain a voice in the system.
More than that, a proportional system requires cooperation. A single party is usually unable to grab a majority of seats on its own, so it’s forced to team up and form coalitions with like-minded parties. This cuts down on gridlock and forces cooperation, something that is sorely needed on Capitol Hill at this very moment.
The fact of the matter is this: By the day, America gets more and more polarized, and our Congress becomes hampered by indecision and petty politics. Why is it impossible for America as a nation to contemplate changing the system? When do we take a hard look at the system we created and admit that we could do better?
It would be a sizable change, to be sure, but it wouldn’t be impossible. Maybe states could take the initial plunge, testing the waters to see if it just might work. States are laboratories of democracy, and there’s no reason to not try and see if things work out.
The way any democracy elects its representatives is a vastly complex issue that demands plenty of scrutiny and hard thinking. But the way we, as Americans, choose our representatives demands an attention that just doesn’t exist. As a nation, we should genuinely think about whether or not the way we do things now is the best way, and whether or not “it’s the way we’ve always done it” is really a valid reason not to care.
The Nevada Sagebrush editorial board can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.