“Only in America!” It’s a phrase that has gone out of favor in recent times, but at one time referred to the opportunities available in the United States. Now it seems the phrase could be used to describe the unique political situation in which we find ourselves. While I’m not referring directly to the Electoral College, something which is not actually unique to the United States – nearly 40 non-monarchist countries have an indirect election of their head of state – I am referring to a situation that has been exacerbated in recent years by the plurality system used in American elections. I am referring to the unique situation we, the American electorate, face today: front-runner Presidential candidates with negative favorability ratings.
The New York Times reported, “[Donald] Trump is so negatively viewed, polls suggest, that he could turn otherwise safe Republican states, usually political afterthoughts because of their strong conservative tilt, into tight contests,” a reference to a recent poll showing Hillary Clinton with a slight lead in Utah.
Trump with his negative 33 percent favorability rating, however, is only slightly more disliked than Hillary, who has a negative 21 percent favorability rating. Both candidates are viewed negatively by a majority of voters (57 & 52 percent respectively for Trump & Hillary).
How then have we gotten to this point where the two leading Presidential contenders are so unpopular? It’s a combination of internal party rules and legislation. The Republican & Democratic Parties are private groups after all, and thus able to establish and change rules to benefit the leadership of the party. Simultaneously, the elected legislators who are overwhelmingly Republicans & Democrats have passed laws which serve to enshrine duopoly control. These laws come in the form of restricting ballot access for minor party and independent candidates, campaign financing laws and even the manner in which votes are cast and counted.
Plurality voting (whereby voters get to select only one candidate from the list of available options and the candidate with the most votes is elected) leads to what some refer to as strategic voting (whereby a voter will sometimes vote against their preferred interest in order to prevent a less desirable outcome). No doubt, some people voting for Trump or Hillary believe that candidate best represents them and the party, others however are voting for a candidate because they believe the candidate has the best chance at winning the general election, even though the candidate might not best represent the party. The Trump/Hillary problem is made worse by the Electoral College which uses a plurality system to award Electors to the winner of the 51 different elections used to elect the next President. If the Electoral College is to be retained, absent repealing the 12th Amendment, the easiest way to reform it is for the legislators of the 50 States to adopt approval voting and proportional allocation of electoral votes. Such a reform would not only allow voters to cast a more honest ballot, but would also provide election results that more closely reflect the wishes of the people voting, and would ultimately increase the exposure, and influence, of minor party and independent candidates.