A Brief Overview of the American Voting System

Author: David Yee
Created: 30 July, 2014
Updated: 15 October, 2022
6 min read
...measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.  --James Madison, The Federalist #10

Author's note: The purpose of this article is primarily to provide the historical basis for investigating systems of proportional representation, a democratic voting system designed to level the playing field and represent the maximum percentage of voters.

When only 87 of the 471 (18.5%) U.S. House and Senate seats up for re-election in 2014 are considered competitive by political researchers, we have arrived at a point in American history where most of the votes cast really don't matter.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were marked by sweeping nationwide legislation that introduced Australian balloting and anti-fusion laws. These laws were favored by the two major parties (Democrats and Republicans) and effectively killed most third-party attempts for the next hundred years.

We have become so accustomed to elections being held this way that at this point, we have forgotten that alternative voting methods exist.


The Modern Voting System

The U.S. Constitution states which national positions are electable, the required qualifications for the office, how often each position is elected, who elects them (electors, state legislatures, the people), and the qualifications for voting. The Constitution, however, does not specifically mandate that a certain voting method be used. This task was left to the states.

While voting laws vary from state-to-state, almost all states currently adhere to the following principles:

  • Voting is conducted in secret. It's hard to believe that this is actually a fairly recent practice in democratic systems throughout the world. Within the next 50 years, the United States and several other nations followed Australia's example. The first United States president to be elected through a nationwide secret ballot was Grover Cleveland in 1892.
  • Voting is conducted in designated polling places. Colorado, Oregon, and Washington state have instituted all-mail balloting measures with great success -- so this might become a principle that changes in the next decade. Florida gained national attention in the 2000 presidential election when the election was determined by mail-in absentee ballots. In general, however, voters having to go to a specific polling place at a specific time is the standard for voting in the U.S.
  • Candidates can only run under one party. Prior to the introduction of anti-fusion laws, it was common place for a candidate to run on multiple party tickets. Third parties thrived prior to anti-fusion, and more importantly there was a greater distinction between members of the major parties. For instance, a progressive Republican might have run under the Progressive, Greenback, and Republican tickets, thereby signifying and highlighting the political differences between major party candidates. Candidates earned the total vote tally across party tickets, which meant that the impression of "throwing away" a vote on a third party candidate was not an issue.
  • Only one candidate per party on the general election ballot. This is the root cause of expensive, taxpayer-financed party primaries and caucuses.
  • Single-member districts for the U.S. House. It's hard to fathom a system without congressional districts, but most of the original 13 states elected representatives in statewide at-large ballots. Congressional districts became the law in 1842 and have been used as a political tool ever since.
  • Only one winner per district. With the exception of municipalities and county elections, this is the general rule throughout the United States. It may seem odd to think that a system could exist where multiple people are elected from a single district, but the "winner-take-all" method of voting is not the most common method throughout democratically-elected governments worldwide.
  • Candidates are elected individually. Prior to the 20th century, many states had laws that established "slate" voting -- much like modern corporate elections. Voters balloted for the party slate, not individual candidates. Third parties thrived under these laws, yet voters did not have the option to "pick and choose" candidates on their own merits.
  • Winners are determined by plurality. We like to believe that the "majority rules" in this country, but the fact is that politicians are elected through a system of plurality. Plurality is a system where to win, a candidate must capture a percentage of the vote determined by the number of candidates in the race (i.e. if there are three candidates, 1/3 of the vote plus one vote is needed to win). Abraham Lincoln was elected with the lowest percentage (39.8%) of the popular vote of any U.S. president.
  • Votes are non-transferable.  Non-transferable voting has led to some interesting quirks throughout election history, including one dead person being elected to the U.S. Senate. There is considerable variance in state laws, but in some states, not only are votes non-transferable, but ballots too. In these states, once the party slate has been finalized by primary elections, the ballot itself cannot be changed. This led to the defeat of Senate incumbent John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) in 2000 by Mel Carnahan who had died just 11 days before the election. Because a majority of votes in this country are "wasted," transferable voting is one of the most interesting solutions to make voting competitive again.

Each of these principles taken alone has a level of common sense: protecting voters and the integrity of the system. When taken together, these principles discourage independent campaigns while encouraging partisanship and gerrymandering (especially in congressional districts).

This is not exactly a new problem. The "Gerry" in gerrymandering refers to the founding father and former vice president, Elbridge Gerry. Gerry was also the governor of Massachusetts and during his time in office, he signed into law a bill that reshaped electoral districts to favor the Democratic-Republican Party when it appeared that the Federalist Party was gaining ground in the state.

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Even earlier, Patrick Henry, in a personal vendetta, stooped to the practice by redistricting Virginia's fifth district in an unsuccessful attempt to keep James Madison out of the U.S. House. Though Henry failed in his efforts, stacking the political deck has become the norm in American politics.


The 51 Percent Public Mandate

A lingering issue is that the major political parties believe that winning elections by the narrowest of margins somehow gives them a "mandate" to govern without attempting to build consensus.

One of the founding principles of this republic was the right of the majority to rule, coupled with the right of the minority to be heard in a meaningful forum. Through both legislation and changes in public opinion, this founding principle has given way to a level of

dirty politics where the majority party rams legislation and appointees through the process with little to no meaningful debate.

What remains is a voting population that feels greatly disenfranchised.

Take, for instance, the 2012 presidential election. Obama clearly won the popular vote by over 3.5 million votes, he had a slight edge in the state count by carrying 26 states, and won a super-majority of the electors (61.1%). By all the measures that "matter," Obama had a clear victory. But on the flip side, Romney won 77 percent of the counties nationwide and 51.9 percent of the congressional districts.

Add to this the fact that only 8 states were really considered "competitive" in the election and you have a large number of Americans who feel like their votes didn't count.

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