Our Electoral System Is Bad for Happiness

The two-party system is a problem. There's a better way.

Posted Sep 29, 2016

Source: Tomwsulcer/Wikimedia Commons

This post is coauthored with my colleague Professor Patrick Flavin of Baylor University.

A common refrain among American voters is their distaste for having only two viable candidates to choose from. Many people fear that they are “throwing their vote away” if they vote for a third party candidate. In this short essay, we address two issues. First, why are there in fact always only two candidates with any legitimate shot of winning to choose from in the first place? And, more importantly, what are the consequences, beyond our immediate frustration at the ballot box—does it really matter that we have only two options?

One of the few hard generalizations in political science is called Duverger’s Law. It tells us that reliance on the “single member district plurality system”—the kind of electoral system we have, which is based on the “first past the post” (or winner-take-all) standard—will invariably lead to there being only two large political parties. The logic of this law would require more space than we have (and more patience than most readers possess), but the short version is easy to understand. Suppose there are 10 parties arrayed across the left-to-right spectrum. Given that the goal—the only goal—is to win a plurality (the most votes) parties have strong incentives form alliances, i.e. to merge, so as to maximize the chance that their group will win the most votes. Suppose the four left parties make that arrangement, which prompts the four right parties to do the same. The remaining two center parties are now isolated with no hope of winning, even if they join together; consequently they join one of the two large blocs. Voilà—you have a two-party system.

The principal alternative to this system that does not tend to produce a two-party monopoly is the one used in most European countries: what we call “proportional representation.” It works this way: Instead of dividing up the country into districts and asking voters to select one member to represent their district like we do in the U.S., proportional representation systems generally ask voters to select the party they prefer. Then, once the votes are totaled, a party gets roughly the same percentage of seats in the legislature as the percentage of total votes they earned.

In the U.S., if the Libertarian or Green Party runs candidates who win 5 or 10% of the votes nationwide but never win the most votes in any congressional district, they are awarded zero seats in Congress. Similarly, in the U.S. presidential election system (as with choosing senators), the key is to win the most votes in each state: Even if you win a lot of votes nationwide, unless you have a plurality in a state, you get zero electoral votes (or zero senators). By contrast, under a proportional representation system, if the Libertarian and Green Party got, for example, 10% and 5% of the total votes, they would get, respectively, 10% and 5% of the seats in the Congress. And since the executive—the equivalent of our president—is the cabinet formed by the parties in Parliament, a party with 10% of the seats might easily be a part of a governing coalition, and thus have substantial influence in governmental policy.

In this system, voters are free to vote their conscience without having to worry about throwing away their vote, and as a consequence, third and fourth and fifth and sometimes many more parties thrive. In this way, people are able to vote their sincere preferences, safe in knowing that those preferences will be reflected in the distribution of power in the Parliament.  

Which system, though, is actually better, if by better we mean better at fostering “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”? We address this idea (with our colleague David Altman) in a paper forthcoming at the peer-reviewed journal Political Studies entitled “Democratic Institutions and Subjective Well-Being.” We ask which system best promotes an environment where citizens lead lives that they themselves deem to be positive and rewarding. Simply put, we examine how differences in these different electoral systems relate to happiness across nations, controlling for other factors.

We compare advanced industrialized democracies because they generally have similar levels of economic development, human rights protections, etc. Specifically, we examine 21 advanced industrial democracies over 40 years. To measure how satisfied citizens are with their lives, we use the standard question from the World Values Surveys that scholars use to measure “subjective well-being” or happiness: “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?” Using data from various political science databases on political institutions, we then compare levels of life satisfaction in proportional representation vs. single-member district countries, while statistically controlling for a host of other factors that might also the quality of one’s life, such as (among many other things) one’s health, marital status, gender, marital status, income, employment status, and so on.

Our statistical analysis reveals that citizens living in countries with proportional representation lead more satisfying lives. In terms of real world significance, we find that this difference in happiness is nearly as large as the difference between being married vs. unmarried, or employed vs. unemployed. In other words, the choice of electoral systems can have huge implications for citizens’ quality of life.

Why is there such a relationship? In the article, we discuss in detail several theoretical reasons for this finding but, to briefly summarize here, we believe that the boost in life satisfaction brought by proportional representation is at least partly due to the fact that it allows for a broader range of opinions and perspectives to be considered and represented in the political arena. Moreover, in a proportional representation system, politicians have greater incentive to focus on the interests of the nation as a whole (since they are elected as a member of a national party) compared to a single-member district system where politicians are incentivized to focus on local interests and concerns that might (and often do) run contrary to the public good for the nation as a whole.

It also seems likely that for precisely the reasons noted above, that countries with proportional representation pursue the kind of progressive public policies that the literature suggests promote happiness. In essence, proportional representation makes it easier for citizens to build and sustain the “big government” programs that promote economic security and shared prosperity, as represented by a generous, expansive social safety net, a state guarantee of access to medical care, and all the other services and protections offered citizens in social democratic countries. Earlier posts in this series have documented how happiness is determined by exactly these kind of public policies (for instance, here).

In sum, our discontent over having only two choices as voters is well-founded: it is not only frustrating for us as individuals to have our choices so limited, but that limitation to two parties impairs quality of life in this country. It is this simple: We would be a happier country—everyone would be happier, rich and poor alike—if we had proportional representation.

Patrick Flavin is associate professor of political science at Baylor University. You can learn more about his research here.

Benjamin Radcliff is professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame.  You can find the full-text of a number of his peer reviewed articles on politics and happiness here and read a chapter of his book The Political Economy of Human Happiness here.