What is the one-vote system? A Q&A with Jack Santucci

Across the country, debates are erupting over the use of partisan primaries and first-past-the-post voting. There is a concern that this century-old way of voting is producing extreme candidates who have little incentive to govern competently. Various municipalities and states are experimenting with open primaries, ranked choice voting (RCV), and other systems to try to improve the linkage between voter preferences and candidate selections.

Dr. Jack Santucci recently argued in favor of something different than the usual bromides — the one-vote system. This proportional representation (PR) scheme is based on a system devised by an American, Thomas Gilpin, in 1844. Jack is an assistant teaching professor of politics at Drexel University and the author of “More Parties or No Parties: The Politics of Electoral Reform in America” (forthcoming from Oxford University Press).

Kosar: How does the one-vote system work?

Santucci: The voter picks a person, and that vote counts for said person and his party. Parties earn seat shares in proportion to their vote shares, and these seats go to the candidates with the most votes within their parties.

The system can be adapted for ballots allowing a voter to cast multiple votes, including votes for candidates from more than one party. (That was Gilpin’s original vision, in fact.)

One-vote also can work with joint lists, e.g., the Libertarian and Republican parties fielding a common slate while preserving candidates’ distinct party labels on ballots. Votes for candidates of either party would benefit the common slate.

I should add that when I argued for Philadelphia to adopt one-vote I was not saying the city’s current system is broken. My goal for the op-ed was to raise an alternative that beats RCV in some ways . . . and that many don’t know is native to the United States.

Gilpin was trying to solve two problems. One was to have minority representation in a multi-seat district. The other was to prevent swing voters (apparently in runoffs) from deciding which major party got every seat in that district.

Is this a system designed for picking city councils only? Or could it be used to select members of Congress, or even executive figures such as mayors and governors?

It can work for any of those elections, provided there is party grouping in advance of the election. One-vote (and related systems) therefore solve spoiler effects — but from the perspective of a party (or joint list). Still, most experts would not recommend list PR for single-winner elections.

Where is the one-vote scheme used?

The one-vote system is a form of list-proportional representation, which collectively is the most common form of proportional representation around the world. (Flexible-list means that a party orders its list of candidates in advance, and a candidate must meet some threshold to change their place in that ordering.)

My interest in open lists comes from having studied historic ranked-choice elections in the United States (technically proportional representation via single transferable vote, or STV). Two contemporary writers thought that this might have worked better, after having immersed themselves in STV results. One was Harold Gosnell, a famous political scientist, whose 1939 paper in the American Political Science Review should have gotten more attention.

Gosnell probably settled on one vote because that’s how STV works — you get one vote, even though it may transfer. Just choosing one also seems like default behavior for a voter not explicitly asked to choose more than that.

Does this system exclude independents?

Not necessarily. Independents might run as individuals and win seats in their own right. They’d just need to clear the bar for a seat under proportional representation (roughly the number of votes cast divided by the number of seats in the district). Or they might form a joint “independent” list, which my colleague Mike Latner has seen under STV in Australia.

One advantage of one-vote is that it can be combined with other reforms, like Final Five voting. The key idea is a preliminary or ‘winnowing’ round or nonpartisan primary, if one prefers that term. There are good reasons to hold that round in the existing single-seat districts, which is what the page proposes.

Why do you like one-vote?

There’s a tendency in reform circles to ask too much of voters. I’m thinking here of elaborate schemes like RCV, STAR (Score Then Automatic Runoff), and approval. Ballot reforms like these basically ask voters to pick a better coalition. One-vote flips that around — give voters representation, then have their representatives form the coalition. It’s a lot more realistic.

Thank you, Jack.

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