How Germans vote

How Germans vote

Today, I am reminded of my grandfather in Germany. Not of his cycling exploits during the 1930s, when he rode hundreds of kilometers with his friends on weekends. Instead, I am thinking of him voting.
When my grand-father was in his 80s and confined to his house by severe arthritis, he only left his house when he went out to vote. I remember somebody once suggesting that he stay home, and this usually mild-mannered man became almost angry: “I will go and vote because it matters!” His one vote really did count, because Germany has a system of proportional representation, where everybody’s vote counts. Perhaps as a result, voter participation in Germany is around 85%.
Contrast that with my vote today. I voted at home and mailed the ballot. In the presidential election, my vote won’t be a determining factor since Washington State is not a “Battleground State.” (We do have local issues and our gubernatorial contest can be very close, so I urge Washington State voters to get your ballot in.)
In the U.S., there is a widespread feeling that voters no longer can influence the government in meaningful ways. Only about half of the eligible voters will cast their ballot today. I believe that there are two reasons for this:

  1. “Winner-take-all” elections have cemented the monopoly of the two big parties. In the last century, no other party has been able to obtain an influential role in government. Many minority interests are not represented in national politics – for example, did you hear any of the candidates talk about environmental protection during the presidential race?
  2. The basic system of “One citizen = one vote” is not honored. Some senators represent huge numbers of voters, others relatively few. And the candidate who gets the most votes today is not guaranteed to become president.

Proportional representation offers a solution to these problems. Proportional representation means that the popular vote determines the make-up of government, and that minority opinions also are represented in government. My grandfather voted in Germany, which uses proportional representation to elect its government. Here is how my grandfather’s vote worked:

  • My grandfather got two votes. One for the “District,” the other for the “List.” You can see the two columns on the ballot shown above.
  • The “District” vote (on the left) works like it does in the U.S. for the House of Representatives: Winner-Take-All, the candidate with the most votes goes to Parliament to represent a relatively small district.
  • The “List” vote (on the right) is tallied nationwide, and represents the “popular vote.”
  • Half the seats in parliament are assigned based on the “District” votes.
  • The other half of seats are assigned so that the overall make-up of the parliament represents the popular vote. These seats are assigned based on the “Lists” that each party submits before the election. Combined, “List” and “District” seats equal the percentage of the vote the party obtained. (If a party wins many districts, they get fewer list seats, and vice versa.)

Considering that Americans were heavily involved with drafting the new German constitution after World War II, one might consider the German system an improved version of the older American system. Here is what I like about it:

  • Big parties that represent the majority interest take most district seats, just like in the U.S. House. They represent the local interests in parliament. And since the district votes don’t affect the overall make-up of parliament (which is determined by the popular vote), there is little incentive for gerrymandering.
  • Small parties that represent minority interests get a proportional minority role in parliament. (In the U.S., they are left out entirely.)
  • Every vote counts the same, because the distribution of seats in parliament is determined by the popular vote, not the “district” vote. No small states are over-represented in the Senate. No “Battleground States” that get all the attention of  candidates.
  • New parties can get elected to parliament (provided they obtain at least 5% of the vote). They can make their case, and if they are convincing, they will get more votes next time around. If not, they vanish again.

Does it work? It appears so. Post-war Germany has been a stable country, arguably more stable than the U.S. in recent years, which has suffered from gridlock and threats of government defaults. Despite this stability, Germans have founded numerous new parties during the last 40 years. The Greens went from a ragtag protest movement to a respected political party that has provided several cabinet members. Die Linken (“The Left”) also have made it into Parliament recently. The Grey Panthers and the German Republican Party have been less successful, but they have influenced the political discourse. The Free Democratic Party (FDP) has been declining as their program lost some of its appeal. The two big parties, the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD) have ruled in varying coalitions with small parties since World War II. These ample choices encourage citizens to remain engaged in the political process, because change actually is possible. And that appears to be the reason behind the high voter turnout.
Imagine if in the U.S., both Ross Perot and Ralph Nader had made it into the government, together with a small number of others from their parties. Imagine if a vote for them would not have been “wasted,” but rather would have gone toward a coalition that could have ruled the country. I believe this would have been good for our democracy.
There are some moves afoot to change the system in the United States. The National Popular Vote movement is trying to work within the constitution to have the president elected by popular vote. A number of states, including Washington, have passed laws that would make this possible if enough states sign on. This would be a first step, effectively eliminating the electoral college. This would make every state a “battleground state” and ensure that every vote counts. However, it wouldn’t change the “winner-take-all” elections that virtually assure the two parties’ hold on power. Other countries show that it needn’t be this way, and there is no reason why the U.S. system cannot be reformed.
Make no mistake, I love the United States: the country, the people, the culture and the landscape – I chose to live here, after all. But I wish I could take as much pride in my vote today as my grandfather did.
P.S.: This is a rare post that is not related to bicycles. You’d think we only thought about bicycles…

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Comments (49)

  • Alex

    Hear Hear! Thanks, Jan, for posting this.
    The system desperately needs an overhall (i’m an american living in Germany).
    I assume that the NPV website you linked to is not the NPVIC, but if it is, there is a much better way: (not sure if you allow links, but here is one:)

    November 6, 2012 at 1:01 am
  • Stevy

    Here in Australia voting is mandatory. If you don’t vote you receive a small fine. This is waived if your religion or other objection prevents you from doing so. You can submit a prior postal vote if you will be riding a 400 or 600 on polling day.
    Our (federal) upper house of parliament is proportional representation on a state by state basis. The lower house has is elected from single-member constituencies of approximately equal population.
    This means in practice our lower hose forms a government of one of the major parties, (either the 700c’s or the 26”) and the upper house is comprised of both, with a smaller party (generally the 650bs) holding the balance of power.
    Like Germany (unlike Italy) we have stable government, but on occasion the 650bs are able to wield more power than their share of the vote would suggest.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:23 am
  • TimJ

    Terrific non-cycling post. I understand that some states are already moving ahead with proportional voting. Proportional voting won’t solve all of the problems we have in US elections – electoral college, no Constitutional right to vote, overly politicized state control of voting – but it’s a common sense start.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:34 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      No system is perfect, but it’s useful to compare different systems, and adopt the one that gives the best results.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:50 am
      • Ben

        Just a small detail (which by no means should distract from the big picture): The German Federal Constitutional Court has recently declared some details of the laws concerning the German national parliament elections to be against the constitution. With the present system it is possible (though unlikely) to actually with your vote hurt the party you vote for:
        But we are working on that 😉

        November 6, 2012 at 6:10 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          As you say, it’s a small detail, and compared to the issues we face in the U.S., it’s minor. (Here, moving from California to Wyoming will give you 60 times the voting power in the Senate elections, since each state gets two senators, regardless of population.) What is encouraging is that the German system is not set in stone, but can be modified to improve it. It makes me wonder why we are stuck with the electoral college.
          The “overhang” mentioned in the Wikipedia link occurs when a party obtains more seats through the district vote than their share of the popular vote entitles them to have. In that case, all the directly elected district representatives do get into parliament, but the overall number of seats in parliament is adjusted.

          November 6, 2012 at 6:30 am
  • Markku Klubb

    I am of Finnish ancestry and agree wholeheartedly witth your comments. As an individual who has spent time in the Nordic countries, it is obvious to me that there is a better way. That way has been discovered and has been functioning effectively for a long time! When will we ever learn?

    November 6, 2012 at 6:46 am
  • Dweendaddy

    I am wholeheartedly against the electoral college system… except for the fact that it has been working for the last 200+ years and during that 200+ years people all across the world (Germany included) have woken up every morning hoping for a democratic system like we have….
    While I hate feeling like my vote does not count (I have never lived in a “battle ground” state), I do sleep well knowing that our country has been the most stable democratic country over the last couple of centuries! You can bicker about the last 20-30 years, but I like to take history in chunks bigger than that! Some Europeans may not!
    Edwin in Nashville, TN

    November 6, 2012 at 7:27 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      With that argument, wouldn’t it be better to live under an autocratic king? Consider that stable kingdoms endured for millenia, not just centuries. Also, past performance is not always an indicator of future performance. Rome was a stable democracy for centuries… until it failed.
      In the U.S., the number of “battleground states” is shrinking, gridlock in congress is increasing, and the influence of money in politics is growing. This makes me wonder how stable the system really is. The rules haven’t changed in centuries, but conditions surrounding them have. Being able to adapt is key to survival.

      November 6, 2012 at 7:38 am
    • Bill Gobie

      “Working” and “stable”…. You have to overlook the time bombs built in to the Constitution that led to the Civil War to make a claim like that. The Electoral College is the most visible remaining functioning official vestige of slavery. We need to rid ourselves of it.
      For an example of enlightened progressive constitutional change contemporaneous with the United States have a look at the reform of the British government that reduced the Monarchy and House of Lords to toothless curiosities.
      When I learned about the Electoral College in high school I thought a repeat of 1888 in modern times would create such a groundswell of outrage that the Electoral College would not survive to the next election. But here we are.
      Great post, Jan.

      November 6, 2012 at 10:48 am
  • Ty

    I also agree that the electoral college system makes absolutely no sense. There never was President Gore because of that ridiculous system. Whether that would have been good or not, the person with the most votes lost. How does that make any sense at all?
    Now, back to my question about chainrings for my Rando bike…

    November 6, 2012 at 8:14 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      We’ll be back to our normal topics soon enough…

      November 6, 2012 at 8:37 am
    • Joe Kendrick

      Imagine for a minute that we eliminate the electoral system and instead of recounting Florida, we recount the U. S. Unworkable. The system, as poorly understood as it is, forces a consensus and does so from the states themselves.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:51 pm
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        Extending that argument to its logical conclusion, shouldn’t we eliminate elections altogether?
        Also, since the counts and recounts are done at the local level, couldn’t every state re-count their votes? That shouldn’t take any longer than one state counting and the others watching and waiting.

        November 6, 2012 at 5:06 pm
  • Mark Gardner

    A useful first step would be to abolish the winner-take-all method of allocating electoral college votes, currently used in 48 of the 50 states. If Obama loses Colorado by even 100 votes, all of my state’s electors will go to Romney, and I am effectively disenfranchised. I don’t how this is even a partisan issue. There is nothing in the Constitution about how electors should be allocated.

    November 6, 2012 at 8:20 am
  • Brendon Potts

    It is a little sad that this is the system we use, when we are the ones going around the world claiming to know so much about democracy. Mark Gardner makes a good point too. I guess in the system we have right now, you need to live in a state that votes the way you do if you want to feel like your vote counts…even though it might count less that way.

    November 6, 2012 at 8:50 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      My state (Washington) has been “blue” on the maps from the onset. Both presidential candidates have come here only to ask for our money, but not for our votes. My riding partner and I both vote differently, but neither of our votes count in this election.
      However, a great thing about America is that people are open to improving things. That is one of the main reasons I live here, and that is the reason I put up this post. If we can accept the notion that wide tires roll as fast as narrow ones and that low-trail geometries can be stable, we also can change our electoral system!

      November 6, 2012 at 9:12 am
  • H

    I find it ironic that we send observers to other countries to verify the fairness of their elections yet we utilize a commercially owned election system over which the government has no control and that we do everything possible to limit the number of people to vote!

    November 6, 2012 at 9:36 am
  • Patrick Moore

    Some history and distinctions. First, the founders of the United States did not at all intend the US of A to be a full, one man/one vote democracy, quite the contrary, but rather a republic with the people having a voice but one moderated by the anticipated wisdom of statesmen who were not swayed by “faction” and could afford (financially and culturally) to take a wider view of important issues and candidates. The original system didn’t work and the compromises made throughout the years ended up with their own problems, exacerbated by the sheer size and diversity of a continent-sized country.
    Compared to the US, Germany is like a very large state: about 1.6 the size of California GDP overall and 2.3X the population. The US is practically speaking like the European Union with much the same spread of cultures, economies, and sectional interests. You can see where Parliamentary governments have clogged government in small countries like Great Britain (1970s) and Italy (most of the time); imagine the confusion if the same system were used in the US.
    Even with just two parties, in practice, there is deadlock; what would happen if 312 m people spread out over four time zones created as many political parties as represented their regional interests, all of which got proportional representation? Chaos, is what.
    The party system itself is contrary to the founders’ intentions, and the factionalism — ie, narrow as opposed to common interests — was already the source of deadlock in its very early days. With the growth of concentrated wealth and in mass communication, this deadlock has become even worse as special interests have largely bought elections at all but the local levels.
    In my own opinion, democracy unmitigated works at these local levels, but it becomes more tenuous at each higher level, so that, after a certain point in size and extent, other methods must be mixed in to avoid both tyranny of the majority and on the other hand, the purchase of ruling power by concentrated special interests, majority or not. I don’t know, practically speaking, what these ameliorative methods ought to be, but it is clear that pure democracy in such a case simply leads to chaos or tyranny; tyranny eventually, even because at first to chaos.
    At any rate, a system, political or otherwise, that works in a smallish country, largely culturally homogenous, can’t be transferred tale quale into a country that in many respects is more like a continent of countries.

    November 6, 2012 at 9:46 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      You are right, the founding fathers never intended for everybody to vote, but that has changed. Today, women and blacks are allowed to vote, and in many ways, we do endorse a system of “one citizen – one vote.” Imagine the uproar if we decided to tie the right to vote to land ownership again! There are many reasons why democracy is flawed, but as Winston Churchill (I believe it was him) said, it still beats the alternatives.
      I don’t think Germany is any more homogeneous than the U.S. – as somebody whose ancestors were from northern Germany, but who grew up in the West and the South, I have experienced that heterogeneity first-hand. The difference between Texas and Washington state pale by comparison.
      As to the risk of regional parties, since the proportional vote is at a national level, a regional party must carry a huge portion of the region’s vote to have any influence nationally. In fact, that why the German Republican Party never made it into parliament, since it was mostly a southern party. (They did make it into some state’s parliaments for a while.) And if a region’s grievances are so great that a large portion of the population is willing to vote for a regional party, then perhaps it is good if those grievances can be aired.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:01 pm
  • Alan Bergamini

    Thanks for your interesting observations on democracy and voting systems in various countries. Here in New Zealand we have a proportional system that allows smaller parties to be represented. However, what everyone seems to overlook is that rule by man (or woman) is unsatisfactory. Thousands of years of human rulership have bought mankind sorrow, hardship and inequality. Far better the rulership espoused by Jesus Christ: “Our Father in the heavens, let your name be sanctified. Let YOUR kingdom come….” (Matthew 6:9-10, capitals added) Now that would be a government we should all be voting for. And before you think I’m some religious crank who has hijacked this thread of comments, I am about to ride off to work on a custom made lugged steel bike with Brooks saddle, fenders and Carradice bag.

    November 6, 2012 at 9:59 am
  • Patrick Moore

    I forgot to add extreme examples of “tyranny of the majority” in anticipation of those who would object that the majority can’t be tyrannical, by definition: one from Germany, one from the US. The Nazis won the largest number of seats in the 1932 election; in the southern US, a majority by wealth and influence, as well as overall numbers, maintained millions of blacks in de facto slavery for almost 100 years after the end of the US Civil War.

    November 6, 2012 at 9:59 am
  • Dave

    I certainly don’t mean to sound like I’m attacking you here, Mr. Heine. You make some good points, and it is indeed fantastic that Germany now has such a good system (which is perhaps indeed an improvement over the American system).
    But I do urge you to please consider more strongly how your post can come across. It was not so long ago at all that Americans (such as my grandfathers) and our brave allies made massive sacrifices to stop the German government’s unprecedented reign of terror and destruction. Further, we in large part inspired/constructed the present German system (as you too-briefly mentioned). Most of your post was productive and good; but when healthy German pride and criticism of American government spill over into statements such as Germany being “arguably more stable than the United States” without any respectful acknowledgement of the horrific, relatively recent past, then your tone comes close to offensive and your argument loses its steam. If you wish to point out–on our election day, no less–that we Americans should take a page from the Germans in improving our government, then perhaps you shouldn’t speak of the Germans as if they figured it out on their own, let alone that this figuring happened long ago in a happy, “stable” way. Comparing government systems is not quite the same as the more scientific comparisons that both you and I make in our professions.
    Thanks for your time. –Dave, who just voted in a “battleground state”

    November 6, 2012 at 10:02 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I am sorry that my post could be misunderstood by readers who think I am German. I no longer am German, as I chose to become a U.S. citizen many years ago. I posted this on our election day, because I think it matters. My future is here, even if my distant past was in Germany. I have lived in the U.S. for more than half my life now, and I feel that this is my country.
      As to my comment about Germany being politically stable, it was meant to illustrate that a political system that allows new parties to be formed and others to fade away can be stable. I changed the wording to indicate that I meant post-war Germany. (Pre-war Germany had a different political system.) As a former German, I can tell you that virtually everybody in Germany has nothing but regret and sorrow about the 3rd Reich. Before, Germans used to believe in “German Exceptionalism,” but after seeing how badly that turned out, the idea was abandoned completely by almost everybody after 1945.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:25 pm
      • Dave

        This was a touching response. I also appreciate your willingness to change the original wording. It is always refreshing to hear the thoughts of an American with intelligence and integrity, no matter where he was born.

        November 7, 2012 at 12:14 pm
  • Tim Evans

    We are not a democracy. We are a republic.
    That can be changed, or improved, but it will take a lot of convincing.

    November 6, 2012 at 10:11 am
  • TimJ

    Perhaps a good follow-up to this post would be one about the German health care system. In all of the discussion about health care in America, there is seldom any discussion about what we can learn from the health care systems of other countries. Instead we have a discussion about the pros and cons of the current system, a totally free market system (?), and “socialism”. Thanks again for the post.

    November 6, 2012 at 10:18 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      You are right, different countries all run their own experiments with various systems. Of course, the conditions aren’t the same everywhere, as Patrick pointed out, but still, there is a lot to be learned from others’ experiences.

      November 6, 2012 at 1:39 pm
  • Erik

    I agree that the electoral college is a mess, and that moving to a presidential popular vote is likely a good solution. This is not the same issue as the Senate, however. The U.S. is a union of states, not a homogenous, national democracy, and the balance (or tension) between the proportional representation of the House and the equal (by state) representation of the Senate, ensure that smaller states don’t lose their identity or a certain amount of autonomy. This may seem like disproportionate representation, but it is the core of our country’s governmental design.

    November 6, 2012 at 1:24 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      You are right about the U.S. being a union of states, but what made sense hundreds of years ago might not make sense any longer. Perhaps California and Texas should split into multiple states so that their voices (and votes) would carry more weight in the Senate?
      The current system is only tenable because it doesn’t favor one party over the other – there are as many large red states as there are large blue ones. And of course, both parties are interested in keeping new parties out.

      November 6, 2012 at 1:42 pm
    • Patrick Moore

      Good point, that ties in with Jan’s statement that things change and must adapt to new circumstances. The founding fathers of the US envisioned a federation of quasi independent states that would manage their own affairs apart from a few common and clearly intended interests such as a common currency (for inter-state trade), common defense, and infrastructure where this helped several states together. Second, the founders anticipated a largely agrarian economy in which landed gentry, presumably more immune from financial incentives, had the financial and temporal leisure to consider the common welfare apart from section, let alone their own private, interests. Rapid growth in size, party interests, and economic diversification largely put paid to this ideal in its initial purity.
      It is incontestable that the US’s political system is considerably frayed. But taking into account its size and diversity, and considering the alternatives for large, diverse countries, I must say that, while we may be sliding rapidly down the Garadene hillside, we are still far better off than Russia, China, or India, to take other large, diverse countries. (Enjoy while you can!)
      Dave: Jan is not in any way I can discern, dissing the US at the expense of Germany!

      November 6, 2012 at 2:13 pm
  • Michael

    I think you need to look at more than Germany to determine how proportional representation might turn out. You won’t necessarily end up with stable governments that reflect the will of the populace. You might end up instead with an endless succession of governments unable to govern for more than a few months at a time, Italy being an obvious example (not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly it doesn’t represent political stability). Furthermore, with many parties and no majority in the legislature, the government may not ultimately be chosen by the voters, but rather determined after the fact by backroom political horse trading among the various parties. The balance of power may end up in the hands of a crank or extremist party with a tiny number of seats.
    Which system of democracy (and there are many competing models) is best is a complicated question without easy answers.

    November 6, 2012 at 1:58 pm
  • John Hawrylak

    Thanks for the clearly written contrast of US and German voting. I have often wondered why the European countries have such high turnout compared to the US.
    Only issue I take is on 1 man, 1 vote and the Senate, which was set up that way from the start, modeled on England, and as we were taught to provide Advise and Consent. Funny, the English evolved into a 1 house parliamentary system, while we maintain the 2 house system.
    Must go out and vote. I signed in, the line was loonng, came home to eat, go back to vote. Hopefully line is shorter. Not sure mail in voting is a good thing.
    John Hawrylak
    Woodstown NJ

    November 6, 2012 at 3:20 pm
  • Bubba

    Religion, politics and trail all in one comment section! In the very same section a proof of Godwin’s Law. Truly EPIC.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:53 pm
    • Rob Markwardt

      And the word ameliorative. I learned something today. I am better.

      November 6, 2012 at 8:10 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Lively discussions are a true hallmark of a democracy. So we are doing well!

      November 7, 2012 at 7:08 am
  • Paul Glassen

    I was born in Washington state. Like Jan, I immigrated – and today I’m thankful to live in Canada. It’s true all over the world under the so-called Global economy, but doesn’t big capital really control our countries? During the 1930s it was said that as an economic system, Fascism could be called corporatism, since it was “the combining of the power of the corporation with the power of the state”. Isn’t that what we now see? Fascism lost the war, but appears to have won the peace. I hope your votes will make a difference but I am not optimistic.

    November 6, 2012 at 6:41 pm
  • Bill Gobie

    “Considering that Americans were heavily involved with drafting the new German constitution after World War II, one might consider the German system an improved version of the older American system.”
    Since both Imperial Japan and Third Reich Germany had strong executives (the Japanese government was modeled on 2nd-Empire Germany), it seems to me an objective of the Allied powers was to prevent those nations from again being led by a strongman. A parliamentary system where the executive (prime minister) can be dismissed at any time by the legislature fits the bill.

    November 7, 2012 at 8:26 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      You could argue that a prime minister in a parliamentary democracy has more power, because by definition, they have the majority of parliament behind them. It is unlikely that a prime minister will get dismissed by his/her own party.

      November 7, 2012 at 10:45 am
      • Bill Gobie

        True, but if the majority is slim the prime minister cannot be too reckless without risking alienating swing members of the majority. An independent executive serving a fixed term is much less constrained.
        Getting back to the Electoral College, Obama has won by a landslide in the EC with only 51% of the popular vote. We have narrowly avoided the EC again overriding the popular vote. Regardless of one’s political views, this is hardly a fair system. And ponder this: if the EC cannot elect a President (I do not know if this is mathematically possible with two candidates), the House chooses, while the Senate chooses the Vice President — possibly from the opposing ticket! Do we ever want to go there? Our circumstances and sensibilities are far different from the Founders’. Election of Senators was altered by the 17th amendment. We can and should overhaul the Presidential election.
        I think people would prefer a system that cannot thwart the popular vote. What this might look like is not as simple as it might seem with multiple candidates. There is a whole field of study of electoral systems. Here is a Scientific American article about voting systems, including instant runoff:

        November 8, 2012 at 9:57 am
  • Joseph Bashaw

    I think there may even be a simpler solution to some of these problems that does not require major structural changes to the government and our constitution. States should adopt instant runoff balloting. What this does is it allows a voter to select a first choice candidate, second choice candidate, third choice candidate, etc. for each position being voted upon and essentially rank their preference of candidates. This makes way for the legitimate inclusion of other parties in our system by avoiding a situation where a vote for a third party means throwing away your vote. More voters would feel encouraged to take a chance on a third party candidate if they knew that if their first choice didn’t win, then their second choice candidate would get their vote. This avoids a winner take all situations and would lead to a more diverse governing body through the empowering of multiple parties.

    November 7, 2012 at 2:16 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Instant runoff voting is a great idea, since you could vote your preference. However, it doesn’t help minority candidates to get into government, unless they become a majority.

      November 7, 2012 at 2:24 pm
      • Joseph Bashaw

        I would argue an instant runoff system allows more third party/ minority candidates to win election. A voter can rank a third party/ marginal candidate first and a more mainstream candidate second. In the chance the third party candidate is eliminated then your vote is automatically transferred to your second preference rather than being thrown away. In a way it maximizes the power of your vote and makes voting for a third party candidate you really like a lot more viable. I believe it would also force candidates to campaign in more states if they knew they could be legitimately challenged by a third party candidate on either side of their political leanings.

        November 7, 2012 at 10:15 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          Looking at the German experience, very, very few small party candidates win the “District” vote that is “winner-take-all”, but you are right, it would be a step in the right direction, if only to build momentum. Once voters see that a vote for a small party candidate isn’t wasted, more may vote for them.

          November 8, 2012 at 6:27 am
  • Allan Folz

    No one is going to suggest reducing the size and scope of the federal government and defer it to the states? If not, I’d suggest you are arguing symptoms rather than causes.
    No small part of the reason the system doesn’t work as intended is because it is not being used as intended. The Founders never intended for the federal govt to have such overarching power. Indeed, they fought wars and had duels over far, far less than we endure without question today. As Acton said, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
    The US President’s power is not yet absolute, but it has been on that trajectory since at least the 1930’s, and some would argue the 1860’s.

    November 7, 2012 at 3:05 pm
  • heather

    Canada, USA and the UK are the very few countries that do not have representational voting systems and there are movements to change that. Had there been representational voting in Canada, we might not be stuck with the scary Harper government that actually had a minority of support, and largely won because of vote splitting. Most European countries have perfectly functioning coalition governments, as does Australia(where it is also illegal not to vote).

    November 8, 2012 at 12:52 am
  • Oreste Drapaca

    Superb post, not only because election day in the USA, but because it reminds us of our duty, through the root of ‘politics’ – life in the ‘polis’, the city, etc – wikipedia: The word politics comes from the Greek word Πολιτικά (politika), modelled on Aristotle’s “affairs of the city”.

    November 9, 2012 at 5:28 pm
  • Doug M

    All things being equal I would concur about the Electoral College system needing reform. However, considering the obscene amounts of money being infused courtesy of the Citizens United ruling, we are probably better off not getting rid of the Electoral College (EC) because the EC lessens the potential for Presidential elections to be bought. This is because super PAC money can only buy so many effective TV ads in the limited number of battleground states. At some point advertising supersaturation becomes a turn off to voters. If there were no EC then the super PACs
    would be spending even more money and buying tons of ads in ALL states. In 2012 one side’s super PACs had much more money , and thus potential to “buy” the election, than the other side.
    The ECs small “battlefield” makes such a “purchase” more difficult than if all 50 states were subject to ad nauseum spending. I can promise you that Democrats will never go for abolishing the EC until Citizens United spending no longer rules.

    November 9, 2012 at 7:25 pm
  • marmotte27

    As a German living now in a country that has no proportional voting system, I get to know the somewhat frustrrating feeling of a ‘vote that doesn’t count’. Obviously that must be far worse in the US, if you live in a non swing state.
    However important electoral reform is, the real problem isn’t there What’s far worse is the way in which (national) politics, regardless of the country you living in, has been confiscated by financial and big industry lobbys. None of the candidates or parties who are on offer will change anything there, and those poltics will continue, as if nothing was wrong (think global crisis, think peak oil, think global warming….) As far as that’s concerned, we might all be living in China today.
    The good news is, that luckily national politics is no longer the political level that count’s most. The answers to our biggest problems, peak oil and climate change, can only be found locally, by changing the way we live our everyday lives, food, daily transport, housing etc. Each community has to find it’s own way based on it’s local strehgths and weaknesses. This movement is by essence a participatory, grass roots one It’s local politics that will take the important decicions here.

    November 9, 2012 at 11:00 pm

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