First Past the Post: Holding the United States Back
The Case for a Two Round Election System,
and the rise of the American Third Party
The United States presidential system is the crown jewel of America’s political identity and one of our most cherished institutions. Because of this, we as Americans are extremely reluctant to revise our system, however badly it may need it. In recent years, the weaknesses of the United States’ First Past the Post election system have been exposed, even highlighted, by the election of plurality presidents in two of the last three general elections. This is a large problem for the functioning of the government, not only is the plurality president often ineffective because of lacking congressional majorities; he also lacks the mandate of the people, decreasing the legitimacy of his government.
First Past the Post is an inherently flawed election system because it is a zero sum game. The winning candidate wins absolutely, and his absolute victory is counter-balanced by the absolute loss by the other candidates. This often leads to plurality presidents when more than two candidates are involved in the election. It also ensures that the (often significant) portion of voters that did not vote for the winning candidate are entirely unrepresented by the president elect. First Past the Post works best in a strictly two party system, with two candidates, ensuring that someone will receive a majority. In fact, French political scientist Maurice Duverger argues that a First Past the Post election system naturally leads to a two party structure [i]. Duverger’s argument has clear examples in the United States’ electoral past. In the 1836 presidential election, Martin Van Buren, the Democratic Party’s candidate, won 50.83% of the popular vote, and was elected to the presidency. He was opposed by three candidates: William Harrison (36.63%), Hugh White (9.72%), and Daniel Webster (2.74%), all of the Whig party. It appears that the Democrats handily defeated the opposition (a 14.2% lead over the next closest vote getter). However, upon closer examination, had all of the Whigs consolidated their votes, they would have commanded 49.09% of the vote, leaving the Democrats with a razor thin 1.74% margin of victory. In the following election, in 1840, the Whigs all campaigned behind a single candidate, William Harrison, and garnered 52.88% of the vote, compared with Van Buren’s 46.81%. The Whigs learned an important lesson in consolidating for victory, an example that has been followed by many contemporary political groups that compete in First Past the Post systems. Just as the similar Whig candidates consolidated to achieve victory, smaller political parties are forced to conglomerate to form a larger contingent that can garner an electoral majority. In fact, the 1840 election was the last time in United States history that an election would be (seriously) split between more than two candidates [ii].
Because of the First Past the Post system that has been institutionalized in the United States, it is easy to see why it has developed a two party environment, which is not necessarily detrimental. Two party systems tend to be very stable, and
the United States has been no exception. In addition, each large party tends to be a conglomeration of ideals, thereby representing a diverse set of views. Because of the heterogeny of a large party, it is difficult for unconventional or extremist ideas to gain a foothold; they are tempered by the more moderate members of the party. However, two party systems are not necessarily ideal. Because each party must assimilate so many viewpoints, both are drawn toward the center of the political spectrum. In the United States, the Republicans and Democrats have become so similar that in many respects, they stand for the same thing. This results in a slow moving mass of government; it is hard for progressive ideals to take root, no matter which party is in power. Additionally, the dualistic nature of the two party system produces a strong incentive for current minority party to undermine the efforts of the current majority party. By discrediting their opposition, a party can take advantage of the zero sum nature of First Past the Post elections – every loss for one party is automatically a gain for the other. This makes it very difficult to achieve anything in government, as the parties are constantly butting heads with the next election in mind [iii].
Another criticism of the First Past the Post election system that exists in the United States is that it encourages tactical voting. It is very difficult for voters to express their dissatisfaction with the two major parties. Although there may
be alternative, small third parties on the ballot, they stand no chance of winning. These small parties have no chance of winning precisely because voters know they have no chance of winning [iv]. A far leftist Green party member may prefer to vote for his own candidate, and harbor an intense dislike for the Republican candidate. However, instead of voting for his true preference, the Green candidate, he votes for the more moderate Democrat, knowing that his vote for the Green candidate is “wasted”, he cannot win anyway. Thus, his vote is not for the Democrat, but against the Republican. This self-perpetuating cycle makes it very difficult for third political parties to break into American politics, in addition to being unrepresentative of the public’s true sympathies.
Examining the deficiencies of the two party system begs the question: Would a third party be beneficial to the United States’ political climate? The existence of a third party would certainly alleviate some of the biggest flaws in the current
political climate. Also, almost 60% of Americans believe that a third candidate should contest the presidential election [v]. The creation of a third, specifically centrist party would allow the Republicans and the Democrats to begin to shift to the right and left. This would create a more diversified political culture that allows for more differentiation in political views. It would also open up the institution to further criticism, and increase its receptiveness to change. Because more voices would have a voice, and the political system is not constrained to a polar model, there is much more room to “flow”. The third party would also go a long way toward promoting efficient government by eliminating the incentive to
undermine opposing parties, and replacing it with an incentive to work together. By adding a third party, the presidential race is no longer a strict, two party zero sum game. If the Republicans lose popularity, those votes do not necessarily transfer directly to the Democrats, they may easily swing to the new, third party instead. This encourages the parties to actively try to win votes for themselves, rather than “stealing” them from the opposing party. A three party system not only removes the incentive to undermine, it creates an incentive to cooperate at the same time. It is more beneficial for a minority party to work with the majority party to accomplish improvements, demonstrating their ability to institute new policies, and garnering support in the next election.
The benefits of a third party in the United States are clear, but it is also clear that because of Duverger’s law, it would be nearly impossible for one to take root under the current electoral system. However, by implementing a two round election system, it is possible to greatly increase the viability of a third party. In the two round election system, any number of candidates would be free to run in the first round election. Should any candidate receive 50% of the votes, they are immediately elected. However, in the event that no candidate receives a majority, the top two vote getters would advance to a “run-off” election, with the winner being elected [vi]. This type of system allows the voting public much more freedom to express their preference in candidate. For example, in the 2000 presidential election, George Bush Sr. received 50,460,110 votes, Al Gore received 51,003,926 votes, and Ralph Nader received 2,883,105 votes. However, George Bush Sr. won the election because he received the majority of the electoral votes [vii]. It was widely recognized that Nader and Gore held similar views on many subjects, and most of Nader’s voters would have preferred Gore as their second choice. If the United States had used a two round election system, Nader would have been eliminated after the first round, leaving only Bush and Gore. Had only 75% of Nader’s votes gone to Gore in the second round election, that would have been enough to allow Gore to win the majority (instead of Bush) in Iowa, Florida, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wisconsin, and win the presidency by a landslide (electorally). He also would have been elected with over 50% of the popular vote, whereas Bush was sworn in with only 47.87%[viii]. This outcome would have been more representative of the American people, and would have earned the legitimacy and majority it required to run efficiently.
Although the two round election system is clearly more representative, it has some drawbacks. By its very nature, it requires that the national election, a massive undertaking, be conducted twice. In addition to doubled costs, this would likely result in lowered voter turnout for the second round. The United States already has enough trouble getting its citizens to turn out to vote once, let alone twice for the same election. The two round election also results in a longer electoral process, increasing uncertainty between presidential terms.
These problems are not fatal however, as the system could be modified to only require voters to visit the polls once. Instead of only allowing each voter to select one candidate on their trip to the voting booth, allow them to select a first and second choice. After all of the (first choice) votes are counted, if no candidate has a majority, the lowest vote getter is eliminated, and all ballots cast for him are redistributed to their second choice, creating an “instant run off”. This election system would guarantee representation to third parties, while also avoiding the increased cost and decreased voter turnout of a second round election, and always select a majority president [ix].
After analyzing the current United States First Past the Post election system and two party environment, it is obvious that change is necessary. The current system is exclusive to third parties, and sometimes elects leaders that do not hold the mandate of the people. Implementing a two round election system is a minor adjustment that doesn’t threaten the idealized American institution, and could easily be implemented. By allowing increased voice and representation for a third party, the United States would be moving closer toward the perpetual goal of a more perfect union.
[i] Maurice Duverger, Factors in a Two-Party and Multiparty System, 1
[ii] Augustin Masquilier, Plurality: Misleading Duality, 10
[iii] Masquilier, 3
[iv] Connie L. Mah, Elections: by the People for the People, 1
[v] “US Electoral System Flawed, Overpraised – Russian Officials.” BBC Worldwide Monitoring.
[vi] Ben Reilly and Andrew Reynolds, Two-Round System, 1
[vii] Dave Leip, 2000 Presidential Election Results, 1
[viii] Leip, 2000 Presidential Election Data Graphs National by State, 1
[ix] Jim C. Staff, Green Party Candidate Says System Needs to Be Changed, 2