I am one of those blues in a red state — a Democrat in a state that’s heavily Republican — and the blues is what I’ve got.
I have this nagging feeling when I go to vote that my vote isn’t worth as much as my Republican neighbor’s. I’ve noticed that, in 2016, Donald Trump got 59.2 percent of the Idaho popular vote; Hillary Clinton got 27.6 percent, yet all four of Idaho’s electoral votes went for Trump. Why couldn’t one of those votes have been given to Clinton? My vote was completely wasted. It was recorded as part of the national popular vote, but that vote wasn’t what elected the president. Am I actually being given equal representation at the national level?
It needn’t have been that way. The states determine how their Electoral College votes are apportioned. In Maine and Nebraska, for example, two votes go to the state-wide vote winner, and one electoral vote goes to each winner of the popular vote in each Congressional District.
I’ve also noticed that Democrats make up 20 percent of the current Idaho Legislature, but they are 25 percent of all registered voters. And in the 2018 election for governor, Democrats cast 38.2 percent of the votes; for state representatives, they cast 30.8 percent of the votes in the First Congressional District and 39.3 percent of the votes in the Second District. Are Democrats fairly represented in the Idaho Legislature?
A democracy is a system in which the majority rules, is it not? In the 2018, Republican primary for lieutenant governor, there were five candidates. Janice McGeachin won with 28.9 percent of the vote. In second place was Steve Yates, with 27.3 percent. The three other candidates each had over 13 percent. If there had been a run-off election of the two top vote-getters, there would have been a majority winner who would have had a more legitimate claim to be the nominee.
My point is that in a democracy such as ours, the will of the people should be as accurately represented as possible at all levels of government, and the voting system we use is critical to the accuracy of that representation.
In the U.S., the most common voting system used in legislative elections is referred to as “single-member-district plurality.” That simply means that it’s like Idaho’s two Congressional District elections: There is one Congressional seat for each district, and voters in each district choose one candidate from a list to fill that seat. The candidate who receives the most votes wins. It’s commonly called a “winner-take-all” system.
The problems with such a system are many: It leads to many wasted votes, which in turn, leads to a loss of interest in voting for those whose votes routinely suffer that fate; it produces distortions in party representation, since it’s been shown that winner-take-all systems are biased in favor of the largest party; if there are more than two candidates on the ballot, the winner may well not earn a majority of the votes (as in the case of the Republican primary mentioned above); third parties, if they exist, are unlikely to receive any representation; hence all kinds of minorities, including racial and ethnic minorities, will inevitably be under-represented; gerrymandering is encouraged, which further strengthens the dominance of the majority party.
There are variations of the winner-take-all system that seek to counteract its flaws — primarily the potential of the system to produce non-majority winners — but such variations (e.g. the run-off tactic mentioned above in the Republican primary), all share most of the system’s other flaws and fail to provide anything close to a fair representation of voters’ preferences.
Winner-take-all systems are characteristic of the U.S., Canada and England, but 21 of the 28 countries of Western Europe (including Scotland and Wales) have adopted some variant of a proportional representation (PR) system.
What the various PR systems have in common is 1) they utilize multi-member districts, i.e. there is more than one legislative seat per voting district, and 2) the number of seats that a given party wins is (roughly) proportional to the number of votes it receives, i.e. if Democrats get 30 percent of the votes for a district’s ten state senate seats, they get 3 of those seats. (My proposal for dividing Idaho’s Electoral College votes is also a PR solution.)
PR systems have many virtues: The overriding one is that voters’ opinions are far more fairly and accurately represented in the deliberative bodies to which elected representatives go, than in any pure or modified winner-take-all system. In addition, there are far fewer wasted votes, and consequently voter participation is encouraged and voter turnout improved. Minorities and under-represented groups of all kinds find it possible to have a voice in government. What is called “sincere voting” is encouraged, because minority candidates actually have a chance to succeed and voters have less reason to simply vote for “the lesser-of-two evils.” Gerrymandering is discouraged. Multi-party political systems are encouraged, which gives voters a wider range of choices in the voting booth, and candidates are more candid about their views since they needn’t conceal opinions that might not appeal to the greatest numbers of voters.
The commonest objection to proportional representation is that multiple parties often result, but aren’t there really two Democratic parties, a radical, progressive one and a middle-of-the-road one (note that the New York Times chose to endorse two Democratic candidates: Warren and Klobuchar)? For that matter, aren’t there some traditional Republicans still out there — the never-Trumpers? Why not recognize these serious ideological splits on a ballot and let each obtain the votes that they deserve? And wouldn’t it be refreshing to have some Congressmen who belong to a Green Party? Certainly the Idaho Legislature would be likely to contain more Democrats than at present, and that would somewhat assuage my red state blues. (Blue state Republicans, I hasten to add, would feel better, too.)
Leonard Hitchcock of Pocatello is an alumnus of the University of Iowa and did graduate work at Claremont Graduate University and the University of California, San Diego. He taught philosophy in California and Arizona for 15 years. In 1985, after earning a library degree, he was hired by Idaho State University. He retired from ISU's Oboler Library in 2006.