The Perils of a Multi-Party System in the US

4 Nov

I recently argued, to the lovely Shelly Roche, that third parties were a bad idea, unless that party is seriously attempting to replace the Democratic or Republican Party. The reasons I gave for opposing a multi-party system were entirely insufficient, as is often the case on Twitter. In the following paragraphs I will attempt to answer her excellent query, “why not have like 10 parties, & people just vote for the candidate that best reflects their values?”

The consequences of a multi-party system operating within the context of our current electoral system poses many significant issues. The constitution leaves states responsible for the majority of details concerning elections. The most widely used method for all elections in the US is the winner-take-all method. Under this system, the candidate with the most votes, or a simple plurality, wins. An example of a plurality win, rather than a majority win, would be a congressional election where the winner only received 47% of the vote. This only can happen if there are at least three candidates running.

Imagine now that we have ten parties that offer each voter the perfect ideological match. Each party decides to run a candidate in a congressional election. Under that scenario, it’s possible for a candidate with as little as 10.01% of the vote to win under the winner-take-all rules. This would mean that the candidate elected was not supported by 89.99% of voters. Under such a system we could expect voter discontent, since there is the potential for a candidate to represent a district in which he/she could never hope to gain even 25% of the support of voters. All potential solutions to this problem create new issues. If a run-off election system is adopted, there are the issues of cost and voter fatigue. If an instant run-off election or ranking ballot is utilized we run into the problems of education, equipment cost, strategic voting and the monotonicity criterion, which is of more concern than the folks at FairVote would have you believe. In short, there are no easy fixes.

At the presidential level, the situation is even more grim. The electoral college governs the election of the US President. Under this system, citizens vote for electors rather than the actual candidates. In order to win the Presidency a candidate must win a majority(currently 270) of the available electors. If no candidate earns a majority, the House of Representatives is tasked with electing the president. In a multi-party system where everyone voted the best fit, it would be increasingly likely that no candidate would earn the necessary majority to win. It would then be left to the House of Representatives to choose among the three top electoral vote recipients. I can only imagine how people would respond to this happening in our modern era, given how the Democrats reacted when the popular vote didn’t match the electoral vote.

The same issues that arise when attempting to reform congressional elections apply to attempts to reform the electoral college. A yet unaddressed alternative would be a parliamentary system and proportional representation. My only response to this is that our past prime ministers, if we adopted the UK system, would have been Newt Gingrich, Dennis Hastert and Nancy Pelosi. Enough said.

I hope this exceedingly boring post explains my opposition to a multi-party system being embraced in the US. A closing question: Would a strong multiple party system strengthen the power of special interest groups?

P.S. There are also issues of disproportionate representation, (as applied to multiple parties vying for electoral votes in the states themselves, excluding Maine and Nebraska which do not use the winner-take-all method), culture, ideological extremism, and Federalism, but I assumed this was boring enough.

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One Response to “The Perils of a Multi-Party System in the US”

  1. dyedaylapse December 11, 2009 at 5:44 PM #

    I really enjoyed reading this article, keep up writing such exciting stuff.

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