Does your vote really matter? To find out, we need to examine how votes are counted.
Let’s take a look at a presidential election in Flatland. Five candidates are running in this election: Triangle, Circle, Square, Parallelogram and Star. Now Flatland, like the U.S., uses a first past the post (FPTP), also known as a winner take all or plurality, voting system.
This system seems to make a lot of sense; everyone gets one vote, and the candidate with the most votes wins. This all sounds fair and reasonable, but unfortunately, FPTP is one of the worst possible ways to hold elections.
Of the flatland population, 30 percent like Triangle, 25 percent Square, 10 percent Star, 28 percent Parallelogram and 7 percent Circle. Triangle, with the most votes, wins the election and becomes president.
Over the course of his term, the shapes who supported Circle find that Triangle is far too aggressive for their tastes, and desperately don’t want him back in office. But Circle and his supporters are smart, they know that can’t win the election on their own.
Although Triangle is not nearly as great as Circle in their minds, all the circles agree that Square is much more tolerable than Triangle, so they cast their votes for her. Square, now with 32 percent of the vote, beats out Triangle to become the new president. Circles are moderately happy with the new president, but unfortunately, they had to drop their candidate out of the race, meaning there are now only four candidates vying for office.
This process continues for several election cycles, and slowly, Star and Parallelogram start to lose votes. This isn’t because they have less support. In fact, 28 percent of the population still supports Parallelogram, but Parallelogram is getting fewer of these votes because it is in citizens’ interests to vote for the larger parties, rather than the party they support they most.
This technique, called tactical voting, is a major problem with voting systems. Ideally, you want a system where you can vote however you believe, without needing to worry about how everyone else is voting.
This is one of the fundamental problems of the US political system; it eventually leads to two fundamental, opposite parties (See Duverger’s Law, which predicts that plurality systems will tend towards two parties) running negative campaigns against each other.
Our system supports voting against who you hate, rather than voting for who you like. Eventually, just Triangle and Square remain, with all the shapes picking the more tolerable of the two.
But this isn’t the only problem with the first past the post system.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Well, not the type of spoilers that you would find on Facebook after an episode of “Game of Thrones,” but rather the spoiler effect.
For several elections now, the vote has gone back and forth between Triangle and Square, with no one else even coming close.
One time, Parallelogram got a windfall in donations, and decided to run a campaign in an attempt to overturn the two party system. Supporters of Square, who share many ideals with Parallelogram, can easily be swayed and start to lean towards this third party candidate. When election day comes around, Parallelogram gets 25 percent of the vote, Square 35 percent and Triangle 40 percent. The citizens who usually support Square are now split between Square and Parallelogram, meaning that neither of them received enough votes to win, despite together having the majority. Meanwhile, Triangle is elated and completely surprised by his unlikely victory!
So you may be thinking that FPTP seems like a horrible way to run elections, since your main goal when voting is to keep people you don’t like out of office.
And you would be right. FPTP fails a large number of established voting system criteria, such as splitting votes between multiple candidates, the requirement of tactical voting, and the ultimate conclusion of a two-party system. (Interestingly enough, in some tests, arbitrarily selecting a winner can be more fair than using a FPTP system, though that obviously has an entirely different set of issues.)
Since FPTP is so terrible, there must be a better alternative, right? Well, there certainly is, but before getting there, you need to understand how a representative congress works, and how a little gerrymandering can go a long way in determining a winner.
Return next week for the next installment of Flatland’s political saga. All graphics by Sam Beckmann