Published in The Fulcrum, January 30, 2020
Our historical cousins in the United Kingdom vote much like we do — in single-member districts, under simple plurality rules — so their elections are worth paying attention to. This is particularly true now that “the duopoly,” the dominance of two parties characteristic of single-member-district systems, has become such a source of concern here in the United States.
The recent elections in the U.K. illustrate just how dominant a duopoly can be, even in a country with well-established third parties. More importantly, the elections illustrate that a new form of elections gaining prominence here, ranked-choice voting, will likely have only limited impact on reducing duopoly power, and that more significant reform means changing the single-member-district system itself, to the multimember approach called for in a bill before Congress dubbed the Fair Representation Act.
Single-member districts make life difficult for alternative parties, even those with reasonable support nationwide. A party with, say, an environment-first agenda, or a moderate-centrist platform, could poll relatively well nationally but not have enough supporters in any given district to win elections.
This pattern is clear in the track record of Britain’s Liberal Democratic Party, which is the kind of centrist alternative often wished for in the United States. The Lib Dems have fielded candidates in most districts — or “constituencies” — for several decades and in 2010 entered government in coalition with the Conservative Party. What the Lib Dems have not been able to do is translate voter support efficiently into seats in Parliament. In the eight general elections since 1992, the Liberal Democrats’ 15 percent aggregate vote share has won only 5 percent of seats.
By contrast, in the same time period the two dominant parties have claimed more seats than their aggregate share of ballots: The Conservatives have taken 37 percent of the vote but won 42 percent of the seats, while Labor, with 36 percent of the vote, has gained 46 percent of the seats.
In the elections in December, the pattern intensified: The Lib Dems gained only 2 percent of seats despite receiving nearly 12 percent of the vote, and the Conservatives, with 44 percent of the vote, won an absolute majority of 55 percent in Parliament.
Here in America we don’t have the same range of parties — in part because our Congress is undersized, with only one-seventh the number of representatives per citizen as Britain. But we do have political groupings that have trouble gaining representation in proportion to their share of the population. This is true of course of ethnic minorities, and it’s also true of categories like rural populations, Republicans in New England, Democrats in the Great Plains and many others. Our country is a dense patchwork quilt of significant minorities covered over by the all-too-familiar swaths of red and blue, monochromatic blocks that fundamentally are rounding errors.