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Anika Rao: U.S. first-past-the-post electoral system needs to change

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People cast their vote at Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.

From our concerns about the efficacy of the Electoral College to arguments about the impacts of gerrymandering, it’s impossible to follow national politics without running into youth who express deep cynicism about the future of our republic and its electoral system.

As someone who is ineligible to vote, an immigrant and a person of color, I know we need electoral reform because my future relies on a thriving and representative democracy. And the answer to my peers’ and my concerns may be hiding in plain sight.

Currently, the United States and most of its state and local elections use first-past-the-post (FPTP) systems. They fall under the category of plurality systems, in which the candidate who receives the most number of votes automatically wins the election, and which use single member districts, where electoral districts are assigned one legislative seat (a position in a legislature) each.

Proportional representation (PR) systems, on the other hand, give each candidate a number of seats that are proportional to the votes they received. They use multimember electoral districts, which are allocated more than one legislative seat. Germany, Finland and Sweden all have variations of PR systems. To overcome the dissatisfaction of young people with democracy in the United States, first-past-the-post electoral systems should be replaced with proportional representation systems.

The USA’s system restricts the electorate’s options. According to French political scientist Maurice Duverger, FPTP systems tend to produce two dominant parties for two reasons: third parties are unlikely to form because existing political structures favor dominant parties and voters are unlikely to vote for third parties, even if they are more ideologically similar to them, resulting in an endogenous cycle of misrepresentation.

The United States’ recent elections highlight both of these issues. Third party candidates were unable to garner anything near the threshold. The United States’ 117th Congress and the Utah State House and Senate, for example, have no members of any third party. Centrist Joe Biden and leftist Bernie Sanders were represented by the same party, and far-left voters were forced to vote for Biden. Center-right voters were forced to vote for far-right Donald Trump. In a country of 330 million, it is unreasonable to expect the electorate to choose between only two options.

A corollary to Duverger’s Law is that PR systems “favour multi-partism.” Because PR systems require multimember districts to divide seats proportionally, minor parties that win a significant percentage of the vote are guaranteed a seat in the legislature. Additionally, many PR systems use transferable votes. If a voter’s first candidate fails to accumulate enough votes, their vote is transferred to their next choice until one candidate receives the most number of top choices. The unrepresentative governments that FPTP systems produce also correlate with low voter motivation.

In the USA, if one candidate in an electoral district receives 40% of the vote and another receives 35%, the first candidate would win the election without support from the majority of the electorate because we use single-member districts. PR systems assign a predetermined number of seats to represent electoral districts, allowing for proportional allocation. Multimember districts would represent minority voters, and PR systems are less reliant on geographic location — this is important in overcoming the impacts of anti-democratic systems like gerrymandering or the Electoral College — because seats are allocated based on the percentage of the national vote as opposed to single electoral districts.

As evidenced by the approximately 80% turnout in recent elections in Israel, Sweden and Denmark, increased representation in PR systems correlates with higher voter turnout. By contrast, FPTP systems cause minority citizens to fall into a state of learned helplessness, leading to political apathy. The UK and US, for example, had turnouts of less than 60%.

Although I am not a U.S. citizen, many of my peers will be eligible to vote in two years. I’m originally from India, which has historically struggled with election integrity and voter turnout. But in 2019, India’s voter turnout was almost 70%. When a developing country of 1.4 billion people has a higher turnout than a developed democracy with a fraction of its population, it’s time we realize that something needs to change for our democracy to continue functioning effectively.


Anika Rao is a junior at West High School, where she is the editor-in-chief of its student news publication, The Red and Black. She is also the 2021 summer redistricting intern at Alliance for a Better Utah.

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