How to Fix an Election


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The election was rigged!? Actually, every election is rigged before the first ballots are cast or the candidates are even chosen. This isn’t about media coverage, the debates, or ballot access; no, the rigging goes much deeper. It’s written into the very DNA of our elections systems. With a majority of Americans saying they believe a third-party is needed [1], and Libertarian and Green Party candidates featured more prominently in this election cycle than any since 1996, why didn’t third parties have any chance to win even a single state? It stems from two problems: First Past the Post Voting and the Electoral College. First Past the Post Voting, or FPTP, is the way most elections in the US are run; the person with the most votes wins. FPTP rigs the system by creating an environment in which smaller parties are crowded out as people begin voting for the party closest to their beliefs that can actually win as opposed to the party or candidate they may believe in the most. This compromising, known in political science as Duverger’s Law [2], is the structural reason why third parties get little traction. The Electoral College rigs the elections further by asking that a president must get an absolute majority, 270 of the 538 total electoral votes, or the election is considered a tie, which results in the House and Senate deciding the President and Vice-President. This forces third-party voters to either vote for whom they believe, vote for the major party that is closest to their beliefs, or not to vote.

The inability of third parties to have any lasting influence has created a tension, as voters are increasingly unhappy with the major parties that have to appeal to as many people as possible. FPTP and the Electoral College have created a system in which liberals, fearing a Republican, vote for mainstream Democrats, like Hillary Clinton, and moderate Republicans vote for far right candidates like Donald Trump. Both sides are afraid that the “worse” choice could win, so the voters compromise or see their vote all but wasted. This is the environment that allowed the least popular candidate in US history to not only win his party’s nomination but to win the presidency while losing the popular vote[3].  At the heart of this, is a political vendetta between voters who want to vote for the candidate and ideas they really believe in, and an election system that often punishes them for doing so.

Solving this vendetta is not easy or perfect. It would require major changes to the very foundation of our two-party and voting systems. For example, on Election Day, voters in Maine became the first state to make that change by approving a referendum to replace FPTP, where the candidates with the most votes wins regardless of actual vote share, with Ranked Choice voting [4] for all positions other than the Presidency. Ranked Choice voting will allow people of Maine to rank the candidates in order and avoid fear-driven voting because if no candidate has more than 50% of the vote the rankings allow for an instant runoff. Though the law does not include the presidential election, as an example, if a Libertarian wanted to vote for Gary Johnson but was afraid of Donald Trump winning, they could rank Johnson as their first choice and Clinton as their second choice; so that if/when Johnson fails to win, their vote would then be counted for Hillary.

Alternatives to the Electoral College are a bit trickier. Unlike moving to Ranked Choice voting, which individual states and districts can decide to implement on their own, the Electoral College is in the Constitution and would need an amendment that has to be agreed on by at least two-thirds of the states, which is incredibly unlikely to pass. However, because the Constitution leaves it up to the states to determine how their electoral votes are distributed, states have the power to pass legislation so that their electoral votes go to the national popular vote winner, which in this past election would have been Hillary Clinton. If enough states to total 270 electoral votes passes this legislation, the electoral college would be abolished in all but name. This is the aim of the National Popular Vote Compact, and to date, 10 states and DC, with a collective electoral vote total of 165, have passed legislation to do exactly this with the laws being triggered when that total reaches 270.

Now that the sun has set on a long, arduous election we need to ask ourselves if we should stick to tradition even if it limits our options, or chart a new course with regards to our elections. As much respect as I have for the Ranked Choice voting that Maine implemented, and it is great for executive office elections, I still find it lacking for legislative seats, like the House of Representatives. For those positions, the problem remains in Ranked Choice voting as it does in our current system: the loser gets nothing. So even if a candidate loses by a single vote, that party and the thousands or millions of voters that voted for him or her will completely lose out on that position. To fix that, we would need a proportional vote in which people vote for a party and the percentage of the vote that party receives determines their seat share.

Elections in a Proportional System:

  • Parties release list of representatives who would go to Congress
  • Voters, for example, give Republicans 40%, Democrats 35%, and third-parties 25% of the nationwide House vote
  • The House would have 174 Republicans, 152 Democrats, and 109 third-party Representatives
  • Seats given to representatives in their order on list, this is often to enforce party discipline as the lower you are the less likely you will get a seat.
  • This system is common among many Parliamentary democracies such as Israel, the Netherlands, and Spain.

However, for what a proportional vote solves, it leaves a lot lacking, namely guaranteed geographic representation, though countries like Spain delegate list selection to local groups. For this reason, I prefer a hybrid version where voters have two votes, one for their congress district and one for their prefered party. This would allow voters to ensure their home cities and states are represented while ensuring that all voices get representation in the legislature. More information on this mixed member proportional (MMP) system can be found here [5], but, here’s a primer:

Elections in an MMP System:

  • Half the seats in Congress are reserved for candidates from districts and half for party lists
  • Of the 218 seats for county districts, Republicans win 180, Democrats win 38, Third Parties win 0
  • For the 217 seats voted on nationally, the party vote is split Rs 40%, Ds 35%, Third Parties 25%
  • Because the Republicans already have 41% of the seats, they do not win any more seats
  • The Democrats in this model won 8% of seats in the district vote, but 35% of the national party vote and thus gain seats to equal 35%, winning 114 additional seats, total 152.
  • Third parties having won no districts are allocated 25% of seats because of their party vote showing, winning 109 seats.
  • Notice that the totals of seats don’t equal 435, this is because to achieve proper proportions there may be more legitimately elected representatives than there are seats, this is known as overhang and is dealt with differently in different countries.
  • This system is less common, but notable users are Germany, New Zealand, and the legislatures of Scotland and Wales.

I’d like to take a moment to note that the places using MMP and regular Proportional voting are all competitive, 3-or-more party democracies as Duverger’s Law would predict.

Of the many ways our election system can be changed, none of it is possible without input from the people. There are multiple groups pushing different strategies for fundamental change to our election system. For those interested in abolishing the electoral college, National Popular Vote is an organization that advocates the idea of states putting their electoral votes behind the popular vote winner. Their website allows you to sign a letter to your state representative asking them to support the measure. For advocates of ranked choice or other voting methods, Fair Vote is a nonprofit that pushes alternate voting methods to the flawed FPTP system. If you want to get involved and end the rigging of our elections, join these or other election reform groups so that American democracy can live up to its name.

National Popular Vote website:

Fair Vote website:









Markose Butler is a Policy Corner Writer for PVNN. He earned his Bachelor's degree in Government and International Relations from the University of Texas in Austin and a M.A. in International Studies. He is also an insurance professional based in Los Angeles. As a political junkie, he likes discussing a variety of issues ranging from the election to the most arcane policy debates. As a writer, he is focused on issues of war and peace, sustainable economic development, and civil rights justice (especially racial and LGBT justice). Markose ordinarily writes from a progressive viewpoint incorporating data, history, and socioeconomic context into his work. As a situational ethicist, he considers himself more of a pragmatic progressive and is interested a practical political solutions to policy priorities.