Alternatives to plurality voting: Multiple winner elections

Most elections have a single winner. Some though, have multiple winners. How does this work, and why is it used?

In most elections in the U.S., the winner is decided by plurality voting. That is, whoever gets the most votes wins, regardless of whether or not they win a majority of votes (at least 50 percent +1). There are other methods of selecting elected officials that are used in parts of the U.S., mostly at the local level. These methods seek to better represent the will of the voters and give voters different choices in electing their representatives. This is the third article in a series examining some of those methods. Previous articles have examined:

While most elections have only a single winner, some have multiple winners. In some elections, typically at the local level, at-large elections take place in which voters elect multiple candidates in a single vote.

For example, the Lansing City Council is made up of eight members. Four of them represent wards and four of them are at-large, meaning they are elected by voters across the entire city. Elections are held every odd year, with two at-large members up for re-election each time. So, in November 2017, Lansing voters will elect two at-large City Council members. Voters will be presented with a ballot containing all of the candidate names and be asked to vote for up to two candidates. The two candidates to receive the most votes will be elected to City Council.

Proponents of at-large elections favor this system because (in theory, at least), members in an at-large system can be more impartial, getting away from the limited perspective of a single district and concerning themselves with the problems of the whole community. They also claim that vote trading is minimized among council members, and that better-qualified individuals are elected because the candidate pool is larger.

Opponents claims that at-large elections can weaken the representation of particular groups. This is particularly true of groups that do not have a citywide presence, or of ethnic or racial groups concentrated in a specific ward or district. Opponents also point out that at-large systems allow half of the voters to control 100 percent of the at-large seats and as a result usually end up in racially and politically homogenous elected bodies.

At-large elections used to be common in electing members of the U.S. House of Representatives as well. In the pre-Civil War era, it was common for 20-50 percent of Representatives to be from multi-member districts. In 1967, Congress passed a law mandating that all states use single-member districts. This mandate actually was included in the Apportionment Act of 1842, but was not consistently enforced. One of the main motivations of the single member district mandate was to protect the vote of political and ethnic minorities.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Reynolds v. Sims in 1964, known as the “one person, one vote” principle, led to the elimination of multi-member districts in state legislatures.

According to the National League of Cities, 64 percent of municipalities use at-large elections in some way. Smaller cities are more likely to use at-large systems, while larger cities are more likely to use district systems, or a mixed system like the one Lansing uses.

In the next article, I’ll take a look at a type of at-large voting that is viewed by many as an improvement on the system described here.

Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on Government and Public Policy provide various training programs, which are available to be presented in your county. Contact your local Government and Public Policy educator for more information. 

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