In America we do democracy by dividing the territory into districts, and electing one representative from each district. We elect them by plurality, that is, by whichever candidate gets the most votes, whether or not they get an absolute majority. If there are three candidates, a candidate can win with 40% support, for example.

This is not the only way democracy can be done. Other countries, fully democratic, do it in other ways. The way we do it, single-winner districts won by plurality, has some big systemic flaws. Every American knows these flaws, we live with them every election: Gerrymandering and the Spoiler Effect.

The Spoiler Effect makes it almost impossible to challenge the two largest parties. Under single-winner Plurality, voting for small parties is both useless and harmful. This means many voters with different points of view, and different issues, are unrepresented. Adding to this, Gerrymandering makes most districts into effective one-party states. When the dominant party in a legislature draws district lines to suit themselves, they deliberately "waste" as many opposition votes as possible, drawing the lines to make such votes either impotent or superfluous. Gerrymandering is used to make as many "safe" districts as possible, to make incumbents immune to challenge. There is less turnover in the U.S. House than there was in the Soviet Politburo. Gerrymandering also creates exaggerated majorities, and even false majorities, where parties with minority support get a majority of seats.

Gerrymandering and the Spoiler Effect are not necessary parts of democracy. There are other ways of doing democracy that don't have these problems. Every district can be competitive, and every voter can be a "swing" voter.

Gerrymandering is abolished by abolishing single-winner districts. If a district elects only one representative to the legislature, it makes a BIG difference where the district lines are drawn. If we use larger districts, where every district elects five representatives or more, distributed among the parties in proportion to voter support, where the lines are drawn makes no practical difference to the outcome. Proportional Representation greatly reduces "wasted votes". Instead of having a maximum of 50% of voters having effective votes (necessary to elect a winner), with proportional representation 80%, 90%, 95% of voters can elect a winner. The more representatives per district, the higher the percentage can be. Alternative parties can challenge the top two much more easily; if they get 10% of the vote, they get 10% of the seats in the legislature. With Proportional Representation, there is no spoiler effect; there is no penalty for voting for small parties.

For those elections that MUST have a single winner, such as for Mayor, Governor, or President, the Spoiler Effect is abolished by switching from plurality to another voting system that does not suffer from it. The simplest one is Approval voting: allow voters to vote "yes" or "no" for EACH candidate, saying "yes" to as many (or few) candidates as they wish. The candidate with the most "yes" votes wins.

To learn more about Proportional Representation, see http://www.fairvote.org and the book REAL CHOICES, NEW VOICES, by Douglas J. Amy. For more on the advantages of Approval voting, see

(What about Instant Runoff Voting, IRV? It is an improvement over Plurality, and I would support it and vote for it. But it is not the best alternative. It solves the spoiler effect, but it has a systemic flaw of its own, the Center Squeeze Effect; it sometimes malfunctions by picking a larger "wing" party over a smaller centrist party, even though a clear majority of all the voters would have preferred the centrist.)

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Comment by jay H on January 18, 2013 at 7:57pm

An alternative approach to the Gerrymander problem is to require (depending on scale) that districts border on natural boundaries or boundaries that are not subject to whim. Statewide contests could require whole counties be in or out, perhaps rivers (which often do divide different groups of people). When they can wiggle a boundary around block by block there is no limit to the manipulation.

I would disagree with the blanket statement that third party voting is harmful. Holding your nose and voting for whatever the party bosses chose is harmful. It's only when people in some numbers start voting third party that they are forced to realize they do not have 'captive' voters.

As I see it, holding my nose and voting is exactly what the party bosses want. Staying home just looks like I'm apathetic. Voting third party is a way of saying 'none of the above.'

Comment by Randall Smith on January 16, 2013 at 8:31am

Good ideas. I'm not holding my breath for any of these to actually happen. But who knows?


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