Article Derived From Transcript of YouTube Video: Why US elections only give you two choices

Transcript of YouTube Video: Why US elections only give you two choices

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The video discusses the limitations of the two-party system in the United States and how the current electoral system often leads to a lack of representation for third parties. It contrasts the "winner-take-all" elections in the U.S. with various forms of proportional representation used in other democracies, such as closed and open list systems, mixed-member proportional representation, and ranked choice voting. The article suggests that adopting a more proportional system could lead to a more representative and less polarized Congress, which in turn could influence the dynamics of the presidency. It concludes by highlighting the need for legislative changes to allow for multi-winner elections and the potential for states and cities to experiment with different electoral systems.

Detailed Transcript of YouTube Videos

The Two-Party System in the US

The person who gets the most votes wins. Let's talk about this. In the US, we basically have two choices in elections. And... listen. It's not going amazing. “Government shutdown,” “Split Congress,” “Great divide,” “Cannot agree,” “Too polarized,” “Big majorities don't want either one of them running.” Big majorities of us actually don't want the two-party system at all. We want more options. But a lot of the time, we actually do have more options. It's just that, when it comes time to vote for them, we mostly don't. We kind of can't. In our system, voting for a third party helps the party you least agree with. It's just a protest vote. But there's a way we could make it more than that. We just need to take a closer look at this.

New England and the 2022 Congressional Elections

New England. The northeastern region of the US. About 15 million people live here. These six states send 21 Representatives to Congress. And in the 2022 Congressional elections, 36% of voters here voted for Republicans. But none of this region's 21 Representatives are Republicans. It means that the perspective of the New England Republicans, who have historically been fiscally conservative and more socially progressive, is not reflected in Congress. This is because of the way we elect Representatives to Congress, where every Representative comes from a different district, each district holds its own election, and in each election, the person who gets the most votes wins. These are “winner take all” elections. And they produce this result all over the country.

Oklahoma's Case and the Impact of Gerrymandering

Take the state of Oklahoma. Oklahoma has five Congressional districts. It votes one third Democratic. It has no Democratic Representatives. And before we start blaming gerrymandering for this, in other words, the shape of these districts, in Massachusetts, which I admit does look kind of gerrymandered, a group of independent mapmakers looked at this situation. And they tried to draw new district maps that would give Republicans some representation here. But they found that, “though there are more ways of building a districting plan than particles in the galaxy, every single one would produce a 9-0 Democratic delegation.” And now imagine if, in every single House race, there was also a really popular third party, getting 25% of the vote, in every district in the country. That party would earn... zero seats in Congress.

The Perception of Third Parties and the Electoral System

If you ask yourself, why haven't you voted for a third party, most of the time it’s, well, they don't really have a chance. Our system, by its very nature, precludes political competition. But most democracies don't actually work this way.

Proportional Representation in Other Democracies

In 2021, a German center-right party called the Free Democratic Party won about 90 seats in Germany's parliament. German federal elections have about 300 constituencies that work sort of like America's districts, with each one electing a single representative. And out of every one of those races, the Free Democratic Party did not win a single one. But Germany uses a form of what is called “proportional representation.” Proportional representation means that a share of votes gets you a share of seats.

Types of Proportional Representation

These are four common types of proportional representation, and one way to understand each of them is, are you voting for a person, or are you voting for a party? So at one end of that spectrum, in a “closed list” system, like they use in Spain, for example, you might not even vote for a candidate. You’d just vote for a party. Each party wins some percentage of the vote, and those percentages each translate into a certain number of seats. The people who fill those seats come off of each party's “list.” So voters don't get to choose those candidates. That's the “closed” part. But there are also “open list” systems which are maybe the most common, used in places like Finland, Belgium, Denmark. A standard version of this is, you vote for a person, and your vote counts towards a larger party total sort of like we saw before, determining how many seats each party gets. But in open list, you do choose the candidates. The seats go to the people in each party who got the most votes.

Germany's Mixed-Member Proportional System

Germany uses a system called “mixed-member proportional.” Mixed, because in their system you cast two votes: for a person, and for a party. Each district elects one person, and those people fill some of the seats in Parliament. But the rest of the seats are filled by looking at the party vote, and then doling the remaining seats out to the parties, until the end product is proportional to the party vote.

Ranked Choice Voting and Its Potential

And the last one we'll look at is the one that Ireland uses to elect its legislature. And this is actually a version of something we're already starting to do in some congressional and local races in the US. “Ranked choice” “ranked choice” “ranked choice voting.” In ranked choice voting, instead of just voting for one person, you rank multiple candidates. It's a system that encourages you to vote for smaller parties and less established candidates, because if your first choice is unpopular, they use your second choice vote. And that process repeats itself, until a certain threshold is reached. On its own, though, ranked choice voting doesn't necessarily make these smaller candidates that much more likely to actually win. They will be at a disadvantage in any election that only one person can win. But: if you lower the threshold of victory in a ranked choice race, that produces multiple winners, more proportional to the vote.

The Commonality Among Proportional Representation Systems

All of these systems have different formulas for turning votes into representation. What they have in common is, they all distribute power proportionally, instead of just relying on this.

The Impact on Presidential Elections and the Need for Change

Now, you'll notice we’ve spent the last few minutes talking about Congress, and parliaments: legislatures. Presidential elections can definitely be made more fair, that is another video. But they will always, by definition, be single-winner elections, most likely to be won by the more established parties. But if Congress is more representative and less polarized, it could change the whole partisan dynamic around the presidency. Right now, if the president wants to pass a law, he or she, with rare exceptions, needs both Democrats and Republican Party support. But if there were three, or four, or five parties in Congress, that would open up far more coalitional possibilities and combinations to pass laws.

Implementing Multi-Winner Elections

The key to making this happen will be taking these single-winner elections that we use to elect Congress, and replacing them with multi-winner elections that pick, say, 3 to 5 people to represent a district. For example, Oklahoma, now five congressional districts, could act as a single district, holding an election that five people can win. It would still mostly be represented by Republicans, just not exclusively. Another option is that we could keep many of our current districts, and just make Congress bigger: so, use each district to elect more Representatives.

But okay. How do we actually do any of this? Federal law currently says that no Congressional district can elect more than one Representative. So to make Congress more representative, that is what will need to change. But that change needs to be made by... Congress. When the country is struggling to even agree on small things, it can feel really unthinkable. But then there are plenty of indicators that being a member of Congress is pretty miserable these days. Changing the system would let members focus on the reasons they ran for Congress in the first place: serving their community, making sure they get things done.

State and Local Experiments

But there are other ways to change things too. The states each choose how their own state legislatures get elected. Cities choose how their city councils get elected. And the hurdles to changing those are much, much lower. The more experiments we can try, the more different forms of proportional representation we can implement in the United States, I think the better, ultimately, our democracy will be.

The Simplicity and Its Problems

This rule feels really simple. But that simplicity, it hides a lot of problems. We are one of the oldest, if not the oldest, democracy in the world, right? All these different other democracies, most of the world's democracies, are using a system that's better. We just need to update our system.

Supporting the Video Production

One really important way that we're able to continue making videos is viewer contributions: support from people who like what we do and want to help us keep doing it. This month we've put together a video that will actually only be available to contributors. It's a tutorial video about how to do something very specific: the way that we animate highlights on documents in our videos. There are actually a couple of videos out there already that attempt to explain how Vox animates highlights on documents, but they don't always get it quite right, so our art director just went ahead and made the definitive guide. If you have always wondered about that, or if you just want to support us, you can go to, and we will share that video with you later this month.

Thank you again, for watching, and to so many of you for supporting us.


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