Riddle: Name two English-speaking countries, both of which proudly claim to be world-beating models of representative democracy despite routinely distorting election results and undermining majority rule. If you’re thinking Australia and New Zealand, think again. If your thoughts immediately turned to Thursday’s national elections in the United Kingdom, you’re on the right track. If you didn’t also think about recent elections in the United States, you’re either a blinkered Republican or you’re not paying enough attention.
By now the sentient world knows about the UK election “shock”: Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives won a clear majority of seats (331) in the 650-member Parliament. Labour, the other major party, won 99 fewer seats. Obviously, British voters overwhelmingly favored the Tories, right? Wrong. In fact, Cameron’s Conservatives got only 37 percent of the vote to 31 percent for Labour. Okay, the Tories got more votes. What sort of sorcery can turn a 37 percent plurality of the popular vote into a working majority in Parliament? Half of the simple answer: set up single-member districts. The other half: make the one who gets one more vote than anyone else the winner. It’s called a plurality and it’s a great way to disguise an aversion to majority rule.
It’s often called the “first past the post” system. The British invented it and guess who adopted it? Yup, we did. Historically in UK elections, one of the two major parties gets, say, 42-47 percent of the popular vote and wins over half the Parliamentary seats. In 1983 landslide, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives got 42.4 percent of the vote and won 397 seats, or 61 percent of the total. A decade ago, in 2005, Tony Blair’s New Labour magically turned a third of the popular votes (okay, 35 percent) into a comfortable majority in Parliament (355 seats).
But this election points to a changing political landscape in the UK. The Scottish National Party (SNP) won 56 seats in this election, while the Lib Dems, previously the Tories’ coalition partner, did a disappearing act – unless the single seat they won counts as a presence, that is. Here again, the system distorts representation by, in effect, nullifying votes on a massive scale: the Lib Dems polled 8 percent of the vote – only 1 percent less than the SNP.
Here on the other side of the Atlantic, we have no reason to chortle, much less gloat. In the 2014 US midterm elections, Republicans won 57 percent of the House seats with 52 percent the popular vote. That’s a serious enough insult to fair elections, but it’s nothing compared to 2012, when Democrats won 1.37 million more votes than Republicans but claimed only 201 House seats (46 percent). Meanwhile, 233 Republicans – a clear majority – cartwheeled merrily into Congress with 48 percent of the vote.
This distortion of majority rule and systematic, mass nullification of votes is not an accident. Rather, it’s the result of a flaw in the Constitution compounded by a long-term strategy on the part of both political parties to exploit that flaw in order to subvert the intent of the voters. The Constitution leaves it to the various states to draw the boundaries of voting districts; that’s not necessarily a bad thing except for the fact that there’s nothing to prevent state legislatures in many US states from egregiously abusing this power – no built-in safeguards against the odious practice of gerrymandering. In most states, the state legislature has the power to redraw the boundaries of voting districts; in a few states independent redistricting commissions do it. Seven states have only one representative, so it’s not an issue.
In Pennsylvania, for example, it’s a huge issue. Pennsylvania is a key state for historical reasons, as well as population and proximity to New York and Washington, D.C. In 2012 the election, Democratic candidates got more than half the votes in Pennsylvania but Republicans won three-fourths of the House seats. It happened again in 2014. It happens in many other states, as well. (Check out North Carolina, for example.) It’s the way we do elections in America now.
We could blame it all on the British if we hadn’t declared our independence 240 years ago and then fought a war to achieve it. Come to think of it, we’ve fought quite a few wars since then, including the Great War a century ago, the one Woodrow Wilson said we were fighting to make the world safe for democracy. Isn’t it about time we stopped talking about democracy and started practicing it?