Reforming the Voting System

The fabric of the American Empire ought to rest on the solid basis of THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE. The streams of national power ought to flow immediately from that pure, original foundation of all legitimate authority. – Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers

I haven't voted since I stopped taking drugs. That was in the late '70s, and the delusional thinking stopped immediately on both fronts. – George Carlin

It would be too obvious if voting was illegal, so instead the two parties and their corporate sponsors choose the candidates and the issues by avoiding the four things that could help insure that voters get fair representation:

  • 1. Regulated, limited, public campaign financing with little or no private campaign financing allowed.
  • 2. Direct voting.
  • 3. Proportional representation.
  • 4. Instant runoff voting.


In the United States we have the plurality voting system, commonly known as the “winner–take–all” system. The central tenet of our voting system is the oft-repeated refrain, the one with the most votes wins. Simply stated like that, it seems quite reasonable and fair, but this is not the case at all. In fact, winner–take–all, also known as “first–past–the–post,” is the worst possible voting system, and it is disdained by most of the other democracies in the world, including the European parliament. The American voting system, which we inherited from the British in the 18th century, poorly represents the electorate; it is undemocratic inflexible, and it maintains the domination of the two major parties, which many people consider to be one big party with two faces. At present, a steam–rolling, two–party machine gives you two choices – you can be part of the machine or you can be part of the street. Magician Raymond Teller (of Penn and Teller) calls it a “magician's choice” where the choice is rigged. He says there are “two identical incumbent organizations pretending to be different so that we will vote the same old mob back into power.” Another magician's trick is misdirection, whereby a string of minor issues is turned into news events in order to keep the electorate's collective mind off the important subjects.

I examine all of these issues in depth in my book in the chapter on Politics, but for now I will focus on the problems with our winner–take–all system. Our House Representatives are elected in single member districts designed through the use of oddly–shaped districts called “gerrymanders” to insure that only a Democrat or a Republican can win. Every ten years, after the census, there is a family quarrel over which party will dominate in which district. Get ready, it will happen again after 2010. In other words, the parties decide how to choose the voters. Under proportional representation, larger districts are drawn up to include multiple representatives. The representatives are chosen proportionately.

Say, for example, you had ten representatives in a district instead of one. If Republicans won 40% of the vote, they would get 4 representatives. If an independent reached the 10% threshold, she would also be elected. In the winner–take–all system if the Republican won 35%, the Democrat won 34% and the Independent won 31% then the Republican would take it all and be the winner. In this case, 65% of the voters would go unrepresented. This is why in the U.S. third party challengers are almost always losers, and why in most other democracies people are better represented and there are multiple voices. We would not want to only have two choices of bread, so why only have two choices in politics? Elections should be about the competition of ideas. Our two–party system limits the choices and short–changes the voters.

In a single member district that encompasses a whole state (Governor) or the whole country (President), we should use instant runoff voting. Al Gore won the popular vote by more than half a million votes, while George W. Bush was awarded the Electoral College by the Supreme Court under highly contentious and perhaps dubious circumstances. That was unfair enough in itself, but it was Ralph Nader who really spoiled it for Gore. (Democrats have spoiled elections for Republicans too, so the sword of “The Spoiler” can cut both ways.)

In this gubernatorial race I am running as a Democrat, but if I see that I cannot win the primary, and switch to run as an independent, Alex Sink would be sunk whether or not I win the election. Why? Because more Democrats would vote for me than Republicans and Sink would not have enough votes to defeat the Republican. Then I would be The Spoiler, reviled by Sink Democrats but cheered on by the Republicans, just as they cheered (and even offered to help) when Ralph Nader was spoiling it for Gore.

If elected, I will do everything in my power to make Florida a model for national voting reform so there will never be a spoiler again, voters can vote their conscience without having to strategize their votes, everyone will have better representation, and gerrymanders will become extinct.

E-mail: campaign@MichaelEArth.org