How We Choose Determines Who We Choose

Are American voters finally ready to change how their democracy works?
Updated on

Is this better?

Photographer: EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

Dutch voters going to the polls today had 28 different parties to choose from. Twelve of those (such as the Non-Voters, Pirates and Jesus Lives parties) weren't on ballots everywhere in the country, and several others don't appear to have gotten enough votes for a seat in parliament. But exit polls indicate that 13 parties will be represented in the 150-member body, with six parties having 14 seats or more -- and the biggest only 31.

What this will mean next is lengthy negotiations (the record is 208 days, in 1977) to cobble together either a majority government or a minority one with support from other parties. It seems pretty clear from the get-go that Geert Wilders's populist-nationalist Party for Freedom won't be part of that government, but beyond that it really is up in the air, and it will remain so for quite a while after the election.

So that's one way to choose a government in a democracy. In a few weeks, on April 23, French voters will begin participating in another: choosing among 18 candidates for president (five of whom have received significant support in polls conducted so far). The top two vote-getters will then face off in another election on May 7. Then the 577 members of the National Assembly will be elected by district, in similar two-round fashion, in June. Marine Le Pen of the populist-nationalist National Front party seems almost certain to make it into the presidential runoff but pretty likely to lose it -- although recent polling experiences with Brexit in the U.K. and Donald Trump in the U.S. make people wary of predicting the latter with too much confidence. In the National Assembly, though, Le Pen's party currently holds only two seats, so even if it improves on that result in a big way, it seems awfully unlikely that it will command a majority or even be able to form one with cooperation from another party.

Here in the U.S., we of course conducted our own experiment in democratic choice last year. After months of party primaries and caucuses, the two dominant political parties selected presidential candidates, one an establishment political veteran of center-left leanings, the other a populist-nationalist political neophyte. Those two then fought it out in a general election in which there were also a few minor candidates, and which was determined on a state-by-state basis -- whoever won the plurality of the popular vote in most states got all of the electoral votes. A new House of Representatives and Senate were selected at the same time, mostly using party primaries to select candidates as in the presidential election but with a few states using a French-style top-two primary.

Those are all pretty different ways of choosing a government! And they result in different kinds of governments being chosen. This is an obvious enough observation, but it's still fascinating to watch in action.

In the Netherlands, for example, voters are remarkably comfortable, and seem to be getting ever more so, with switching parties from election to election. A frequent topic of conversation when I was there last month were the online voter guides -- StemWijzer (Voting Guide) and Kieskompas (Choice Compass) are the big two -- that ask you a bunch of questions about your political views and then churn out a party preference. "I got Party for the Animals!" one friend told me. "Who knew?"

It's all quite endearing -- these people are so open-minded and unpolarized! Then again, on the map of the political spectrum that Kieskompas churns out, most of the parties land in two big clusters. So maybe all that people are finding out from StemWijzer and Kieskompas is which party in the left-progressive or right-conservative cluster 1 suits them best, not which cluster they belong in:

source: kieskompas

That marker near the middle is me. Somewhat to my surprise, Kieskompas told me my views coincided most with those of the Christian Union, a small party somewhat to the left of the much bigger Christian Democratic Appeal (which is what StemWijzer told me I should vote for). I'm not Dutch, so I'm not actually voting, but if I were I would apparently be part of the country's shrinking political center.

Still, the Dutch system does seem to encourage weaker party identification and thus a less polarized, tribal political debate than we often get in the U.S. On the flip side, it leaves the actual formation of governments to negotiations among party leaders -- meaning that, if you are so inclined, as populist Wilders is, you could with some justification depict the country's governance system as rule by a permanent political elite.

In the U.S., meanwhile, political polarization has reached levels not seen since the Civil War, raising questions about whether our electoral methods are part of the problem and need to be changed. The biggest recent reforms have been California and Washington's switching from party primaries to top-two primaries (Louisiana has long had such a system, as has Nebraska for state legislative races), but there's not much evidence that this has actually reduced polarization. Dutch-style proportional voting does not seem to be on the agenda; I had forgotten this, but one of the reasons President Bill Clinton gave for withdrawing his support for law professor Lani Guinier as head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division in 1993 was that she supported proportional representation, which he called "antidemocratic and very difficult to defend."

The reform idea that has been getting the most favorable attention lately is ranked voting, which allows voters to list preferences beyond their first choice and uses these secondary choices to determine a winner if no one has a majority of first-choice votes. Several countries, Australian and Canadian provinces, and U.S. cities and towns already do this. In a January article in the New York Review of Books, economics Nobelists Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen argued that such a voting system

comes closer to satisfying people’s preferences than any other method, including the current one. After 224 years, perhaps it is time to change the rules of the game.

You may disagree (one big selling point they offered for ranked voting was that it would probably have kept Trump out of the White House). But it does seem important to acknowledge that those rules of the game play a really big role in determining the result.

(Updates first and second paragraphs to reflect election polling results.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
  1. The left-right axis represents economic views and the conservative-progressive axis social ones.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at

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