One of the fundamental laws of psephology (the study of elections) is Duverger’s Law. This “law” affirms that in single-member districts, where the winner is whoever wins the most votes (plurality voting), the system will produce two major parties.
The presence of third parties naturally encourages strategic voting, in which a voter will not choose his or her favorite candidate in order to avoid a “worse” outcome, such as the victory of his or her least preferred candidate.
Though this law has its exceptions (the Liberal Democrats in the U.K. hold 57 seats in the House of Commons), it largely explains the predominance of a political duopoly in the United States and the poor electoral performance of third-party and independent candidates.
However, neither of these ingredients -- plurality voting or single-member districts -- is constitutionally mandated. Modulating either or both of these features could incentivize different kinds of voting behaviors and outcomes that could reduce the grip of both parties, minimize strategic voting, and yield greater representation for individual voters and the public.
Beyond Plurality Voting in Single-Member Districts
While the plurality voting system, in which each voter selects one candidate and the candidate with the most votes wins, has been the historical norm in the United States, there have been -- and still are -- other ways to elect government officials.
Our country’s founders, including Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison, were quite familiar with the works of (and academic feud between) Marquis de Condorcet and Jean-Charles de Borda -- both of whom proposed alternative voting methods for determining which candidate would win an election.
- In the Condorcet method, rather than selecting one candidate, voters rank all (or a limited number) of the candidates listed on the ballot (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.). Then, each candidate is paired in a head-to-head contest against each of the other candidates to determine who fares best overall. However, because of the complexity of its various counting techniques and its costliness, the system is unpopular in electoral politics.
- Borda counting, like the Condorcet method, begins with voters ranking the candidates on a ballot. Then, points are assigned in reverse order. For instance, assuming there are 5 candidates on a ballot, the candidate ranked first would be assigned 5 points, the candidate ranked second would be assigned 4 points, etc. The candidate who receives the most points overall is the winner.
- Similar to Borda counting is range voting. However, rather than ranking the candidates in an ordinal fashion, voters assign each candidate a raw score (such as 0-9, or 0-99), and the candidate with the highest overall score is the winner. A species of range voting is approval voting, in which voters are allowed to vote for multiple candidates, though in a simple binary (0 – 1, “yes” or “no”) fashion.
- A more complex preferential voting method is the instant-runoff vote (IRV) or, as it is called and practiced in Australia, the alternative vote (AV). Under this method, voters rank their preferences (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.) for the candidates. Next, all ballots are examined to determine the number of “first” choices. If there is no outright majority, the candidate with the fewest “first” choices is eliminated, and the second-ranked candidates from these ballots are assigned to the remaining ones. This process continues until one candidate receives a majority.
Political scientists who study the trade-offs that come with each method recognize their flaws, but generally agree that they can reduce -- but do not eliminate -- the occurrence of strategic voting. In other words, one may keep single-member districts but eliminate the first-past-the-post method and allow voters to more honestly express their political preferences.
How We Ended Up with Single-Member Districts
As IVN contributor David Yee explained in his overview of America’s voting system, states have not always divided themselves into congressional districts. Indeed, before an 1842 law mandating single-member districts, many states utilized at-large elections.
Parties preferred this method for a simple reason: whichever party received the most votes statewide won all of the state’s House seats.Rob Richie and Andrew Spencer
cite the case of Alabama: in 1839, the state used single-member districts in its congressional elections, and the Democrats won 3 seats to the Whigs’ 2. To dominate the delegation, the state switched to an at-large approach, and in 1841, Democrats won the most votes in the state overall and thus sent 5 Democrats to the House.
States, especially those in the South, also used at-large elections rather than single-member districts to keep blacks from winning even a single House seat.
Despite the 1842 federal law, several states, such as Hawaii and New Mexico, flouted the mandate and still used the at-large method. However, Congress intervened again following court cases out of states such as Illinois, Indiana, and Tennessee, when residents complained that their states’ congressional districts were unfairly drawn.
Fearing that the Supreme Court would intervene and impose at-large elections, Congress reinstated the use of single-member districts in 1967.
Some members of Congress recognized a selfish motive behind this law. Sen. Hiram Fong of Hawaii, for instance – aware of how politicians are able to manipulate the redistricting process to secure their own partisan advantage – commented:
"This bill, as I see it, is framed only for States such as Indiana; under court order to elect their Representatives at-large. This bill would relieve these states of this necessity, so that the bill really is drawn to benefit them, and not the state of Hawaii."
This long history of electoral reform reveals a persistent problem: Originally, parties in some states preferred the at-large method because it allowed them to dominate their states' delegations. Nevertheless, following the mandate and regularization of single-member districts, politicians still found a way to manipulate the process through techniques like gerrymandering to reduce political competition and thus retain partisan hegemony.
In other words, the switch from at-large elections to single-member districts did not represent a solution to the problem of partisan dominance and control – only its miniaturization.
Beyond Single-Member Districts
Just as electoral reform could replace the plurality method, changes to current law could allow for the replacement of single-member districts.FairVote
advocates creating fewer congressional districts with 3-5 members each, allowing for proportional representation. For instance, if a third-party candidate wins 20 percent of the vote in a “super district” with 5 members, that candidate would be sent to the House.
According to FairVote's analysis, a combination of multi-member districts and the single transferable vote (STV, here called “choice voting,” is the use of the alternative vote in multiple-member districts) would greatly improve the political representation of all ideological groups – centrist, moderate, and extreme.
Another possibility is to repeal the single-member district mandate and return to at-large congressional elections. However, instead of making these elections winner-take-all (as was the case with Alabama in 1841) and thus benefiting each state’s political majority, representatives could be allocated using proportional representation (using, for example, the Jefferson method, originally devised by Thomas Jefferson to allocate House seats among the states).
While our current laws and norms reinforce an electoral system that naturally produces two parties, nothing in the Constitution mandates this arrangement -- a fact that is underscored by the scholarship and warnings of the founders who drafted it. Though some state constitutions are less flexible than others, there is nothing an amendment cannot alter.
Besides plurality voting, which strongly encourages strategic voting, there is a multitude of ways to select a politician without voters having to compromise, misrepresent, or distort their preferences so egregiously. Borda counting and the alternative vote have been successfully applied domestically and internationally, and they -- in addition to range voting -- have strong support from academia because of the options they provide voters.
Moreover, at the national level, single-member districts are not irreplaceable. They may be replaced by multiple-member districts that allow for proportional representation, or they can be dissolved all together and replaced with statewide, at-large elections that use proportional representation rather than a winner-take-all method of seat allocation.