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Winner-Take-All System Means We Lose

Winner-Take-All, Two Parties, One Choice
The Winner-Take-All System, offers the American People two strange pills to swallow. Neither leads to escaping the system.
2012 Electoral Map
2012 electoral map, containing the current electoral count of each state. Source commons.wikimedia.org

Jill Stein’s offer of a joint ticket to Bernie Sanders hinted at an end to the two party system. Unfortunately, with Sen. Sanders’ recent speech it appears that that is no longer a possibility. It might be for the best since a SurveyUSA poll recently showed Sanders with only 18% of the popular vote in such a scenario. With this percentage and the Green Party only on the ballot in roughly 20 states, it seems as though they would have never stood a chance. If only because of basic math. However, as insane as it is, due to the winner-take-all system, this is not the complete death sentence it may have seemed.

Now, that is not to say that a Sanders-Stein ticket had a chance to win. It did not. It simply means that given the anti-democratic nature of the Electoral College, and the manner in which electoral votes are won, that it was not entirely impossible within the current system. In fact, theoretically, a third party Sanders, Green, or Libertarian Party win are all within the realm of technical possibility. Since the Green and Libertarian Parties are now receiving increases in donations, attention, and poll numbers, unpacking all of the reasons that contribute to their marginalization and inviability is now more important than ever.

This is because their inability to compete, much less win, is not only the result of the structural barriers in the system but in the way those barriers make us feel. How they affect the way we view our place and worth within that system. That is the takeaway; that the structural barriers, by themselves, are surmountable. So in order for change to occur, we must understand that the truly insidious forms of voter suppression are not found in legislation or the system, but in our minds. That is because the electoral process is, and has always been, effective in suppressing our democratic imaginations. To try to understand how and why this is the case, we must turn our focus to the first American institution of co-option and demoralization. No, not Taco Bell. The Electoral College.

That is because the electoral process is, and has always been, effective in suppressing our democratic imaginations. To try to understand how and why this is the case, we must turn our focus to the first American institution of co-option and demoralization. No, not Taco Bell. The Electoral College.

The Who,What, and Why of the Electoral College?

When people discuss the presidential election, The Electoral College is often not a part of the conversation. Most likely due it not fitting in with what we think the democratic process should be. This makes sense, given that the purpose of the Electoral College is, by design, anti-democratic. The Founding Fathers believed that the best government was a mixed government. One that combined all the best aspects of monarchies, aristocracies, and democracies, each part checking and balancing the others. Specifically, The Electoral College was born out of a fear that the general populace was uneducated and irrational. So them having direct control over the presidency, would lead to negative outcomes. Alexander Hamilton, in the Federalist Papers, explains that:

“…the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.”

However, the Founding Fathers were also against the very concept of political parties (or factions). As they viewed them as an evil, obstacle to a functioning government. So they get points for being, at least partly, psychic.

As a brief overview, the Electoral College is a temporary body made up of 538 delegates from states who act as the Electors. The number of delegates each state has is equal to that of its representatives in the House (determined by the US census) and Senate (2). The District of Columbia receives 3, or a number equal to that of the lowest state. After the presidential election, the Electors meet in their respective states, where they cast their votes for President and Vice President on separate ballots. The candidate who receives the most popular votes receives all of that state’s electoral votes regardless of the percentage or total amount of votes they win by (the plurality).

This is known as the winner-take-all system, as opposed to a system which proportionately awards delegate votes based on the percentage of the popular vote won. A candidate can win a state by a margin of 2% or 2 votes, but the worth of that victory in the national election is the same. This system was enacted at the state level, adopted in the early 1800s in an attempt to garner political favors from either of the two major parties at the time. At first only a few states utilized this system, but it was soon adopted by the other states in a defensive measure in order to not be viewed as less beneficial to either party.

No longer did candidates have to split the electoral votes from a state based on popular vote. Instead, winning the popular vote by even 1 ballot would grant them all the electoral votes. Some would call this a form of “disenfranchisement”. The reasoning being that in a Two-Party race, up to 49% of the voting population of a state could essentially “lose” their vote at the state level. Since their ballot will not affect the allocation of electoral votes, their vote is functionally wiped out of the equation at the state level. Essentially, if the rest of the state votes Republican, and you vote Democrat, the Republican candidate receives your vote as well upon winning. In effect, each individual within a state does not vote for the president. Instead, they vote for state electors whose votes will represent their state in the national election.

This system is so outrageous that in 1966, the state of Delaware, along with 11 other less populous states, filed suit against the state of New York, alleging that it was a form of disenfranchisement. Not to mention the hundreds of amendments that have been aimed at abolishing the Electoral College since the 1800s. Delaware’s suit was thrown out by the courts, and legal scholars can argue over whether this constitutes legal disenfranchisement, but what cannot be denied is that it is intended to make voters feel as though their vote does not matter. How it accomplishes this is a matter of how the electoral votes change the perception of how much support each candidate and party has received.

However, it is worth mentioning that the Electors from 21 states are “unbound”. “Unbound” in the sense that there is no law, pledge, or factor other than tradition compelling them to cast a vote reflective of the outcome of the popular vote. In the case of the other 29 states where there are laws and pledges, the price for breaking this law is steep. Steep, in that it ranges from a misdemeanor to a 1000 dollar fine. The latter is the punishment in the state of Washington. What are the chances of this happening?

Historically, 157 Electors in the United States have been what are known as “Faithless Electors”. A term that indicates that the Elector either cast their vote for a different candidate or did not vote at all. The last time this occurred was in 2000, when an Elector from the District of Columbia abstained in protest of the voting rights abuses in DC, though this did not affect the outcome of that race. In order to win the presidency, a candidate must receive a simple majority of electoral votes (270). If no candidate receives the magic number, the choice is left up to the House of Representatives. Who choose between the three candidates that received the most electoral votes.

So what does all this mean for a potential Sanders-Stein ticket or any third party? How could they win the presidency with only 20 states and a fifth of the popular vote? To answer that question, we have to employ the often deplored activity of basic mathematics. This will show that 20 states are actually 9 more than anyone really needs.

How to Become the President When No One Likes You

In reality, it is possible to win the Presidency of the United States of America with only 11 states. Any candidate only truly needs CA (55 electors), TX (38 electors), FL (29 electors), N.Y. (29 electors), PA (20 electors), IL (20 electors), Ohio (18 electors), MI (16 electors), GA (16 electors), NC (15 electors), and NJ (14 electors) to earn over 270 electoral votes. While the Green Party is not currently on the ballot in North Carolina or Georgia, it is entirely possible for them to make up that 31 Electoral vote gap by winning a few of the other 11 states they are on the ballot in. The argument could be made that, given the number of people in major cities, this would not be so huge an upset. While that might seem reasonable, remember two facts:

  • A candidate receives all the electoral votes regardless of the percentage of the vote they received in that state as long as they win,
  • Electoral votes are not based on turnout, but total population.

This essentially means that if only 1 person votes in CA, the candidate that receives that 1 vote receives all 55 electoral votes. In a theoretical three or four party race, the winning candidate could receive the entirety of the state’s electoral votes with roughly 30% of the popular vote. If done in 11 key states, receiving no votes in any other state, they would still win the presidency. However unlikely this outcome, the current system allows for a victory to occur.

More frightening, it is possible to win the presidency with less than a fourth of the national popular vote. For this, a candidate would need to win, by the slimmest margin possible (1 vote), in the 39 least populous states. Then be absent from the ballot in others. With this configuration, it is possible with only 21.99% of the popular vote in a two party system, if the candidate wins the 39 least populous states. States which are disproportionately represented in the Electoral College due to their population.

However, given the inherent biases of our system towards two parties, if a Third Party did manage a radical upset, there would most likely be more than a few “Faithless Electors” arising. However, that would just expose the inherent problems with the Electoral College’s winner-take-all system. With all this in mind, it is no wonder that so many are left asking: “Does My Vote Matter?”

Does Your Vote Matter? Define “Matter”.

The feeling that an individual vote does not matter has its base in the winner-take-all system and the Electoral College. The lifespan of a vote’s worth is from the moment it is cast, up until that state’s winner is decided. At which point it is given to the winning candidate regardless of who it was cast for originally. Additionally, votes cast in some states are proportionately worth more. This is due to the current system of allocating Electors. Under this system, most states receive an average of 1 delegate per ~550,000 people plus 2 to account for their state’s Senators.

This problem arises in the case of less populous states such as Wyoming, which has a population of only roughly 550,000, yet still has 3 electoral votes. What this means is that Wyoming’s electors each represent merely ~170,000 people. Essentially, a vote in Wyoming is worth over 3 times a vote cast in a more populous state such as Texas or California. Places where each elector might be representative of 550,000 or more individuals. The next factor is the actual and perceived value of votes in “Swing” vs. “Safe” states. The very existence of these two categories of state, and how radically different a vote is worth, is owed to the winner-take-all system. Practically speaking, a winner-take-all system is a binary one. You win or you lose. 1 or 0.

A “Swing” state simply refers to states where the margin of victory in the popular vote is less than 9%. This means that it is possible for the vote to “swing” towards either candidate, granting them all of the electoral votes for that state. In an alternative system, the worth of 9% of a voting population, would be relative to the number of people in that state. However, 1 vote would be worth the same no matter which state it was received in. However, in a winner-take-all system, 9%, or even 1 vote, can mean the difference between 100% of the electoral vote and 0%. This changes the candidate’s evaluation of the voters in each state.

Given that anything less than a victory is a total loss, states which are viewed as “safe” for either party are simply ignored, along with any unique interests they might have. Within the winner-take-all system, votes in these states are simply valued more by candidates and it is not hard to understand why. Given that they can turn the tide of the election easier than a popular vote would. For example, in 2004, had Democratic candidate Kerry received an average 1.4% increase in votes in two such states (Iowa and Ohio), he would have won the presidency. Poetically, while still losing the popular vote to Bush. So while the Electoral College’s winner-take-all system could, mathematically, allow for a third party candidate to win even in the face of marginalization. It is that same system which serves to suppress our democratic imagination. Our ability to freely think and act outside of the bounds two party system.

Suppressing the Democratic Imagination

The winner-takes-all system allows for another possibility. It has the potential to create an inverse scenario, as opposed to a 20% popular vote presidential victory, where a Sanders-Stein, or if you are so inclined a Johnson-Weld, ticket could lose every state to either Trump or Clinton by only the slimmest margin (for example 35%-33%-32%) and still receive no electoral votes. In this situation, though the popular vote nationwide would breakdown to be an almost even percentage, the electoral votes could be any combination of results. All showing Sanders with 0 electoral votes. Meaning that it would not even force it to go to Congress for a decision. This would give the appearance of a complete and utterly unpopular candidate.

There is a precedent for this type of outcome. When Lincoln was re-elected, while he only received 55% of the national popular vote, but a whopping 90% of the electoral vote. Which in principle gave him the ability to quash the anti-war sentiments in the North at the time. It is important to understand that this warping of the appearance of the popularity of candidates is not an unintended side effect. Instead, it is a touted feature of the winner-take-all system. This is based on the theory that a larger margin of victory results in a more definitive win and less opposition to leadership. Thus a more legitimate mandate to rule for the candidate.

Popular Vote shows a close race, Electoral Vote shows a Landslide
Popular vote shows a close race, electoral Vote shows a landslide. Source commons.wikipedia.org

As another example, in the 2012 election, Pres. Obama won the popular vote by just over 50% but won the electoral vote by over 60%. Meaning that his second term would be met with less obstructionism. Which is exactly what happened. This perception of increased favor, along with the insistence that it makes calculating the winner “easier”, are just two of the reasons for keeping the electoral college. The other justifications are slightly less reasonable. Some say that it would end the two party system, making politicians have to cater to specific geographic, minority interests. Or that it would lead to more election fraud and less fun for political scientists. However, it is the main benefit that is of concern. While a political scientist might refer to it as creating a legitimate “Mandate to Rule”, a more apt description for it is mass, political and systemic “gaslighting”.

Traditionally, gaslighting is a term that refers to the intentional distortion of an individual’s perception of reality, causing them to doubt their judgment, perception, and sanity. Since this term is usually applied to the manipulative actions of sociopaths and abusers, it is an apt descriptor in this case. In this case, it is meant to make someone doubt their perceptions of our political reality and their place in it. As indicated, one of the purposes of the winner-take-all system is to present the winner of the election within a frame that proves beneficial to the two major parties. It is not hard to see how this is meant to demoralize and disenchant voters. alternative parties, and movements.

By design, this is intended to reduce their willingness to oppose the actions of the winning candidate. By presenting the results of an election in a context that effectively distorts the support for, and opposition to a particular candidate, greater feelings of marginalization and isolation arise in those who diverge from that system. Eventually causing individuals to fully internalize the position that their vote was either out of touch with the rest of society. Or that, despite voicing their opinion, it did not matter. This feeds the dominant mentality that those in safe states can either vote with the predicted majority, or any other party, or not at all. The result will be the same either way.

Those in swing states are slightly better off. They can vote for either of the two main parties and their vote will count a lot. Up until it does not. More broadly, it effectively stops any third party from being able to garner enough votes to even demonstrate national viability, or gain positive national exposure. Any headway they make at the state level will be viewed as negative as it will be at the cost of another candidate. Making it harder to do better in subsequent elections.

Winner-Take-All, Two Parties, One Choice

Where this becomes truly apparent is how those who chose to vote for a third party are portrayed. When voting for a Third Party in a swing state, your vote will either not be presented in the national conversation or be presented negatively by the media. While it is purposely difficult for a third party to “spoil” or disrupt the entire system. It is not as hard for them to be perceived as spoiling the chances of one of the two major candidates. The presence of such a system creates a unique social identity of “Spoilers” within our political culture. People who, by not conforming to the two party system, ruin the chances of one of the favored candidates. In the wake of Nader, being a “Spoiler” carries such a negative social connotation, that it has led the Green Party to attempt to adopt a “Safe States” strategy.

One that emphasizes campaigning only in states deemed safe, in hopes of garnering enough visibility to appear in debates in the following year, without appearing to be ruining the chances of another candidate in the present. Our political culture and media is one that places individuals into a unique, deviant category for daring to vote for whom they feel best represents their interests. For daring to imagine, and try to achieve, a world outside of two antagonistic proto-political parties. Our winner-take-all system ensures that individuals feel that pressure, both psychologically and socially, to vote within the dynamic of the two party system, or not to vote at all. It is better to abstain and give up, than to hope and “spoil”.

The ultimate effect of this is overall lower voter turnout as demonstrated by the record low voting rates. Voting rates which are falling faster in “safe” states where the value of ones’ vote to a candidate is though to be less. Effectively transforming the calculations made when voting from one based on individual, positive emotions, to a group oriented decision, based on negative emotions. Currently, the main drivers behind an individual’s choice whether to vote and who to vote for is a combination of how everyone else is voting (which ultimately determines the worth of their vote at the national level) and which candidate they would least like to win. People are not simply voting along party lines, they are voting against party lines.

That is where Duverger’s Law needs to be clarified. In our current system individuals are not coalescing into two parties to simply get their preferred candidate to win. We are now coerced into voting blocs to protect against our least preferred candidate becoming president. While in a two party system this may result in the same outcome, it is the latter which results in the “lesser of two evils” voting conundrum. We are not saying “Yes” to Hillary, we are saying “No” to Trump. Hillary is no longer the center of the democratic party campaign and neither are the Democratic base. Trump and the Republican party are.

It is this narrative that the Democratic establishment and the media gleefully wheel out in the face of any criticism. That if you do not vote for Clinton, you might as well vote for Trump, because in winner-take-all, in a system that is rigged for two parties, it is the same thing. Both ignoring their share of the responsibility for the monster that is the current Republican base and party.

This fully reveals our two-party political process for what it has now become: a hostage situation. Within each candidate’s platform, any issue broached is secondary to the thinly veiled threat aimed at the populace (“Vote for me or they win”). If one questions whether Hillary Clinton really would make a great president, they are immediately met with “well would you prefer Trump”? With the part that the Democratic Party played in ensuring this binary choice completely obscured by the implications of the choice itself. The American electoral process is now defined by antagonism, opposition, and crisis-management. The viability of our candidates defined by who they are not, as opposed to who they are, or what they will be for us.

In this system, it is no longer the burden of the individual candidate to appeal to all voters. Nor is it the burden of the party to have an inclusive platform in any targeted way. It is now the burden of third parties to remove themselves from the path of a major candidate. It is the burden of the individual voter to toe the line. To not vote for a “spoiler” candidate. It is our burden to support the less evil candidate. Not their burden to earn our support by being good. No longer are we voting for the best candidate, but we are voting against the worst. Of course, we also have to acknowledge that to a certain extent Trump, Sanders, Stein, and Johnson are also drawing voters who do not entirely agree with their platform, but see them as the closest option who is also anti-establishment.

In a different system, either a national popular vote or one that awarded electors proportionately, the lesser evil would lose as a matter of course. However, under this system we are told that that is the main reason to vote. We are granted the illusion of choice, but that choice is never to end the dominance of the two parties. Not even to pick your favorite, but pick your least favorite. Which do you hate more? Pepsi or Coke? Sprite is never an option. For these reasons, much like with Perot, I would expect third-party support to trickle down the closer we get to the November election. Though even if it does not, the winner-take-all system will assure that their accomplishments first and foremost are interpreted in relation to how it affects the Republican and Democratic Parties.

With the implication, that it is better to have mild evil forever than it is to work towards the long-term good of boosting third party visibility. The consequence for working towards true choice is that “Evil Wins” today, and presumably ends the world before we have a chance at good. All semblances of a platform only meant to convince us that our candidate is not so bad. That has now made it possible to have an election where each of the two major candidates is viewed as unfavorable by roughly 50% of the population.

The lesser of two evils being elected should be a byproduct of a proactive agenda, not the primary metric by which we vote for president. When the latter is the case, it just leads to candidates taking that into account as they construct their priorities. Democrats do not have to be the “most good” for us, nor do they try to be. They just need to be “less bad”, and that can be done by simply being slightly to the left of Republicans. If only in the language used. Unfortunately, we are now seeing the consequences of that strategy in the Clinton-Trump race. The Democrats have relied so heavily on the Republican’s rampant social conservatism and corporatism to mask their own, milder social conservatism and corporatism for years, that that history is now being used against them.

The American people are now being presented with a strong case that the Democrats are not “less evil”, just sneakier and more polite. Making them equally culpable in many of the problems facing America today. Trump is confronting Clinton with the fact that the difference in outcome, for the past 30 years for a large portion of Americans, between electing Establishment Democrats and Republicans, has been a superficial one. That the real distinction is between “The Establishment” and “The People”, not the Democratic and Republican parties. Since the Democrats and Republicans have recently relied on a defining their campaigns based on binary opposition to the other party, this has now backfired. We all know Hillary Clinton is for “The Establishment”,  So Donald Trump must, by process of elimination, must be for “The People”.

To call any Third Party, whether Libertarian or Green, ticket “impossible” while not engaging with what makes it “impossible” is just furthering the Establishment narrative of only two viable parties. Ignoring the interplay of the system and the psychology is only furthering the narrative that certain votes do not matter by treating them as though they could not matter. That is the practical aspect of a third party Sanders’ run, as it relates to the electoral vote. If his ticket cannot win the plurality of votes in the state, they have won none. The implications of this are obvious.

The mainstream media will downplay and obscure any amount of the popular vote he does get, whether that is 20 or 20 million. And if Hillary loses, he will be the “Nader”. The Spoiler. The Man who handed Trump the Presidency. The Scapegoat. Hillary will be absolved of all her sins and misdeeds. It would not be Clinton’s fault for running a weak campaign, losing, not appealing to enough voters or her casual Racism. It would be everyone else’s fault for not allowing or helping her to defeat Trump. It would be the fault of Progressive voters for wanting more, not the Democratic Party for offering less.


Featured Image via: Wikipedia.com

Written by B. Sutton

B. Sutton

I'm an Anthropologist. I do Anthropology. Follow me on Twitter @PrettyBadLefty.

Find me on Project Sanity Thursdays from 8-9PM ET and Politics and Grits on Sundays at 10am ET.

B. Sutton is a Writer for Progressive Army.

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Tom Sanford

You have totally discounted the libertarian ticket of Johnson and Weld. You maintain there’s no third party now by solely focusing on Sanders/Stein. The libertarian ticket has 12% now. At 15 they will be allowed in the debates.
Your article grossly misstates our choice and opportunities this election year.