Winner-take-all voting systems (among which are plurality and two-round runoff systems) hold as their central tenet that representation should be awarded to the candidates who receive the most votes. That principle may seem fair enough: everyone gets to vote, and the top vote-getters win. And certainly a candidate who wins likely will share many of the same ideas and values as the largest voting block in his or her constituency.
One clear downside to winner-take-all voting, however, is that losing candidates win nothing, even if they win substantial numbers of votes. In a two-candidate race, it is possible for 49.9% of voters to receive no representation. In a three-candidate race, that number can climb to 66.6% - much more than half the electorate can actually oppose the candidate who has earned the right to "represent" it.
Examples of such "plurality" victories are common. Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton earned less than 45% of the vote in their initial presidential victories, and several American governors were elected with less than 40% in the 1990s. In some nations such as Russia and Papua New Guinea, the number of candidacies have multiplied such that district elections regularly are won with less than 20% of votes.
The leap of faith made by advocates of winner-take-all systems is that supporters of losing candidates will be duly represented by either the candidate who wins, even if that candidate is their ideological opposite, or by candidates elected elsewhere. They also must believe that voters opinions can be neatly boiled into two basic options, as typically happens in competitive winner-take-all elections in the United States.
So why are winner-take-all elections so problematic? Here are a few reasons:
- Underrepresentation of voting groups
Women, communities of color, third parties, young people, and those in gerrymandered districts are all underrepresented. Winner-take-all election systems do nothing to provide representation to any group making up less than half of the population in a given voting district, and the high percentage of the vote needed to win election can be a severe barrier to minority candidates.
- No-choice elections
Since many areas are dominated by a single political viewpoint, winner-take-all voting systems will often result in elections with predetermined winners because one party has a monopoly on power. In the United States, two in five state legislative races go uncontested as a result, and nearly 99% of congressional incumbents win reelection by large margins.
- High percentages of “wasted votes”
Wasted votes are votes cast for candidates who do not win. Winner-take-all elections frequently result in more than 50% of votes being wasted. More voters will be represented by someone who they did not help to elect than under any other system.
Under at-large systems in particular, voters who feel strongly about a single candidate will be likely to “bullet vote” (that is, use only one of their votes) to help their preferred choice win election. In this way, winner-take-all discourages voters from expressing their full range of political preferences.
- Decreased voter turnout
With limited choice, and little chance of influencing the outcome of an election under winner-take-all rules, many people will unsurprisingly choose not to participate.
- Divisive campaigns
Under winner-take-all, there is no incentive to reach out to opponents or build cross-party support, meaning candidates can fail to address challenging issues and ignore entire constituencies. Negative campaigning is often a sensible and effective strategy.
The British introduced this style of election to America during the colonial era, but they are virtually unknown in other developed countries. Winner-take-all systems are an anachronism in the modern world and it is time for an update. Their failings lie at the root of many of our current political problems.
Winner-take-all elections are not just bad for women, they are bad for democracy.