Not long ago, a man was elected to his country’s highest office in circumstances perplexing to many voters. Despite a historically low favourability rating, and a plurality of votes having been cast for his opponent, he still emerged victorious. An antiquated electoral system installed him in power, one that elects its leader through an intermediary body, rather than direct popular election. Such an anti-majoritarian system thus handed him the reins of government, and control of one of the most influential democracies on the planet.That man was Justin Trudeau, re-elected Canada’s prime minister in September 2021. Trudeau’s Liberal Party captured a plurality of seats, despite winning only 32 percent of the vote to the Conservatives’ 34 percent. The disparity between voters’ preferences and the electoral results is captured in the malapportionment of seats, with the Liberals winning 160 seats, or 47 percent of seats, while the Conservatives merely won 35 percent. If this article’s introductory anecdote sounds familiar for other reasons, however, it also describes Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 United States Presidential Election. Despite a plurality of voters casting their ballots for Hillary Clinton, an intermediary body, the Electoral College, placed Trump in the White House.
Over the past decade, increasing numbers of liberal Americans have argued that the US electoral system is undemocratic and unrepresentative of America’s voters, because it can result in the election of presidents who have received fewer votes nationwide than their opponents—and in the control of Congress by a party that has received a smaller share of the overall national vote.
Left-wing journalists have also been turning their attention toward these issues. Jamelle Bouie has called the Electoral College “the greatest threat to our democracy” and Ezra Klein has written that the US is in “crisis” because there is “too little democracy,” which he blames on a lack of proportional representation in the Senate and on the Electoral College system. Legal scholar Jedediah Britton-Purdy has argued that the root cause of the 6 January 2021 riots at the US Capitol is the American electoral system.
Left-wing critics of the US electoral system tend to focus on three areas they see as problematic. First, every state gets two US senators, regardless of its population, which means that more populous states are underrepresented in the Senate. Because Democrats are often concentrated in urban and suburban areas and Republicans in rural ones, this practice disproportionately benefits the Republican party. The second bone of contention is the Electoral College system, under which, in presidential elections, each state receives a number of electoral votes in proportion to its population. In practice, this means that a candidate who got fewer national votes can receive more Electoral College votes and therefore win the presidential race. Third, state legislatures often gerrymander their congressional districts such that the party that controls the state legislature can win more representatives in Congress even if they get fewer votes statewide: this can cause one party’s share of seats in the House of Representatives to differ dramatically from its share of the vote both in that state and nationwide.
There is a good deal of merit to these critiques. Conservative defences of the Senate often fail to explain why each state should have the same number of senators regardless of population. Instead, they tend to emphasize the fact that, if Senate seats were allocated according to population, large, densely populated states like California and New York—which tend to be more liberal—would have outsized political power. However, any system that elects representatives based on anything other than a popular majority facilitates minority rule. Many conservative rebuttals boil down to a mere slogan—“We’re a republic, not a democracy”—which does not address problems like gerrymandering, nor explain why awarding a disproportionate number of senators and electoral votes to the smallest states is the optimal form of government.
There is, however, one central point that much of the left-wing media gets wrong, and that is portraying the United States as standing alone in failing to reflect the will of the majority of voters. Most critics fail to mention that most other mature democracies have similar shortcomings. Jordan Weissmann, for example, has commented,
Other countries—the ones we like to think of as our peers, even if they see us more like a tragic, strung-out uncle these days—don’t do this to themselves. In normal, advanced presidential democracies, the candidate who gets the most votes actually wins. We’re the only one where the person who comes in second can still somehow end up in charge.
The United States, however, is not unique among its peers in its electoral system, but rather mundane. The US is one of many democracies that elect their executives via indirect means, and in which the leader may have been the first choice of only a minority of voters. It is also only one of many democracies in which a political party can gain control of the legislature even though the members of that party got fewer votes nationally than members of their rival parties. And this is true in both parliamentary and presidential systems. The goals of regional representation and federalism will always be in tension with the goal of representing the views of the majority of the populace. In addition, parliamentary democracies also frequently vest control in parties that represent the views and affiliations of only a minority of voters.
Parliamentary Democracies and Minority Rule: Canada and the UK
Canada and the UK provide two examples of robust parliamentary democracies in which recent governments have recently been elected by a minority of voters.
Canada’s Justin Trudeau has been elected twice, even though his party received a minority of the popular vote both times. There have been three other occasions over the past century in which the party that won the popular vote did not form the government.
When a political party wins a plurality, but not a majority, of the 338 seats in the Canadian House of Commons, the leader of that party must establish a minority government, which means that no legislation can be passed without the support of members of other parties. Trudeau himself has led minority governments since 2019. However, even when a minority government wins support for a piece of legislation from a majority of members of parliament (MPs), the total number of citizens who voted to elect those MPs, taken together, may still represent a minority of Canadian voters. For example, following Canada’s 2019 election, Trudeau and his Liberal Party MPs could pass legislation with the support of the New Democratic Party (another left-wing Canadian party), since together they totalled 181 members of parliament, 54% of the House of Commons—even though they represented only 49% of Canadian voters. And although Trudeau’s party garnered fewer national votes than the Conservatives, as prime minister Trudeau holds executive powers, including de facto control of the Canadian armed forces and the ability to appoint supreme court justices and cabinet ministers without parliamentary approval.
The situation is similar in the UK. Since 1922, there have been three elections (in 1929, 1951 and 1974) in which the party that won a plurality of parliamentary seats won a smaller share of the national vote than another party. And since 1945, no political party has managed to receive more than 50% of the national popular vote in a general election. Nevertheless, in most UK general elections, the winning party holds a majority of the 650 seats in the House of Commons, giving that party nearly complete legislative and executive power. Of the 21 elections held since 1945, only three resulted in a hung parliament, in which the winning party was forced to form a coalition. Even in the 1997 general elections, in which Tony Blair’s Labour Party won in the largest landslide since World War II, Labour obtained only 43% of the popular vote.
In the UK and Canada, the chief executive (in this case, the prime minister) is not directly chosen by the electorate: he or she is simply the leader of the winning political party. But the legislators (in this case MPs) are directly elected by their local constituencies (the equivalent of US electoral districts). In the US, by contrast, representatives to the federal legislature are elected separately from the president. The Canadian and UK general elections are therefore more analogous to the elections to the US House of Representatives.
In the US House of Representatives, however, the party that gains the most seats in an election usually also receives a majority of the national popular vote for House races. In the 38 House elections since 1945, there have been only three instances in which the party that won the larger number of seats received the smaller share of the nationwide vote and only five in which the victorious party won a plurality but not an outright majority of the votes. The winning party in the US tends to win the majority of the popular vote far more often than it does in UK and Canadian elections—largely because America has only two major parties.
Senates and Regional Overrepresentation
One other major concern in the US is that each state can send two senators to Congress regardless of its population size—and the population of different states varies dramatically. Thus, in the Senate, the voting power of a citizen from Wyoming is nearly 70 times greater than that of a voter from California. The Democratic senators who represent just half of the current Senate represent over 41 million more voters than their Republican counterparts.
But this happens in other democracies as well. The Australian Senate, for example, provides equal representation to each of Australia’s states, regardless of population, although the population of those states differs hugely. Like its US counterpart, the Australian Senate has almost as much legislative power as the more regionally proportional House of Representatives. Moreover, in the US, while one party may control the Senate despite having obtained only a minority of the national popular vote, it is rare for that party to also control the House and the presidency. The US electoral system is far less likely to give any single party plenary power, although an opposing party may still be able to block legislation. In a parliamentary system, by contrast, when a party gains a legislative majority, it has almost unlimited power to enact laws—even if it was elected by a minority of the aggregate number of voters. In the UK, for example, if members of the ruling party vote against legislation proposed by their own leader, the prime minister, it often triggers a new general election. As a result, this is a relatively infrequent occurrence.
In the US, by contrast, conflicts between the different branches of government are common and often block legislation. This is because no single party ever has complete control over the government—only the ability to exercise a veto. While some have criticized the US system for its resulting tendency towards gridlock, imagine if Trump—who failed to gain the majority of the national popular vote—had been granted not only the presidency but unrestricted control over the legislature, like a prime minister in a parliamentary system. Imagine what Richard Nixon might have been able to do, had he been the leader of a parliament.
The American voting system has several other advantages, too. One of these is the practice of holding open primaries (or, in some states, caucuses) to select each party’s nominee in every legislative and executive race. Many states have completely open primaries, in which you can vote on who should be the Democratic nominee even if you are not a registered Democrat (and vice versa for Republicans). Even in states with closed primaries, citizens can easily change their party registration in order to vote in the primary of their choice. For example, in the 2016 presidential primaries—the most recent primaries in which an incumbent president was not running—almost 58 million people voted.
By contrast, in the 2019 UK Conservative Party leadership race that installed Boris Johnson as party leader—making him the prime minister of the entire nation—only 139,000 citizens voted out of a population of some 67 million. And in the 2013 Canadian leadership election that installed Justin Trudeau as Liberal Party leader, only 105,000 ballots were cast—in a country of 40 million. In both the UK and Canada, only party members are allowed to vote in leadership races, and party membership typically requires applying, paying a monthly fee, and being approved by the party, rather than merely checking a box on one’s voter registration form. Most European countries have similar requirements. Where primaries are held, they have often been introduced only recently, and are open to only a small number of dues-paying party members.
In most European countries, primaries that select a party’s candidate for parliament from a particular district are exceedingly rare: members of parliament are almost always selected by an internal party apparatus and often serve districts in which they do not live. Although European countries typically have more political parties to choose from in a general election, these parties tend to be made up of many diverse ideological factions, and voters have little say as to which of those factions they want the party’s candidate to be drawn from. In contrast, US participation is quite large. In 2018, in Florida’s Sixth Congressional District, over 135,000 people out of a population of 790,000 voted in the primaries for US House candidates, even though it was not a presidential election year.
The electoral systems of the UK, Canada and the US Congress are first-past-the-post systems. In such systems, whichever candidate successfully captures a plurality of the vote for a given race, wins the race. Each party fields one candidate per electoral district (known as constituencies in Britain). First-past-the-post systems often create unrepresentative outcomes since the votes of Democrats in a district in which a Republican candidate wins do not bolster the Democratic Party’s national seat totals (and vice versa for Republicans). For example, in the US, it is theoretically possible for Democrats to win 51% of the vote in each congressional district, but win 435 seats in the House of Representatives, even though 49% of voters cast ballots for Republicans (and vice versa). In a country with more than two strong political parties, this can happen even when the winning party gets a far lower percentage of the popular vote, and disproportionate results are therefore common. For example, in the 2015 UK general election, the right-wing UKIP party failed to win a single seat despite gaining 11% of the popular vote, while the Scottish National Party won 56 seats with less than 5% of the popular vote.
Instead of first-past-the-post, some countries, such as Finland, Spain and Israel, have a proportional system, in which voters vote for a party, rather than individual candidates. Legislative seats are awarded to members of each party based on that party’s share of the total national popular vote. (Typically, only parties that receive some set minimum share of the vote get seats—for example, in Israel, they must obtain more than 3.25% of the votes.) But this system has its own downsides. For example, Israel’s 120-seat parliament contains 13 different parties. After each Israeli election, there is a chaotic period of coalition-building, in which the party appointed by the country’s president must form a coalition with one or more other parties that results in a total of at least 61 seats. Parliamentary majorities are often slim, minority parties can use their influence as kingmakers to push through policies that only a minority of the public supports. For example, in Israel, the religious parties have joined forces to enact laws related to the observance of the Sabbath and the military draft that most Israelis did not want. The potential downsides of a proportional voting system are illustrated by Israel’s 2019–2021 political crisis, in which the country had to hold four general elections in only two years, and which ultimately resulted in a government that could lose power with the defection of a single MP. Spain’s experiences in 2015 and 2019 offer another example of how a proportional representation system can produce failed coalitions and political gridlock: in each of those years, no parties were able to form a majority coalition, as a result of which new elections had to be held only a few months later.
In a huge, diverse and polarized society like the United States, such an electoral system would probably lead to chaos: if the US had to dissolve its government and hold new elections every time agreements between the parties broke down, it is unlikely that there would ever be a government in place. Even in stable parliamentary governments, gridlock is very common: governments are often unable to pass sweeping legislation because of the risk that it will break their coalition apart.
Many countries combine elements of first-past-the-post and proportional representation. Germany, for instance, uses a system known as mixed-member proportional representation. Certain seats are elected by districts, while others are allotted so as to ensure that the balance of seats is proportional to each party’s national vote share. In a system like this, if there were two parties—like, say, the Democrats and Republicans—and a legislature with 200 seats, then 100 seats would be reserved for members elected by geographical districts, first-past-the-post. If Democrats were to win 60% of the vote in each of those districts, they would get 100 seats, and the remaining hundred seats would be allotted such that the composition of the legislature reflected the overall vote share of each party: 60% Democrats and 40% Republicans. Republicans would therefore be given 80 of the remaining 100 seats, and Democrats would be given 20 of the remaining seats. Thus, Democrats would occupy 120 seats, or 60% of the total, and Republicans would occupy 80 seats, or 40% of the total.
Such a system allows for local representation without wasted votes, and results in a government that is dominated by only a few large parties, which makes coalition-building easier, and elections less frequent. Other countries, like Austria, strive to preserve both local representation and proportionality through large multi-member districts, in which a series of larger districts each proportionally elect their representatives.
It’s Hard to Design a Democracy
If there is one lesson to be drawn from voting systems around the world, it is that it is very difficult to design a system that represents voters’ preferences, respects regional interests, builds stability and legislates efficiently. Each system has its trade-offs. Countries with democratic systems that are both stable and proportionally representative are rare.
Moreover, it is almost impossible to systematically review potential political systems in order to select the best one. Electoral systems are not planned out in political science departments or A/B tested by focus groups. Countries emerge from revolution, imperialism, independence movements, civil war—or by slow evolution over hundreds of years—and so do their electoral systems. To maintain stability, it is important to make it difficult to amend the structure of government, once established. Much of the US electoral system was designed in 1787, in response to the outdated concerns of the time, but it can only be amended with wide, bipartisan support. And even in countries where electoral reform is more attainable, lawmakers often remain cynically bound to the electoral systems that brought them to power and held preserve their hold on that power, while voters often remain attached to the civic institutions with which they are familiar.
Those countries that have recently tried to reform their unrepresentative electoral systems have often found it difficult. In the UK, a 2011 referendum on a proposal that would have reformed the country’s first-past-the-post system failed dramatically, garnering the support of only 32% of voters. Canada’s Justin Trudeau campaigned on a promise to reform the country’s first-past-the-post system, but backed down in 2017. Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi held a referendum on a proposal that would have reduced the power of the Italian Senate, the country’s less representative upper chamber. But the populace overwhelmingly rejected the proposal and he resigned.
There have been some success stories, though. In 2000, France ended the practice of holding midterm elections, following a national referendum, which attracted a 30% voter turnout. And in 1911 and 1949, the UK was able to reduce the power of the House of Lords via acts of Parliament. In the US, electoral reform might be more attainable than it may appear. Fifteen state legislatures have already adopted the National Interstate Popular Vote Compact, thereby committing themselves to allocating their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote. If more states join, this could change the presidential voting system. In addition, Congress could admit new states to the union or expand the Supreme Court through simple acts of legislation, but it is far from clear that such measures would lead to greater democracy—rather than a cycle in which, once in power, each party adds more states and justices that it thinks will favour its policies. At least for now, the system we have in the US is the one US citizens must live with—as unrepresentative as it is. And in that respect, the US is far from alone.