After an extraordinary campaign, Americans are finally voting. One of the most incredible things about the American electoral system is how dysfunctional it is. What’s even more incredible is that everyone knows this. From the insane amounts of money spent, the stifling two party system, the inexplicable electoral college, the incredibly long campaigns, extreme partisanship, the lack of choices and so on. It’s truly a bizarre system that few people can defend. However, most discussions have a fatalistic tone, ‘elections have always been bizarre, there’s nothing that can be done.’
However, I will now show that a better electoral system isn’t just some pipe dream or unrealistic fantasy, it already exists. It isn’t merely a hypothetical dream, it has been put into practice and it works. There is a far better system that I am very familiar with, here in my native Ireland. As a dual Irish and American citizen, I think I’m in a good place to compare both systems.
Before I begin I don’t want to claim that Ireland has the best politics or that America should adapt our political culture. We still have problems with corruption, terrible decision making, localism and lack of imagination. Changing the electoral system won’t solve all of America’s problems, but it will greatly lessen them.
The Voting System
First of all, the biggest difference between America and Ireland is how people vote. In America, it’s simple, the candidate with the most votes in the district/constituency wins. However, this leads to a two party system and greatly limits the options available to voters. Many compare voting to picking the lesser of two evils and even if a voter doesn’t like the available option, voting for anyone else is essentially throwing their vote away. As a result, parties can take voters for granted, if you’re centre-left who else can you vote for but the Democrats? No matter how disgusting they found Trump many conservatives felt they had nowhere else to go.
A further problem is the absence of competition in the vast majority of constituencies. As a Democrat in New York, there’s no real point in voting, the Democrats are guaranteed to win. There is even less reason for a Republican to vote and they are guaranteed that they won’t have someone to represent them. In fact, my district (New York 16th) has been represented by a Democrat for 112 of the last 116 years and this year the Republicans didn’t even bother to run a candidate. Even if a Democrat was completely incompetent, they’re still guaranteed a seat. This is true across the country in urban areas and the same holds true for Republicans in urban areas. Unless you live in one of the few swing districts, your vote has little impact.
Now let’s compare the Irish electoral system that we’ve had since independence in 1922, known as Proportional Representation – Single Transferable Vote (PR-STV). Instead of merely picking one candidate, voters rank the candidates in order of preference. So I write number 1 beside the candidate I most want to win, but if they don’t win I indicate my 2nd preference, then my 3rd, 4th etc. There is no limit to the number of preferences a voter can express, although most do no more than 5 or 6.
So when the votes are counted, if my first preference is not elected, my vote is transferred to my second. If they don’t win, it is transferred again and again until my vote helps elect someone. For example, imagine if my number 1 is Bernie Sanders, my number 2 is Jill Stein and my number 3 is Hillary Clinton. If Sanders wins, great, but if not his votes get transferred to the remaining candidates. If Stein doesn’t win, then my vote goes to Clinton. Thus there are two crucial points. Firstly, there is no such thing a wasted vote or a spoilt vote, even if your first preference has no hope of winning, perhaps a later preference will. Secondly, in theory every voter will have someone to represent them who they voted for.
A crucial difference between the Irish and American electoral systems is the number of candidates in a constituency. In America, each constituency elects only one person, they can only be one winner. In Ireland constituencies elect between 3 and 5 members of parliament (although historically they have elected as many as 9). This greatly increases the probability that each voter will have someone to represent them and increases the chances of smaller parties to win. Even if the constituency is very right wing, it can still elect at least one left wing politician (and vice versa). There has never been a single constituency in Irish history since independence only represented by one party. So although my constituency (Galway West) is relatively conservative, usually one of the five elected politicians is left wing.
It also means that major parties run more than one candidate, so even if you support a party and their policies, you still have a choice. Even if a party is overwhelmingly popular in a constituency, they cannot be complacent because their opponents will always have seats and even established politicians cannot take their seats for granted and have to compete with fellow party members to win.
As a result of this, Ireland has a much larger number of political parties and even one of the highest number of independents (politicians who are not member of any party). There are currently 7 political parties in the Irish parliament at the moment and almost 15% of politicians are independents. It also means that Irish elections are high representative, if a party wins 20% of the vote, they usually get 20% of the seats. Most governments in Ireland are formed from coalitions.
The electoral system has another advantage in that it greatly reduces partisanship. In America, the amount of hate hurled by one side at another is incredibly and many people believe that supporters of the other party are capable of endless evil. However, this attitude is less common in Ireland for the simple reason that parties want the votes of their opponents. Even if someone will give their number 1 preference to another candidate, a politician will still try to win their number 2, 3 or 4 etc. Calling a candidate or their voters crooked, deplorable or any other insult doesn’t make sense. This is possibly one of the reasons why Ireland is one of the few European countries that never had a significant far-left or far-right party.
Not only is there an incentive towards consensus, but there is a built in mechanism against extremism. In the American system an extremist can easily win if they are chosen by a major party, voters simply have little other choice. Not only do voters have more choice in Ireland, they can also co-operate against extremists. Sinn Féin has always under-preformed in Irish elections due to its links with the IRA (it is the political wing of the IRA and many of its senior members have been imprisoned for terrorist activity). As a result many voters will transfer to every party except Sinn Féin. For example in 2007, the party won 7% of the vote but only 2% of the seats. The party has gained since then but mainly by downplaying its past to broaden its appeal.
One of the incredible things about the American system is the enormous length of the campaign. The Presidential campaign began 18 months ago and is only ending today. As House of Representative elections are every two years, they are in an almost constant state of electioneering with little time to actually govern.
In contrast, the Irish parliament sits for a maximum of five years, but it does not have a fixed term. The government can call an election at any moment so it’s not possible to permanently campaign. Election campaigns generally only last 3-4 weeks and the 2016 election was exceptionally dull (do Americans understand the concept of a dull election?)
It seems that no one likes the American government for the simple reason that it doesn’t do anything at all. Every proposal of the Democrats is blocked by the Republicans and vice versa. In order to pass legislation, a party needs control of the House of Representatives, the Senate (a filibuster-proof majority is preferable) and the Presidency. Without this, stalemate ensues.
Ireland actually suffered this very problem in the 1930s. Fianna Fáil under Eamon DeValera, had won a majority and intended to introduce radical new policies. However they were blocked by Cumann na nGaedheal which had a majority in the Senate due to its more byzantine indirect election system. The two parties had fought each other in a civil war ten years earlier, so were bitter enemies. Stalemate in the middle of the Great Depression was unacceptable so DeValera (incidentally was born in America) did something that will shock my American readers.
They simply abolished (by referendum) the Senate. A new constitution was introduced in 1937 which created a Senate that essentially had no powers and a President who was only a figurehead. All power (local government is very weak in Ireland) was in the hands of the Dáil (lower house, equivalent of the House of Representatives). While many cried this was actions of a dictator, these fears proved unfounded. Now parliament could pass laws and deal with the country’s problems and if the opposition didn’t like this, all they had to do was democratically win an election.
No Electoral College
In Ireland, whoever wins the most votes, wins the election. The American Founding Fathers thought this was too easy so they created the bizarre electoral college, where you can win the most votes and still lose the election, which is fundamentally undemocratic. The electoral college effectively makes most votes worthless unless you live in a swing state. Everyone knows that New York will go Democratic, so there’s little point for anyone, Democrat or Republican in that state voting. Due to luck of geography certain voters get a disproportionally high impact with their vote. It’s truly a nonsense system.
Less money in politics
The amount of money spent in American elections is absolutely mind-boggling. Billions are spent and in order to raise this money, politicians most suck up to the wealthy and big businesses. Interest groups like the fossil fuel industry are able to essentially buy politicians and prevent necessary climate change policy from being implemented. The same is true of the gun lobby, private healthcare lobby, the financial industry etc.
Now Ireland is unfortunately not immune to cronyism and there is probably still too much money in politics, but it is far less. For a start there are strict limits on campaign donations. Secondly, there are limits on how the money can be spent. No political advertisements are allowed on television or radio. This restrictions is not only for political parties but everyone. No group can run a political ad. With less ways to spend money, parties have less need for it. Instead elections in Ireland are primarily carried out by politicians going door to door and by putting posters of their face on polls (I have no idea if this influences any voters.)
Now there are other differences in Irish politics too, that I don’t have space to discuss. The constituencies are drawn by an independent commission not the politicians, the elections take place on a Friday not a Tuesday, political parties are like private clubs, you must pay to join and only members can decide what action it takes (primaries aren’t a thing in Ireland), votes aren’t counted until the following day, even then they are counted by hand in front of a crowd, there is a general absence of fundamentalism and Trump style extremism. Of course, there are many flaws, which I’ve detailed in other blogs, but overall the system works.