Alice Doesn’t Vote Here Anymore

When it comes to the way we elect Congress, we’re on the wrong side of the looking glass.

Image: Jonathon Rosen

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

“Oh, my,” said Alice, “is it really true that there are elections in Wonderland?”

“Of course, you foolish girl,” the Queen of Hearts replied. “This is a constitutional monarchy. The Single Member of the Congress of Wonderland is elected by democratic means. Come, I shall introduce you to the electorate.”

Alice followed the Queen to a field, in the middle of which was a table where the Mad Hatter and three of his friends were feasting. “The Mad Hatter’s Party, with its four members, is one of the three political parties here in Wonderland,” the Queen told Alice. “The other two parties, Tweedledum’s Party and Tweedledee’s Party, have three members apiece.” Sure enough, Tweedledum and Tweedledee stood nearby, each with two followers.

“The electoral system of Wonderland,” the Queen continued, “is based on the method of Plurality Voting by Single-Member Districts, sometimes known as Winner Takes All. You understand how that works, of course.”

“No,” said Alice sorrowfully, “I am afraid I do not.”

The Queen shouted, “Off with her head!”

“Please,” Alice begged, “I’ll do my best to learn about the electoral system of Wonderland, if only you will explain it.”

“Very well,” the Queen said. “But I must warn you, the more I explain about Plurality Voting, the less you will understand it. For example, the most important part of our system of Plurality Voting by Single-Member Districts is the shape of the district.”

“I cannot imagine why,” Alice said.

The Queen was shocked. “Have you never heard of the Gerrymander?” At the mention of its name, the Gerrymander—a large and rather fearsome creature somewhat like a cross between a salamander and a Jabberwock—shambled forth. “Go on,” the Queen ordered the beast, “draw the Single-Member District for the forthcoming congressional election.”

Alice watched as the Gerrymander, dipping its brush in the pot of red paint hanging from its neck, began to outline a square in the grass. Soon the square’s borders included the three members of the Tweedledum Party and the three members of the Tweedledee Party. But when it came to the four supporters of the Mad Hatter’s Party, the Gerrymander painted a red stripe right down the middle of their banquet table.

“There,” the Queen said with satisfaction. “Thanks to the Gerrymander, we now have a Single-Member District with two large parties—those of Tweedledum and Tweedledee—with three voters apiece, and one small party, the Mad Hatter’s Party, with only two voters.”

“But that isn’t right!” cried Alice. She rushed to the Mad Hatter. “Aren’t you going to do something?”

“Why on earth should I?” he asked.

“You have the biggest party,” Alice replied. “Your party has four members, and the other two parties have only three voters apiece.”

“Oh, you silly girl,” said the Mad Hatter, pointing to the red stripe bisecting the table. “Can’t you see that my party has only two voters eligible to vote in the Single-Member District?”

Alice noticed Tweedledum and Tweedledee handing purses full of coins to the Gerrymander. “Don’t you see what they’ve done to you? They’ve drawn the Single-Member District to minimize the power of your voters!”

“Of course they have,” the Mad Hatter chuckled. “We’d have done the same to them, if we could afford to pay the Gerrymander.”

“But it isn’t fair to your party! Why don’t you protest?”

“Protest!” All four members of his party—the two inside the Single-Member District and the two outside—burst into laughter. “Protest? Why, our elections have always been held this way. To protest would be unpatriotic and vulgar.” At this, the Mad Hatter and his friends resumed their banquet.

Alice was thinking very deeply. At length she said, “I have devised a strategy by which your party can maximize its influence—even though the Gerrymander has turned you into a minority party.”

The Mad Hatter looked up from the table in annoyance. “Are you still here?”

Alice explained her plan. “The Queen of Hearts said that Wonderland has a Plurality Voting System. Therefore—it is all very puzzling, I admit—the winner needs either a simple majority in a two-party race or less than a majority—a mere plurality—in a three-party race. In a plurality election, the greater the number of parties, the smaller the plurality that is necessary to win.”

“Yes, yes, yes,” the Mad Hatter said, drumming his fingers on the table. “Is there a point to this tedious lesson in political science?”

“Who can get that plurality is very, very important,” Alice insisted. “Your two-person party is too small to win. Therefore you must decide which of the other two parties you prefer.”

“Oh, that is easy,” replied the Mad Hatter. “The positions of the Tweedledee Party are nearest our own positions, whereas we find the Tweedledum platform positively hateful.”

“Well, then,” Alice responded, “you must vote for the Tweedledee Party—not for your own.”

“Not vote for our own party!” the Mad Hatter exclaimed.

Alice explained: “If you vote for the Tweedledee Party, then it will defeat the Tweedledum Party, by five votes to three. But if you vote for your own party, then you increase the chances that the Tweedledum Party will win. It’s only rational.”

“It may be rational, but this is Wonderland, and I’ll have none of it!” the Mad Hatter declared.

There was no time for further argument, for at that very moment the Queen ordered, “Let the ballasting begin!”

A large balloon appeared above the treetops and drifted over the field. The balloonist shouted down to the Mad Hatter’s Party: “How do you want your ballast cast?”

“Two for the Mad Hatter’s Party!”

The balloonist tossed down two bags of ballast, which crashed in the midst of the table. Following the instructions of the other parties’ voters, he cast three bags of ballast at the feet of Tweedledum and three at the feet of Tweedledee.

“The ballasting is complete,” the Queen announced, as the balloon, deprived of ballast, drifted up into the sky and disappeared, taking the panicked balloonist with it.

“The election is a tie,” Alice observed. “Tweedledum and Tweedledee each have three votes.”

“No matter,” said the Queen. “Under our Single-Member District Plurality Voting System, the outcome in a close race is often decided by the way the Swing Vote breaks.”

“Who casts the Swing Vote?” Alice asked.

“Why, you do, little girl. Guards!”

Two guards appeared and forced poor Alice to climb up a tree containing an old, rotten, and very unsafe swing. With a great deal of anxiety, Alice sat in the swing and hung on for dear life as the guards gave it a push.

Back and forth Alice swung. As she passed overhead, first the Tweedledum Party and then the Tweedledee Party reached up, promising concessions in return for her support. Finally, on the third pass, the Swing Vote broke. Screaming, Alice was hurtled into the arms of Tweedledum.

“I got the Swing Vote!” Tweedledum exclaimed. “I won the election! I won the election!”

“But that isn’t fair!” Alice cried. “It isn’t fair three ways! It isn’t fair the first way because the district was Gerrymandered, so the biggest party, the Mad Hatter’s, was turned into a minority. And it isn’t fair the second way because the plurality method of voting ensured that either the Tweedledum Party or the Tweedledee Party would win—even though a majority of the voters in the district voted against each party. And it isn’t fair the third way because the election was so close that its outcome was settled by a Swing Voter—me—whose views may have nothing in common with what all of the other voters in the district want. It isn’t fair at all! It’s a travesty of democracy, which means nothing if it does not mean majority rule!”

The Queen gasped. “Little girl, what does democracy have to do with majority rule? In Wonderland, democracy means the Rule of the Largest Minority, helped out by a minuscule Swing Vote, in a Gerrymandered Single-Member District. Majority rule, indeed! Off with her head!”

The electoral system of Wonderland, as described above (with apologies to Lewis Carroll), is—as Alice rightly insists—unjust and perverse. Unfortunately, that electoral system is our own. (Coincidentally, it is one that Carroll himself would not have approved of. A mathematician by training, he was fascinated by voting systems and produced important work on voting theory—including developing elaborate alternative voting procedures that would eliminate bizarre distortions like those in Wonderland—that went completely unnoticed until the 1950s. He used to pass out pamphlets explaining his obscure theories to his Oxford colleagues, none of whom had an inkling as to what he was talking about.)

Plurality voting by single-member districts is how we elect the House, state legislatures, city councils, and other legislative bodies. Our method produces the same undemocratic effects identified by Alice, but they are somewhat less humorous when we tally their political consequences:

  • GERRYMANDERING Under the Constitution, state legislatures are permitted to redraw the lines of U.S. House districts every 10 years, following the census. If the Republicans gain control of the statehouses in the midterm elections next November (32 states currently have Republican governors; 18 have GOP-controlled legislatures), this could spell disaster for the Democrats. As Republican National Chairman Jim Nicholson predicts: “The winners are going to determine the political landscape in at least the first decade of the next millennium, because they are the people who are going to preside over the process of reapportionment and redistricting of their respective states as a result of the 2000 census.” Because the party of the president usually loses seats in midterm elections, this is an ominous prospect.

    And Democrats have good reasons to fear a Republican gerrymander: The current 15-seat Republican majority in the House is largely due to cynical GOP efforts during the last round of redistricting in 1991 to forge what some Democrats have called an “unholy alliance” with black and Hispanic Democrats to carve up racially mixed liberal districts into “safe” black and Hispanic seats and equally “safe” Republican seats. The GOP even went so far as to make expensive redistricting software available to minority activist groups as part of its plan to split up the white liberal vote and ghettoize the nonwhite liberal vote.

    As a result, there are only four white Democrats in the House from South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana combined. In Newt Gingrich’s Georgia, before racial gerrymandering, there were nine Democrats (eight white and one black) and only one Republican. Today the Georgia delegation numbers eight Republicans—all white—and three Democrats—all black.

  • SWING VOTE A relatively modest swing vote breaking rightward has helped make the South a solidly Republican stronghold. A shift of only a few percentage points can move divided districts from the Democratic to the Republican camp. Where the districts themselves are swing districts, holding the balance of power between the two parties in Congress, the votes of a tiny minority of swing voters in a few districts can create a revolution in national politics. Morton Kondracke, a columnist for Roll Call, estimates that less than 12,000 voters nationwide—or six-hundredths of 1 percent of the eligible voting population—swung the vote to the House Republicans in 1996.

  • PLURALITY WINNERS The recent rise of third-party politics threatens to strengthen the hold of the two dominant parties in Congress, rather than weaken it. For instance, in a special House election in New Mexico last year, Carol Miller won 17 percent of the vote as the Green Party candidate, splitting the Democratic vote and sending a Republican to Washington to represent a district in which only 42 percent of the voters supported him. She intends to run again in 1998 and is unlikely to fare any better. With more and more Reform, Green, New, and Libertarian party candidates running for congressional seats, perverse results are inevitable: Minuscule returns for a Green Party candidate can throw an overwhelmingly progressive district to the Republicans, just as a spoiler Libertarian Party candidate can ensure the election of a Democrat in predominantly conservative districts. The third-party candidate loses, and the wrong major party candidate wins.

    Plurality voting by single-member districts may be crooked, but it’s the only game in town—isn’t it?

    No, as a matter of fact it isn’t. Most liberal democracies have rejected plurality voting because of its unfair and paradoxical results. Instead, they elect their legislatures by some version of proportional representation by district.

    Here’s how proportional representation works: Imagine a region with five adjacent single-member congressional districts. In each district, the electorate is divided between Republicans (60 percent), Democrats (20 percent), and Greens (20 percent). Under plurality voting, even though Republicans are only a slight majority of the electorate, they will get 100 percent of the vote. The region will send five Republicans to Congress, no Democrats, and no Greens. Under proportional representation, the five adjacent districts would be consolidated into one five-member delegation, which would send three Republicans, one Democrat, and one Green. This distribution of seats would more accurately reflect the distribution of sentiments in the electorate. In politics, who wins depends upon the rules.

    Note that under proportional representation, the Alice-in-Wonderland results of our system—gerrymandering, plurality winners, and swing votes—simply disappear. State legislatures would abandon partisan gerrymandering, because it could no longer effectively prevent the minority from picking up at least a few seats. Racial gerrymandering would no longer be necessary, either. If people wanted to vote along racial or ethnic lines (which is far from a good idea in principle), then members of significant racial or ethnic minorities would be sure to elect one or two members of a multimember district—even if the white majority itself voted along racial lines.

    The plurality winner problem would also vanish. A party with 60 percent of the votes couldn’t win 100 percent of the seats in a district, only 60 percent of the delegation.

    What about the swing vote? It is most troubling in two-party systems, in which the swing voters hold the balance between the parties. The democracies that use proportional representation tend to have multiparty systems, and it is likely that the United States would as well if proportional representation were adopted here. English-speaking populations are not innately more likely to be divided into two parties than are German-speaking populations. A two-party system is an unintended but almost inevitable byproduct of the plurality electoral system.

    Such a multiparty system might also help reduce the polarization of American politics. Because a coalition of two or more parties, not just a single majority party, would probably hold power in the House and Senate, a party would gain little political capital by attempting to demonize the president, or to vilify potential coalition partners in the other parties. The rigid connection between lobbies and parties would dissolve as lobbies found it more useful to try to influence two or more parties instead of identifying themselves wholly with one.

    Another benefit of proportional representation is that it could abort the otherwise inevitable emergence of a solid Republican South—or any other region that is “solidly” one party or the other. Right-wing Republicans in Cambridge, Berkeley, or New York’s Upper West Side might be able to elect at least one or two members of Congress from their own area. Right now, in many districts, the minority party does not even bother to run a candidate. With five-member districts, any party with a chance at winning one-fifth of the vote could run candidates. It would no longer make sense for parties to write off whole districts, or even whole states. All of America would become politically competitive for the first time in history.

    At this point, the defender of the status quo is certain to introduce a parade of horribles: for example, the fractionalization of the electorate into too many ineffectual parties, or the tyranny of small, fanatical parties in the multiparty legislature. The first can easily be dismissed: Under proportional representation, interests tend to coagulate into a handful of substantial parties. And we can eliminate the problem of tiny fanatical parties, which has bedeviled Israel, by insisting that no party can get seats in the legislature unless it wins a certain threshold—say, 5 percent—of the national vote. Thus, even if neo-Nazis win a district in Louisiana, they won’t be seated in Congress unless they pass the national threshold.

    Proportional representation tends to have a stabilizing effect on democracies—usually because a centrist party, such as the Free Democrats in Germany, moderates the extremist tendencies of its coalition partners. By contrast, elections in plurality democracies such as Britain and the United States tend to produce wild shifts in public policy, even though only a small number of swing voters may have changed their votes.

    In the United States, the political history of the last quarter-century probably would have been far less turbulent had we adopted proportional representation to elect the House in, say, the 1950s. What would have happened is, of course, anybody’s guess. Mine is that three major parties would have emerged from the wreckage of the Democrats and Republicans: An upscale progressive party based in New England and the Pacific Northwest, a conservative party based in the South, and a working-class populist party, with members who were socially conservative but fiscally liberal. On social issues, the House might have had a populist-conservative majority; on economic issues, a populist-progressive majority. The destruction of federal welfare programs and the balancing of the budget through regressive policies—the work of a centrist Democratic president and a right-wing Republican congressional majority—might never have taken place. The far left would have been just as thwarted, but New Deal liberalism—based on an alliance of Northern progressives, Southern populists, and working-class Catholics—might have endured.

    What about the executive branch and the Senate? Proportional representation works only with multicandidate districts. For single-candidate offices, a system known as preference voting (also called the “instant runoff”) could thwart Wonderland democracy. Where three or more candidates ran for an office such as the presidency, the voter would be instructed to rank the candidates in order of preference. Thus a voter in our imaginary three-party America who prefers the progressive to the populist candidate on social issues, while preferring the populist to the conservative one on economic issues, would assign the following ranking on the ballot: Progressive (1), Populist (2), Conservative (3). If no candidate wins a majority, the second-choice votes are redistributed among the top two candidates. In extreme cases, it might be possible for a candidate who got the most first-preference votes to lose to a candidate who won an overwhelming majority of second-preference votes.

    Preference voting makes it almost impossible for a candidate strongly opposed by most voters to get elected in a three- or four-way race. Even more important, the adoption of preference voting for senatorial and presidential races would give candidates an incentive to seek support beyond their own parties. While elections under the plurality system tend to produce rival moderates exaggerating their differences, elections under the preference voting system would encourage candidates from genuinely different parties to reach out to members of other parties. The candidates would campaign not only for the first-preference votes of their party but for the second-preference votes of the parties that were nearest to their positions on particular issues. There might be coalition cabinets and even fusion tickets, with a president from one party and a vice president from another.

    Preference voting can also eliminate two potential problems that multiple parties might pose to the American constitutional system. In a separation- of-powers political system like ours, conflict is endemic—particularly when different parties control the branches. If Congress were divided among multiple parties, it could severely weaken its power relative to the presidency. The president could claim to represent “the people,” using that as a pretext to get around a Congress split among a number of squabbling parties. Preference voting in presidential elections might reduce that danger by encouraging the candidates, in campaigning for second-choice votes, to promise a multiparty coalition Cabinet.

    Second, preference voting might also decrease the likelihood of another catastrophe that can occur from the collision of multiple parties with a plurality electoral system—the minoritarian president. In some countries with presidential systems, political chaos and even civil wars have erupted when a president supported by only a small minority has won election in a multiple-party race. Preference voting would guarantee that the winning candidate would always receive a majority of second-choice (and perhaps third-choice) votes, meaning that voters would never be stuck with their least favorite candidate.

    Can proportional representation ever be more than a fantasy in the United States? It’s already used to elect the city council of Cambridge and it was used for many years by the Cincinnati City Council (it was scrapped in the 1950s because it allowed blacks a chance to be elected).

    There are no constitutional obstacles to changing our method of voting. The Constitution is silent about electoral systems. Our plurality system was established by statute; it can be replaced by statute. Alternatively, Congress, which has the ultimate say over how its members are elected, might give the states the right to determine how their congressional delegations are chosen. In 1995, Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) introduced the Voters’ Choice Act, which would allow states to use proportional representation to elect their congressional delegations.

    A supporter of the status quo might argue that our system is somehow uniquely suited to the American character or to our political culture, or that two centuries of tradition have sanctified it. But the Founding Fathers did not actually choose the plurality system in any meaningful sense; they simply adopted the British electoral system they grew up with. No real alternative existed until the 1850s, when an Englishman named John Hare devised one of the first influential versions of proportional representation.

    Far from being alien to American society, proportional representation is arguably the only appropriate electoral system for a society as diverse as ours. It encourages social peace by giving every major segment of the population a piece of the action. Proportional representation has proved most successful in ethnically divided societies, such as the Baltic states and South Africa, since it permits every significant minority to elect at least some representatives. The traditional American theory of democracy—majority rule with minority rights—has always been questionable. We cannot count on the federal judiciary to protect the rights of minorities, because its composition, over time, will reflect the partisan majority in the other two branches. Properly understood, democracy means majority rule with minority representation. Under proportional representation, the black or Hispanic or libertarian or socialist or populist minority would have the opportunity to elect the occasional member of Congress, state legislator, or city council member, instead of having to cast a doomed vote.

    If the traditionalist argument in support of plurality voting were valid, it ought to be most powerful in Britain, from which the U.S. inherited its archaic electoral method. There, however, Prime Minister Tony Blair made a national referendum on the replacement of plurality voting by proportional representation an important part of his campaign. Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland already have forms of proportional representation in some elections, and Canada recently considered the idea when it attempted to redesign its senate (the plan failed for reasons that had nothing to do with the issue of proportional representation). If Britain and Canada scrap plurality voting, the United States, in a generation or two, might find itself alone among advanced democratic countries in clinging to an electoral procedure rejected as unfair and primitive everywhere else. The “world’s greatest democracy” may end up having the least democratic electoral law.

    Needless to say, politicians elected under a given voting system are unlikely to change it. In the United States, the best way to force the political class to undertake electoral reform may be to sponsor initiatives in states, such as California, whose constitutions permit this method of direct action. Most electoral reforms, such as the extension of suffrage to women and blacks, were adopted by progressive states before they were enacted by congressional statute or constitutional amendment.

    In the 1996 election, less than half of the electorate voted. Under the current electoral system, choosing not to vote is a rational decision by people who do not identify with either of the two parties, or who live in congressional districts or states in which one party has an overwhelming majority. When the system is rigged against you, a boycott makes perfect sense (international comparisons demonstrate, to nobody’s surprise, that voter turnout is far lower in democracies with plurality voting than in multiparty democracies using proportional representation).

    Though it may be justified, popular alienation threatens democracy itself in the long run. If people believe— correctly—that they are not represented by the American political elite, they will be drawn to the kind of antipolitics represented on left, right, and center by Jerry Brown, Pat Buchanan, and Ross Perot, respectively. At its worst, antipolitics is the opposite of political reform; its goal is to smash constitutional, representative democracy, not to improve it. As Americans grow more alienated from the two-party system that our antiquated voting scheme encourages, they may be tempted to support a charismatic president who, claiming a popular mandate, promises to get things done, with little regard for constitutional niceties or those crooks in Congress. Only a few years ago, a majority of Americans polled said that they would support Colin Powell for president—knowing almost nothing about his political views. That he wore a uniform was apparently sufficient recommendation. A North American version of Latin American-style Peronism or French-style Bonapartism, disguised as presidential prerogative or direct democracy, is all too conceivable in the 21st century.

    Time is running out. Soon, we will have to prove to ourselves that the American political system has not discredited democracy itself—only the democracy of Wonderland.

    Michael Lind is the editor of Hamilton’s Republic. This is the second in a series of four articles examining the prospects for democratic political reform.


    Straight to the point: Donations have been concerningly slow for our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, over the next few weeks so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

    Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

    payment methods


    Straight to the point: Donations have been concerningly slow for our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, over the next few weeks so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

    Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

    payment methods

    We Recommend


    Sign up for our free newsletter

    Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

    Get our award-winning magazine

    Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


    Support our journalism

    Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.