American Voice 2004: Is it possible to hold elections where every vote counts and a vote for a minority party or candidate is not wasted?

Date: 1 Jun 2004 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Q. Is it possible to hold elections where every vote counts and a vote for a minority party or candidate is not wasted?



You bet. And best of all, every strategy designed to enable racial minorities, minority viewpoints and minority parties a real voice in elections has been used at one time or another here in the good old US of A. You’re looking for an election system in which, in the words of Fair Vote Minnesota, “Voters can vote their conscience without fear of not having a voice in the final outcome.”

One such process is called fusion.[1] Under fusion, a minority party can endorse a major party candidate. Thus the candidates name appears on two lines on the ballot. The votes on each line are added together for purposes of electing the candidate. In close races the minority party can claim credit for generating the margin of victory. Which should give it some influence in policy making circles of the winning majority party.

New York is a fusion state. Neither FDR in 1940 or 1944, nor JFK in 1960 received enough votes on the Democratic Party line to carry New York. They prevailed only when Liberal party line votes were added. In 1980, Jimmy Carter received more votes as a Democrat than Ronald Reagan did as a Republican, but Reagan carried New York because of the votes he gained on the Conservative Party’s ballot line.

In the 19th century, notes historian Peter Argersinger, fusion “helped maintain a significant third party tradition by guaranteeing that dissenters’ votes could be more than symbolic protest, that their leaders could gain office and that their demands might be heard.”[2] But in politics as in physics, every action generates an equal and opposite reaction. In 1892, when the newly formed Populist “People’s Party” flexed its election muscles by fusing with the Democrats on several state ballots and electing Democrat Grover Cleveland to the presidency, Republican-dominated state legislatures quickly responded by enacting bans on fusion. By 1907, 17 states had such bans.[3]

In 1996, Minnesota’s New Party challenged that state’s refusal to allow it to endorse a candidate already endorsed by a major party. The Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the New Party. Minnesota state laws, the Court maintained, “keep the New Party from developing consensual political alliances and thus broadening the base of public participation in and support for its activities”. It went on, “(H)istory shows that minor parties have played a significant role in the electoral system where multiple party nomination is legal, but have no meaningful influence where multiple party nomination is banned.”[4]

In 1997 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Appeals Court’s decision.[5] By 6-3 the Court ruled, “ballots are designed primarily to elect candidates, not to serve as fora for political expression.” And it added, surprisingly and ominously, “States also have a strong interest in the stability of their political systems…the states’ interest permits them to enact reasonable election regulations that may, in practice, favor the traditional two party system, and that temper the destabilizing effects of party splintering excessive factionalism.” Never before had the Court formally declared the maintenance of a “two party system” sufficient justification for discriminating against minor parties.

Today only 10 states still allow some form of fusion.[6]

A number of factors have given rise to renewed interest in alternative election methods in the United States in recent years. In the last three presidential elections the winner received less than a majority of the vote. In 1992 and 1996 votes for “other” exceeded 10 percent, the first time that had happened in two elections in a row since the Civil War.

Americans are feeling increasingly disenfranchised. We aren’t sure any longer that elections matter. In 2000, only four challengers defeated House incumbents, the lowest number in history. In fewer than 10 percent of the contests was the vote even close.

And we’re seeing gerrymandering, that is, the partisan drawing of election district boundaries to guarantee a victory for the party with the existing legislative majority, carried to new heights. In 2004 the Supreme Court gave state legislatures almost limitless leeway in drawing boundaries, not matter how unfair the result might look to outsiders.[7] See Ask Dr. Dave on gerrymandering.

Many of the actual changes in election methods have come as a result of lawsuits regarding racial discrimination. The Voting Rights Act(PL 97-205) requires that minorities have “the capability to elect a representative of their choice”. For many decades the courts have grappled with the question of how to deal with the rights of racial minorities to representation in a land of single member districts and winner-takes-all elections. In the 1980s and 1990s the courts responded by encouraging states to draw bizarrely configured districts so that racial minorities would be a majority in at least one. These were called, fittingly, majority-minority districts.

In the 1990s the Supreme Court, in three decisions, began to limit the ability of states to design majority-minority districts. One result was to encourage states, localities and school districts to embrace other election methods. For an in-depth and up-to-date look at various election techniques here and abroad see Center for Voting and Democracy.

More than l00 local governments, cities, counties and school districts, now employ alternatives to single member districting. Most have come in response to vote dilution law suits. Some use a system called cumulative voting. In Texas, 50 jurisdictions, 40 school districts and 10 local governments, use this system. Cumulative voting gives each voter as many votes as seats needed to be filled in a given election. If there are four seats, the voter gets four votes. He or she can give one vote to all four candidates or can give all four votes to one candidate. On May 15, 2004, the Amarillo Independent School District elected its school board for the third time using cumulative voting. In each of these elections at least one candidate of color has been elected. Only white representatives were elected for some two decades before this type of voting.

From 1870 to 1980, Illinois elected members of its general assembly by cumulative voting. Each legislative district had three representatives. A voter could cast one vote for each of three, 3 votes for one, or 1.5 votes for each of two. The voters abolished the system in 1980 but by 1995 the Chicago Tribune observed, “Many partisans and political independents have looked back wistfully at the era of cumulative voting. They acknowledge that it has produced some of the best and the brightest in Illinois politics.” A bipartisan commission report issued in 2001 recommended Illinois go back to multimember districts.

Preference voting is used in a number of jurisdictions here and abroad. In Cambridge, Massachusetts voters can vote for as many candidates as are on the ballot but they must indicate the order of their preference among the candidates. If no candidate has gained 50 percent of the first place votes after the first round Cambridge institutes another election technique, instant runoff. Here if no candidate wins 50 percent of the first choice votes, the last place candidate is eliminated and the ballots cast for that candidate are redistributed to each voter’s second choice. This process continues until a candidate wins 50 percent of the votes.

San Francisco voters recently passed proposition A(55-45 percent) and became the first major city in country to adopt instant runoff voting.

Proportional representation is an election process embraced by many countries to guarantee minority viewpoints representation. Thirty of the 36 countries rated “free” by the human rights organization Freedom House use proportional representation to elect their federal legislature. Under proportional representation(PR) parties that receive over a certain percentage of the vote(usually about 5%) gain seats proportional to their vote. For example, 10 one-seat districts might be combined into a single ten seat district and a party that wins 10 percent of the vote gains one seat in that district.

Many variations of PR exist. New Zealand has a mixed member proportional model which combines proportional representation with a winner-takes-all system. About 40 percent of New Zealand’s 120-member parliament is chosen by PR. The rest are directly elected. Voters are given one ballot with two questions on it. The first asks the voter which political party he or she wants to form the next government. The percentage of the popular vote won by a party dictates the number of seats it gains in this election. The second question asks the voter which candidate he or she prefers. The persons with the highest number of votes are awarded the seats the party wins by virtue of proportional representation.

Since January 2003 Congress and more than 20 state legislatives have considered legislation about fair election voting methods.[8] Illinois passed legislation to allow county boards to adopt full representation techniques. The Maine Secretary of State is studying the feasibility of using instant runoff voting in Maine Elections. Five Canadian provinces are investigating whether to adopt some form of proportional representation. In 1999 Representative Melvin L. Watt of North Carolina introduced the States’ Choice of Voting Systems Act.[9] It would overturn a l967 congressional law mandating single member districts for the House of Representatives. In essence, it would return to states the powers they had in the first 50 years of the U.S. republic to have multimember districts and embrace innovative voting systems.[10]

[1] Also called or cross-filing or multiple party nominations

[2] See Peter Argersinger, “A Place at the Table: Fusion Politics and Antifusion Laws”, 85 Amer. Hist. Rev. 287(1980)

[3] California, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, , Nebraska, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Washington, Wisconsin, Wyoming. See Steve Cobble and Sarah Siskind, Fusion: Multiple Party Nomination in the United States.

[4] Twin Cities Area New Party v. McKenna. 73 F. 3d.(1996)

[8] For information on state election reform measures see: Pending Legislation and Ballot Measures and State Electoral Reform Efforts

[9]The States’ Choice of Voting Systems Act

[10] Every decade Congress must constitutionally reapportion votes based on the newest census. At that time Congress can enact election rules that stay in place until the next legislative apportionment. In 1842 Congress mandated that members of Congress be elected in single member districts. It was justified because at-large voting resulted in one party dominating and in representatives often living far from their constituents. The requirement for single member districts was deleted and reinstated several times in the next few decades. In 1967 Congress re-introduced a prohibition on states adopting at-large and multi-member districts with more than one House seat. Congress was concerned that the Voting Rights Act would inspire southern states to resort to at-large, winner takes all systems that would create another barrier to minority representation.


David Morris
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David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.