2016 Elections

Imagining a More Representative U.S. Political System

What the government might look like if all voters had their say.

Prime Minister Clinton?

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The U.S. presidential election keeps coming down to math. On Tuesday, Donald Trump said that his critics didn't understand "basic mathematics" because they keep pointing out that his share of the vote doesn't exceed 50 percent in any state. Senator Ted Cruz says no one but him "has any mathematical possibility whatsoever" of beating Trump for the Republican nomination. Governor John Kasich's campaign is all numbers now: Its goal is to deny Trump enough delegates to force a brokered convention. Mathematically, Hillary Clinton has the Democratic nomination clinched, though Senator Bernie Sanders soldiers on.

QuickTake How the U.S. Elects Its Presidents

The math the candidates and pundits are talking about is the algebra of complicated rules, the patchwork of state primary or caucus systems sewn coarsely into the parties' nationwide systems. There's even talk among Republicans of changing one of the fundamental rules at their national convention in July -- that should be unthinkable in a truly democratic system. One-man, one-vote democracy isn't a question of algebra, it's basic arithmetic.

Here's how it works: People turn out to cast their votes through whatever process is agreed upon in their area. The candidate or party that wins the most votes, prevails and gets to decide -- perhaps with others if the race is close -- how a country is to be run. It doesn't matter what the process is -- whether it's a caucus or a primary, whether it's run by parties or the state. In the end, voters perform a simple action: They back their favorite candidate.

U.S. voters act on this basis: The rules are too complicated for the vast majority of voters to grasp. The system, however, operates based primarily on a deep and long-term understanding of the rules it sets.

I think it's important, for the sake of understanding what the people really want, to factor out the system's effects and do the basic voter arithmetic. I attempted this once before after the Iowa caucuses: If these had been a one-man, one-vote election with a 5 percent qualifying cut-off, like many elections in Europe's parliamentary democracies, Iowa would get a five-party parliament with the biggest faction headed by Clinton and the second biggest headed by Sanders. Together, these natural allies would have a majority, so, under European rules, the state would be run by a leftist coalition headed by Prime Minister Clinton.

If we were to extend this thought experiment beyond Iowa and attempted a national model by tallying the votes that each candidate received in primaries and caucuses, it would work out something like this (extrapolating from the 24 states where both parties have voted for their candidates and where turnout data are available):



The parliament that would result from the voting in these states would be a contentious. Clinton's center-left party would get the biggest faction and first pick of coalition partners. She probably would agree easily with Sanders's socialists, but together they wouldn't have a majority. They would need to make a deal with Kasich's small center-right political force to control the parliament. Kasich probably would be given an important cabinet post and a veto over the Sanders leftists' boldest ideas. Alternatively, kingmaker Kasich could go with the hard-right forces, but they might find it harder to find consensus: To be viable, their coalition would have to include Trump's populist party (under similar circumstances, mainstream European politicians have been reluctant to make such deals with far-right groups). Besides, the right-wing coalition would have to be headed by Prime Minister Trump because his faction would be the biggest. That would be tough for the others to accept.

In its convoluted way, the existing U.S. system may produce a result that isn't all that different -- Clinton in the White House -- but since parliamentary elections are separated from the presidential ones, she may end up with a hostile legislature that prevents her from enacting her agenda. Or she could get a friendly Congress -- but the significant number of voters who backed a right-wing candidate would be alienated from the system and increasingly angry about the way it works.

When I have laid out my thought experiment to American friends, I have often heard an irritated reaction along these lines: Americans are a realistic, practical nation, and they believe in their system, however imperfect and however dissatisfied voters are showing themselves to be in this election. Yet simplifying the math might be a shortcut to what is ultimately the most likely democratic outcome. Based on the voting so far, it's Clinton in the top job but with serious curbs on her plans imposed by a Republican majority in Congress. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.