The US System:  Winner-Take-All*

The US system
Winner-Take-All pros
Winner-Take-All cons
System Consequences

The US system:

        In contrast to proportional representation systems, the United States' winner-take-all election system returns only the candidate who receives a plurality of votes.  Everyone else loses; all ballots cast in their favor are for naught.  Winner-take-all rules trigger a cycle that leads to and strengthens a system of few (two in the US) political parties, as diagrammed below.




Winner-Take-All pros:

Winner-Take-All cons:

 System Consequences

        As a consequence of its stabilizing winner-take-all rules, the United States has maintained the same two-party system since 1860.  Since elections are won by the single candidate who garners the most votes, third party candidates have a serious disadvantage. Because almost all seats are held by either a Republican or a Democrat, majorities within the legislature are formed easily, without the need to form cross-party coalitions in order to govern. This pattern makes the process of drafting and voting on legislation less complicated than in other systems, since the majority party will ultimately decide what issues are brought up for a vote and, in a large number of cases, which items are passed by the Congress.  The two-party hegemony propagated by the US winner-take-all system has thus doomed even the most successful American third parties (such as the Populists of the 1890s and Progressives of the 1910s) to eventual extinction.

      Besides making the process of government easier, America's two party system has also simplified elections. Because there are only two major candidates for most offices, the process of choosing how to vote is simpler than in nations where several candidates vie for the same position. US voters are able to make their decision based strictly on the party with which they feel they most identify.

        Although once powerful, America's political parties now seem to be in a state of decline.  More and more, Americans express their dislike of the two-party system and the small range of choice which it allows. Numerous polls taken in recent years indicate that Americans are hungry for a third party to rival the Republicans and Democrats.  The parties are moving closer together on a wide variety of issues, and people no longer feel that the parties give them two distinct choices on election day. For instance, Bob Dole and Bill Clinton both entered the 1996 presidential election in favor of balancing the budget, decreasing expenditures on welfare and medicare, and cutting taxes. With the two parties in basic agreement on so many major issues, voters felt that there was no difference between the two candidates and no reason to vote, leading to the extremely low voter turnout.  Voters have also expressed their desire for a wider variety of candidates than those produced by the two parties.

     As Morris Fiorina argues, the candidate-centered elections of the late 20th century have worked in opposition to political responsibilty. Because of the erosion of the importance of party in elections, voters no longer see their representatives as members of a party responsible for large-scale legislative action, but rather as individuals sent to Washington to work strictly for their constituents' needs and desires. This failure to hold politicians responsible as members of a party, Fiorina states, allows them to engage in wasteful politics and legislate in their own self-interests. Clearly, U.S. political parties are no longer paramount political forces and do not perform the same key functions within government and elections that they once did.

     While the two parties that have constituted the backbone of the American political system seem to be losing their efficacy and appeal to the American voter, winner-take-all rules act to prevent the rise of the viable third party options that many Americans seem to be seeking.  Unless major system-level changes trigger a critical election in which the current parties are replaced or rejuvenated, perhaps only the multi-party flexibility provided by proportional representation can revive the political culture of the US.  


    Commentary by Jim Riley:  This view of the multi-party system as "flexible," and by implication desirable, as a means to "revive the political culture of the US" is one that I do not support.  Indeed, I believe that a multi-party system is an invitation to a radicalization of U.S. parties and further fragmentation of the political culture of this country.  By multi-party system I mean a party structure in which no single party has a sustained hold on a majority of the votes cast or a majority of the members of Congress or state legislatures. 

* See