Voices & Choices

No Matter The Candidate Who Wins, Americans Lose With Winner-Take-All

No Matter The Candidate Who Wins, Americans Lose With Winner-Take-All

Caption: Based on FairVote research, this is a state-by-state breakdown of all campaign events by the major-party presidential and vice presidential nominees from the end of both party conventions through Election Day. 

With a campaign season fought tooth and nail into the final day, Election Day has finally passed. More than 158 million Americans cast a ballot in the 2020 election, a record-breaking number that represents the highest turnout percentage of voting-age Americans in our history. While encouraging, Americans were forced to cast less meaningful votes while attaining less reflective representation due to our winner-take-all voting rules. Such a system gives the electoral votes and Congressional representation in a single state or district to the candidate that won a plurality of the vote, essentially silencing all of those voters, which can sometimes even makeup the majority of the electorate, who dissented.

Nowhere is the winner-take-all system’s corrosive effect on democracy clearer than in America’s presidential elections governed by the electoral college. As explained in the first blog post of this series, the winner-take-all system incentives presidential candidates to exclusively concentrate on the votes of those in a select set of battleground states where both candidates remain competitive while neglecting to provide attention to the vast majority of states that vote consistently for one party or another in America’s increasingly polarized environment. 

Throughout the 2020 election, FairVote tracked every campaign event by both major-party presidential and vice presidential candidates since their nominating convention. In some ways, the 2020 presidential campaign was significantly different than it was in 2016. The presidential and vice presidential candidates held a total of 212 events since their conventions, only around half of the number of campaign events that the Clinton and Trump campaigns held in 2016, reflecting increasing caution by candidates (particularly Biden’s campaign) and state and local governments to allow for large gatherings in the time of a global pandemic. These events did pick up at the end of the campaign, with nearly 50 campaign events held in just the 4 days leading up to the election and more than 100 events in the last two weeks, matching the pace of the 2016 campaign. 

There is one manner, though, in which the similarity between the 2016 and 2020 campaign is most striking: the focus on a handful of states (mostly a repeat of 2016 battlegrounds) at the expense of campaigning all around the country. During this time period after both party conventions, neither candidate held a single event in 33 states and the District of Columbia, essentially neglecting the voters in the vast majority of the country. 96% of all campaign events were held in just 12 states, with Pennsylvania and Florida alone representing almost half of all visits. 

The consequences of a winner-take-all electoral system on all levels of government are vast. Beyond being anti-democratic by its design, many voters may not turn out at all if they feel their vote does not matter or candidates have not given their local area and its relevant political issues sufficient attention. In the second post in this series, the effect of this system on the representation of people of color was explored whereby the winner-take-all system, particularly in House elections, dilutes the votes of minority voters who often cannot attain the plurality of votes in their district because of the size of their group. 

This election cycle, it is important to be reminded that American democracy need not be so undemocratic. A better electoral future is possible if change is enacted to replace America’s current winner-take-all system of allocating electoral votes by enacting the National Popular Vote interstate compact, which has passed into law in 15 states and DC and was upheld by voters in a referendum on the ballot in Colorado last month, which would allow the winner of America’s popular vote to be triumphant.

The challenge of winner take also applies to Congress, where more than 97% of incumbents were re-elected to the House and where few Members could win in districts carried by the other party’s presidential nominee. That’s why FairVote supports a proportional voting system for Congress where candidates are elected proportional to the number of votes cast, allowing more voters to garner meaningful representation no matter where they live. In such a system, as in place in much of the world’s biggest democracies, every voter’s vote could be heard and the cynicism that underlies much of America’s politics could be replaced with a more reflective democracy of its people. In Congress that goal would be achieved with HR 4000, the Fair Representation Act, that would establish the proportional form of ranked choice voting.

Next time we go into the voting booth, we should vote for not just our preferred candidate or party, but for candidates willing to support structural changes that will allow our voices to be heard on every level of government. 

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