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Lessons from around the world clearly show that using the wrong election method can lead to disastrous results. Especially when the elections occur in extremely polarized societies, a “winner take all” method can result in lopsided results in which one side wins a disproportionate number of seats, resulting in upset losers and further polarization.

In Egypt during its 2012 presidential election the plurality “highest vote-getter wins” method, used in the first round of a two round runoff election, broke down, resulting in the tragic end of the Arab Spring democratization movement. There were five top candidates: 

  1. Mohamed Morsi (who finished with 25% of the vote)
  2. Ahmed Shafik (24%)
  3. Hamdeen Sabahi (21%)
  4. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh (18%)
  5. Amr Moussa (11%)

The top two candidates who advanced to the second round runoff were polarizing ones, namely hardliner Islamist Morsi and military commander and Mubarak regime holdover Shafik. Yet half of the first-round votes went to the other three candidates who were more in the middle of Egypt’s political spectrum; the moderate vote split itself into three branches, parting like the biblical Red Sea.

So the runoff became an agonizing dilemma for many of Egypt's 50 million voters, who were equally wary of Islamist rule or a return to a military-backed authoritarian system. The middle did not hold because, in effect, too many moderate candidates ran and split the moderate vote. Just like Ralph Nader spoiled Al Gore in 2000, and Libertarian Jo Jorgensen possibly spoiled Donald Trump in 2020, the Egyptian moderates all spoiled each other, resulting in none of them advancing to the runoff.

Yet if either Sabahi or Abouel Fotouh had made the runoff, there is a good chance that both of them would have beaten Morsi or Shafik. If Egypt had used ranked choice voting, the method used to elect the president of Ireland and Australia’s House of Representatives (and an increasing number of state and local offices in the US), election polls showed there was a good chance that Sabahi would have won. Egypt might have avoided its ill-fated election of a Muslim Brotherhood extremist who polarized society, and was then overthrown in a military coup.

The two round runoff system is supposed to ensure that the winner has majority support, but it can easily break down in the first round when there is a large multi-candidate field. Voters are asked to guess which of the multiple candidates might have the best chance to win, which candidate is the “lesser evil,” and to vote strategically for that candidate. But most voters would rather vote with their hearts than their heads, and in any case they could easily guess wrong in a close race.

Palestine’s Dead End - Minority Rule in the US, and in Hungary and Poland Too

For another example, let's revisit the Palestinian elections in January 2006. The radical Islamist Hamas won a lopsided number of legislative seats even though the popular vote was close, with the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Hamas winning 44.5 percent and the PLO-backed Fatah winning 41.4 percent. But the electoral method used combined both a defective “winner take all” method with a proportional voting method, and the “winner take all” vote broke down badly.

In the proportional vote, Hamas won its fair share, 30 of 66 seats (45%), as did Fatah with 27 seats (41%). But in the at-large “plurality wins all” part of the election, there were a dozen political parties and so split votes and spoilers ruled the day. Hamas won 70 percent of the seats and Fatah only 16 percent. The vote was extremely split among multiple parties, so even though Hamas garnered an average of only 39 percent in the winner-take-all districts, it won a super majority of those seats. In the end, Hamas won 56 percent of legislative seats even though their national support was only 44.5 percent, not much higher than Fatah's 41.5 percent.

It was a tragic breakdown of the electoral system. If a more proportional method had been used, Hamas would not have won a majority and would have needed to form a coalition. That would have provided incentives for bridge-building and possibly even a grand coalition with Fatah. This would have established a foundation for a more stable transition to a democratic system. Instead, parliamentary democracy ended, with the 2006 election being the last one as subsequent elections have been cancelled amidst the fratricidal tensions and periodic bouts of warfare.

Other examples abound. In Hungary’s recent election, Viktor Orban’s Fidesz-KDNP received 54% of the popular vote yet ended up with 67% of the seats due to the distortions of the “winner take all” method used to elect over half the seats. Indeed, Fidesz-KDNP won an incredible 82% of the single-seat district races -- now that's an impressive gerrymander. In 2014, the winner-take-all distortions were even worse, with Fidesz-KDNP winning less than 45% of the popular vote, yet two-thirds of the seats and 91% of the single-seat districts.

In Poland in 2015, a “winner take all” method in 100 districts was used to elect the Senate. The Law and Justice Party received 40% of the popular vote yet ended up with 61 of the 100 seats.

Following the 2020 elections, the US has had its own “minority rule” problems stemming from its “winner take all” electoral methods. A number of analyses have shown that, for the Democrats to win a bare majority of seats in the US House of Representatives, they often must win well more than half of the nationwide popular vote in all 435 House district seats. In some election years, such as 2012 and 1996, Republicans won House majorities despite Democrats winning more of the popular vote.

But don’t feel sorry for Democrats; in previous decades, the Republican Party was consistently cheated out of seats due to such votes-to-seats distortions, losing as many as 43 House seats in 1976, and losing an average of twenty-seven seats per congressional cycle from 1976 through 1988.

Today's imbalance is due to natural partisan demographics, in which Democratic voters increasingly live in more concentrated urban districts, making it easier to pack them into fewer districts during partisan redistricting. The resulting one-party fiefdoms ensure predictable outcomes, a decline in competition in all but a handful of districts, and declines in voter enthusiasm and turnout.

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In the U.S. Senate, which has been split 50-50 Senators for each party, the Democratic half won over 41 million more votes in 2020 than the Republican half and represents 56% of the American people. GOP senators have not represented a majority of the population since 1999, yet Republicans have held a majority of Senate seats for most of the past 20 years. And in the 2000 and 2016 presidential elections, Democratic candidates won the national popular vote yet lost the electoral college vote and the presidency.

To be clear, this is not about partisanship. Both major parties have sometimes won a greater percentage of seats than votes. It’s about whether the electoral method being used accurately reflects the “will of the people.” These sorts of details matter a lot. And yet not enough attention is paid to them.

Democracy in Divided Societies

These details are particularly important in divided societies. Political scientist Benjamin Reilly, professor at University of Western Australia, authored a fascinating book, Democracy in Divided Societies, which examined the impact of electoral systems in polarized democracies. He took a look at places wracked by deep and bitter division such as Northern Island, Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea, and found that the use of ranked-ballot methods, such as ranked choice voting, encouraged the development of broad-based political parties. It also gave campaigning politicians an incentive to attract votes from a range of constituencies, and to reach out beyond their electoral base to ask voters for their second or third choices.

These kinds of “vote pooling” electoral methods encourage political competition among candidates by incentivizing coalition-building rather than viciously attacking opponents in one-on-one, mano a mano slugfests. In divided societies, the right electoral method can make an enormous difference between a democratic transition of government and bitter civil strife.

Ben Reilly calls this “conflict management by electoral engineering. ” He shows how it’s possible to design an electoral system that can accomplish a number of goals -– broad representation, fair distribution of seats to votes, minimizing the impact of campaign finance inequities – as well as mitigating levels of partisanship and polarization. 

Indeed, there is an organization called IDEA -- Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance – which assists countries in designing the electoral system that is right for them. The process begins with an assessment of what values, principles and goals you want reflected in your representative democracy. From there, you can design an electoral system that will approximately achieve those goals.

With ranked choice voting (also known as “instant runoff” voting because it achieves many of the goals of a two-round runoff, but in a singe election), the goal is to elect majority winners without worrying about spoiler candidates or split votes resulting in the wrong candidates winning. Successful candidates must demonstrate not only broad support but also a strong core of supporters (unlike other single-winner reform methods, such as Condorcet in which a candidate can win with a broad base but not a strong core, or approval voting in which a candidate can win with a strong core but not such a broad base). 

Voters rank their first, second, third and more choices, and if a voter’s first choice is in last place and gets eliminated, then that voter hasn’t lost her or his vote – their vote now moves to their second-ranked choice. This liberates voters to choose their favorite candidates instead of calculating which candidate is their “lesser evil.”

This instant runoff method could be used either to finish the presidential race in a single election without a second round, or, if a runoff between the top two candidates is desirable to hear those candidates debate their views and policies, it could be used to whittle down a large field of candidates to the top two or top four finishers in the first round. 

Then in the second round with the top four finishers you would use RCV again to ensure the winner is the candidate most preferred by all the voters. Such ranked ballot methods to elect single-winners are used in a number of countries, including Ireland, Malta and Sri Lanka to elect their presidents, London to elect its mayor, Australia to elect its House of Representatives, and increasingly in the US to elect candidates at local, state and federal levels.

Ranked choice voting used in multi-seat districts can result in “proportional representation,” or what has been called “mirror representation.” The latter is a concept that harkens back to the late 18th-century, when John Adams, second president of a young American nation, said in his Thoughts on Government that an elected body “should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason and act like them.”

Proportional ranked choice voting typically elects legislatures in which multiple perspectives are represented instead of just two parties, or in a nonpartisan election it will ensure no single viewpoint (whether racial or political) dominates. Representation that provides an “exact portrait of the people at large” is less likely to result in a divided society. It’s when people feel shut out -- excluded from the table of representation and empowerment that every individual needs to pursue their own “life, liberty and happiness” – that the fabric of society becomes endangered by “Joker“ populist leaders determined to sow anarchy for political advantage, even as they rip the body politic to pieces.

In the recent November election, Portland OR chose a different and more promising path. This “multi-everything” city of 600,000 Portlanders voted strongly in favor of adopting the proportional form of RCV for city council elections. The measure was put on the ballot by a near-unanimous vote of a charter commission, which was grappling with how to provide adequate representation for different minority groups that are geographically dispersed. 

The measure was backed by the largest coalition ever assembled in Portland, with over 50 local organizational endorsers. Proponents prevailed by a lopsided margin despite facing major opposition by wealthy and well-connected interests in business and government.

Portland’s journey to proportional representation provides a template for how divided cities and states can find their way to a democratic renaissance.

This article was produced by DemocracySOS