And that’s not a bad thing.
The defining principle dividing different forms of democracy is the answer to the question of who ought to rule. Electoral systems are no different, with varying answers having profound effects upon a government’s structure. Plurality systems contend that the majority of the people ought to rule, an assertion manifested in its “winner-take-all” structure. Naturally, this answer dramatically impacts a voters experience with democracy.
Plurality systems are among the easiest electoral systems to understand. Results can be reported fairly quickly and the adversarial nature of the system means a clearly defined winner is apparent to voters. Citizens can easily identify who has been in power — and therefore who to hold accountable.
Additionally, the high potential for seat turnover is a prime motivator for elected officials to remain responsive to the concerns of the public. Plurality systems tend to result in landscapes in which only two parties are dominant, a phenomenon known as Duverger’s Law. The “winner-take-all” structure of the system leads to the extermination of lesser third parties or their absorption by larger, more successful parties. Since opposing ideological bases are covered, the pursuit of the median voter dominates political discourse as only a small change in voting percentages is enough to transfer the responsibility of governing to the opposing party.
This places immense power in the hands of the voter, for although governments are given more unilateral power than in competing electoral systems, this power can be checked by a modest shift in electoral outcomes.
The focus on median voter blocs also produces a strong incentive for parties to further moderate policy agendas as they compete for the center (i.e. as many voters as possible). This in turn encourages stability and cohesion within the government, as radical change in either ideological direction is unlikely.
While not perfect, plurality electoral systems offer a large suite of advantages to democratic nations. If electoral reform is needed here in America, it would be wise to not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
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