Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Join as a $13-a-month sustainer and get the retro NHPR t-shirt!
Word of Mouth
0000017a-15d9-d736-a57f-17ff8fcf0001Listen & subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Stitcher Note: we are no longer posting Civics 101 episodes to this site. Click here to visit the website for the podcast.Why does the U.S. have an Electoral College? How do congressional investigations work? What does the minority whip actually do? Civics 101 is the podcast refresher course on the basics of how our government works.Civics 101 is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting_

Episode 50: U.S. Voting Systems


When you cast your ballot in a national election, you’re participating in a specific kind of voting system. But what about the other methods of choosing your candidate and counting your vote? There are systems that approach voting in very different ways… and ways of determining how fair a voting system really is. Producer Hannah McCarthy and Eric Maskin, Harvard Professor of Economics and Nobel Memorial Prize winner, guide us through majorities, pluralities and the ways we make our choices. 

Do you have questions about civics? Let us know!



[Virginia Prescott] You've done a lot of research and you've talked to some people who study voting systems, so ready to give us the download?

[Hannah McCarthy] Yes. This is kind of a complicated subject, so I'm going to help filter expertise into something that you and I can understand. This episode is going to cover something called single member district voting so that's what we have here in the U.S. There is a system that uses multi-member voting, where instead of voting for candidates you're voting for parties. But that is another show for another day. And another caveat, we're looking primarily in this episode at country wide elections as in the presidential election.

[VP] OK so what does that mean? What does our system here in the U.S.?

[HMc] Ok so we use something called plurality voting. It's also known as a winner takes all system. This is probably a good time for you listeners to go back and check out our episode on the electoral college because that has a major effect on how votes are counted and weighed. But for now I'm going to play you a clip from my conversation with Professor Eric Maskin. He's a Harvard professor and he won a Nobel Prize for his work in economics and game theory so he knows his stuff.

[Eric Maskin] Plurality voting is the system where each voter votes for a single candidate and the winner is the candidate who gets the most votes, even if that's short of a majority.

[VP] Short of a majority, meaning you can win even if most people in the country do not vote for you.

[HMc] Right. So with plurality voting you only have to have the most votes compared with others. So in an election with like let's say 10 candidates, someone could win with a very small fraction of the overall vote like 13 percent. But as long as they have more votes compared to everyone else they will win. Sometimes this is called "First Past the Post" voting.

[VP] Why do we use this system?

[HMc] Well so one major reason is that it isn't very demanding. You're asking the electorate to make a single clear decision. Here's Professor Maskin again.

[EM] Plurality rule is very simple. Voters just have to do one thing, choose a single candidate. It has a long history behind it. In fact we took this method from Great Britain.

[HMc] We did take this method from Great Britain but it's important to note that Great Britain isn't voting for a head of state. They're voting for local members of parliament and the majority party candidate becomes prime minister. So it's a little different. One of the issues that some people have with plurality voting is that it tends to have an impact on the psychology of how we cast our ballots.

[Eric Maskin] If you're a voter and you're thinking about voting for a third party, you might say to yourself you know 'I like this party, I like this candidate but I don't really think they have a very good chance of winning. And so I don't want to throw away my votes, voting for them, I'll vote for one of the major party candidates who at least does have a shot of winning and I'll vote for the lesser of two evils.'

[VP] OK so plurality voting works best with a two party system.

[HMc] Right. They kind of go hand-in-hand. So Professor Maskin says that plurality does tend to encourage a system where two parties dominate. Also known as the two party system. That doesn't mean that third parties don't exist. It's just that they struggle to gain traction.

Sometimes there is a third party candidate who does pretty well in the election but not well enough to win. But just by getting a decent number of votes they have the potential to kind of take votes away from a similar establishment.

[VP] Like Ralph Nader...I'm thinking of in the 2000 contested Bush v. Gore election.

[HMc] Exactly. So he was this Green Party candidate and he got a good chunk of the vote in Florida and some analysts actually say that those votes would have otherwise gone to Gore and maybe Gore would have won the election if it hadn't been for Ralph Nader. So that's called 'vote splitting'. It's also known as a 'spoiler candidacy'. But some people think that there's a solution to this problem in the U.S. and it's called ranked voting.

[VP] So what's ranked voting?

[HMc] It's very much what it sounds like, instead of picking just one candidate. You rank your choices on the ballot.

[Eric Maskin] If there are three candidates a, b, and c running a voter might say: 'well I like (a) best, I'll put (a) first, but if (a) doesn't win then I want (b) and if (b) doesn't win, then I want (c).

[VP] OK so you are ranking your choices but then how did these votes get counted?

[HMc] So the simplest outcome is that some candidate is just ranked first by the majority of voters and then they win. But let's say that no candidate gets the majority. In that case the candidate who is ranked first least often is eliminated. And then the whole process repeats for the remaining candidate. So if we think about the most recent primary there were people who may have voted for Hillary Clinton even though they wanted to vote for Bernie Sanders, because they didn't think that Sanders stood a real chance and they wanted their vote to count. But in ranked voting those people would have been able to vote for both Bernie and Hillary. They would list Bernie as their first choice and Hillary as their second. So ranked voting allows people to vote their conscience with detracting from the other candidate who they might find at least acceptable.

[VP] OK. So we've covered plurality voting and ranked voting. What then is majority voting?

[HMc] So with majority rule, the person who wins has to have over 50 percent of the overall vote. So even if you have four candidates running one of them has to have at least 51 percent to win. But of course that doesn't always happen. So systems that use majority rule often have to have what we call a 'runoff election' and that's where after a round of voting they take the two most popular candidates and then they have another election just between the two of them. So that way one has to end up winning with the majority. And we saw this recently in a Georgia special election with a runoff congressional vote between Jon Ossoff and Karen Handel.

[VP] And Karen Handel did win that. All right. So we've got plurality, rank choice, and majority…any other, like, wild card voting systems that look entirely different?

[HMc] Yeah actually there is. But Professor Maskin doesn't know of it ever being used in an election. It's called range voting. And that involves scoring candidates like with a number. That's how voting is done in the Olympics.

[Eric Maskin] The problem with range voting is that while it makes a lot of sense in the Olympics where there are well-defined criteria for how you judge diving, it's not so clear how you judge candidates.

[VP] So a lot of nuance there. But looking at all these systems is there any consensus about which one works the best?

[HMc] That is actually a really hotly contested question. But luckily Professor Maskin is able to take some of the edge off.

[Eric Maskin] You know I'm afraid that there is no perfect voting system and that was established a long time ago in the early 1950s, in a famous voting theory result called the arrow impossibility theorem.

[HMc] So he's referring to Kenneth Arrow who is also a winner of the Nobel Prize in economics and Professor Maskin's doctoral advisor back in the day. So the theorem and its applications are just a little too complicated to lay out here. But basically arrow sets up three fairness criteria and then he determines that there's no one system that's going to be 100 percent fair to all voters and their choices 100 percent of the time.

Related Content