To many of you, the following information will appear rather elementary; but there are others, just as intelligent, who are ill-informed about these things. This is for you.
During the recent election, in addition to choosing a President, Vice President, and a third of our senators, we also elected or reelected all members of the House of Representatives.
In a representative government such as ours, every method of choosing representatives has its advantages and its problems. In the United States and in many other English-speaking nations, the election of members of the lower house of the legislature is based on a plurality of votes in single member districts. For example, in my congressional district I was recently represented by the late Elijah Cummins, who was chosen by a majority of my district’s voters in the 2018 elections. A simple plurality was sufficient to elect him. Now, of course, I will have a new representative.
The plurality method of election means that in many congressional districts where three or more candidates are contending, the winner may have less than half of the total vote. In such districts fully half of the electorate may feel that they have no real voice in Congress. The situation is made worse by the practice of gerrymandering, a process by which a district is structured in a way to promote one party’s interests; and voters in some districts may remain in the political minority year after year with little likelihood of his or her candidate ever being the winner. Of course, the district representative is supposed to labor in the interests of all his or her constituents.
The formation of a new party is made difficult by this method of electing members of the House of Representatives. Third party candidates need to receive a plurality vote in a large number of congressional districts to make an impression on Congress. That is highly unlikely. Third party representatives and independents are therefore very rare. Rather than forming a new party, candidates usually try to find a home in the Democratic or Republican party, and our two major parties thus tend to include supporters with a very wide range of political opinions and causes.
Some citizens have proposed a proportional representation (PR) system as being more democratic than our present procedure, and some form of PR is used in many nations with a parliamentary type government. The usual way to do this is have multiple candidates being elected from a large district. Each of the several political parties prepares a list of candidates, and voters vote for a list. The relative number of votes for each list determines how many candidates from each list are elected, meaning that each party’s representation in the legislature is roughly equal to its percentage of voters in the general population.
Proportional representation appears very attractive to those who push for a more democratic system, but PR has two distinct drawbacks. First, you are voting for a party rather than for individual candidates. The party determines the pecking order, and an individual voter has very little influence over the process. Second, PR tends to promote a proliferation of political parties and the likelihood of frequent legislative deadlocks. Party coalitions are usually needed for effective government, and the government is often unstable. Consider the example of France under the Third Republic. Party divisions and the number of parties made it difficult for France to be unified, and governments were frequently voted out of office and replaced. Strong and consistent government programs were very difficult to establish and maintain. Israel is experiencing similar problems today as it attempts to form a stable coalition government.
There is no real support for adopting proportional representation in the United States. Despite its drawbacks, most citizens seem satisfied with the single member district plurality method of choosing our representatives, and I am convinced it is the best way to ensure effective representative democracy.
United States Senators are also usually elected by plurality vote by the entire state’s electorate, but in some states a majority is required. In these states, when there are multiple candidates and no one receives a majority, there is a run-off between the two candidates with the most votes. That is the situation in Georgia where two Senate seats were being contested and no candidate won a majority in either contest. The run-offs are scheduled for January 5, and control of the Senate depends on the outcome.