Voices & Choices

“Whig-ing” Out Over the History of Single-Member Plurality Voting

“Whig-ing” Out Over the History of Single-Member Plurality Voting

“We’ve always run our elections like this.”

“The way we run our elections is the American way.” 

Those are some of the most common sources of opposition to electoral innovation. However, a look at our history shows that there is little merit to these claims.

The natural conversation about how “American” a political institution or system is often starts with: is the status quo (in this case, single-member plurality elections) this way because that’s how our founders envisioned doing it?

It’s worth saying upfront:, nowhere does our Constitution outline specific processes for holding elections. The ‘Elections Clause’ leaves the decision to the states, while also giving Congress the power to intervene. A longer account reveals that single-member district plurality elections were not even how the founders necessarily envisioned elections. 

Let’s start with the “single member” part. In the first fifty years of the Republic, only five states used the single-member district (SMD) system we know today1 and the rest used multi-member districts (MMD).2 With SMDs, states are divided into districts based on population and each district elects one representative. With MMDs, larger districts or whole states vote as constituencies, electing multiple representatives to represent themselves.

In 1840, the Whig party won a 60% majority in Congress with candidates elected from a mix of single- and multi-member districts. However, intra-party tension caused the Whigs to only win a third of seats in Congress in 1842 and lose control over several state governments.3 In 1841, Alabama switched from SMDs to MMDs, leaving the Whigs without a seat in Alabama’s congressional delegation.4 A few years earlier, the Whigs failed to elect anyone from New Jersey to the U.S House, in large part due to the state’s use of MMDs.5 In a last ditch effort to retain power, the Whigs passed the Apportionment Act of 1842, which mandated that all states use SMDs.6

Essentially, MMDs de-emphasized the power of urban voters by pooling them with rural voters, who were a much bigger slice of the electorate and largely Democratic. In an MMD state, if a majority of the electorate was rural, Democrats could likely win all of the state’s seats. SMDs, on the other hand, strengthened the voting power of urban areas by allocating these areas their own seats.7 Because the Whigs enjoyed support from urban areas and thus benefitted from SMDs, they utilized their short lived power to mandate their favored voting process.8 Despite some initial pushback from Democratic-controlled states who refused to comply with the mandate, SMD plurality voting became the accepted system for electing representatives.9 In fact, the SMD mandate was only codified as recently as 1967.

Next up during the “How American Is It” conversation is the “plurality” part (meaning the notion that the candidate(s) with the most votes, but not necessarily a majority of votes, wins). As a colony, the U.S. inherited plurality voting from Britain.10 It was the only democratic electoral system in existence from 1430 until the 19th century.11 However, many American states used repeated runoffs to arrive at a winner with majority support, a true hallmark of popular democracy.12 

Centuries of innovation later, Americans have developed ways to avoid costly, low-turnout runoffs and meet a majority standard: ranked-choice voting (RCV). And now, there are ways to restore the representation that multi-member districts can offer without lending unfair advantages to any faction, that is, if we scrap plurality as the mechanism for transferring votes to seats. If we combine RCV with MMDs, we essentially get The Fair Representation Act, which carries the promise of electing representatives in proportion to their level of support. 

Lee Drutman states that “in attempting to fix or change any institution, it is crucial to understand why it exists in the first place,” and that “existing institutions are not random piles of sand” but “reflect compromises and intentions and assumptions of previous leaders.”

In attempting to fix our electoral institutions, we must understand that the current way is not inherently the “American way.” Single-member plurality elections are not a foundational political institution, a high minded design, nor quintessentially American. The way most of us think of voting is not rooted in any moral reasoning, foresight, nor wisdom from our political predecessors. Rather, it is a combination of circumstance (that is, a power grab from a now-non-existent party) and a previously limited knowledge of electoral possibilities. We deserve better and it is within our reach to create our next American system - just like we have before. (Cue again, the FRA!)


Footnotes:
1. Amy, D.J. (2000) ‘Plurality Majority Voting Systems’, in Behind the Ballot Box: A Citizen’s Guide to Voting Systems. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers. pp. 27-65.
2. Tamas (2006) ‘A Divided Political Elite: Why Congress Banned Multimember Districts in 1942’, New Political Science, 28(1). pp. 23-44.
3. Tamas (2006) ‘A Divided Political Elite: Why Congress Banned Multimember Districts in 1942’, New Political Science, 28(1). pp. 23-44.
4. Dow, J.K. (2017) Electing the House: The Adoption and Performance of the U.S. Single-Member District Electoral System. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas. pp. 27-65.
5. Dow, J.K. (2017) Electing the House: The Adoption and Performance of the U.S. Single-Member District Electoral System. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas. pp. 27-65.
6. Tamas (2006) ‘A Divided Political Elite: Why Congress Banned Multimember Districts in 1942’, New Political Science, 28(1). pp. 23-44.
7. Tamas (2006) ‘A Divided Political Elite: Why Congress Banned Multimember Districts in 1942’, New Political Science, 28(1). pp. 23-44.
8. Engstrom, E. (2013) Partisan Gerrymandering and the Construction of American Democracy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
9. Tamas (2006) ‘A Divided Political Elite: Why Congress Banned Multimember Districts in 1942’, New Political Science, 28(1). pp. 23-44.
10. Amy, D.J. (2000) ‘Plurality Majority Voting Systems’, in Behind the Ballot Box: A Citizen’s Guide to Voting Systems. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers. pp. 27-65.
11. Drutman, L. (2020) ‘America Is Now the Divided Republic the Framers Feared’, The Atlantic, 2 January. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/01/two-party-system-broke-constitution/604213/ (Accessed: 8 June 2020)
12. Dubin, M. (1998) United States Congressional elections, 1788-1997 : the official results of the elections of the 1st through 105th Congresses. McFarland & Company. Also see:
Fain, H. (2022) ‘RCV History: While the Right to Vote May Be Self-Evident, the Best Way to Do That is Anything But’, 14 January, Rank the Vote. Available at:
https://rankthevote.us/while-the-right-to-vote-may-be-self-evident-the-best-way-to-do-that-is-anything-but/ (Accessed: 19 April 2022).

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