What Georgia Teaches Us About the Problems With Winner-Take-All Elections

Why not just have a system that flexibly adapts to demographic and political changes, and is able to represent all voters?

What Georgia Teaches Us About the Problems With Winner-Take-All Elections
Mike Pence at swearing-in of Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s swearing in on Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. Loeffler was appointed to the Senate in December 2019 after Sen. Johnny Isakson (R) resigned for health reasons. (White House Photo / D. Myles Cullen)

This op-ed originally appeared on The Fulcrum. It has been republished with permission.

It’s double Senate Election Day in Georgia. And all eyes are on the outcome of a monstrously high-stakes, titanic struggle for the heart and soul of the nation—and the unfathomable resources, both emotional and financial, spent to influence the results.

Contrary to the deep divisions and diversity of interests burbling at the surface, the winning side (if one party takes both seats) will declare that “the people of Georgia” believe what their candidates believe, regardless of how razor-thin their victories. This party will crow about having the superior get-out-the-vote ground game—as if that were equivalent to having better policy proposals or values, or an agenda more meaningfully representative of voters’ real interests. Should there be a split decision, the losers’ personal flaws will be dissected to explain the anomaly.

At its core, though each election is a runoff where two people survived for a second round, Georgia highlights the absurdity of winner-take-all elections—especially when so many Americans are already frustrated by limited choices. Anticipating some delicious democracy in the Peach State, we got a democracy demolition derby instead.

Republicans’ vaunted voter suppression of Black votes has been linked to the closeness of elections in the demographically evolving state. Every crime has three elements, and voter suppression is no exception. Racism is the motive. Control of the levers of government has provided the means.

But the opportunity has derived from winner-take-all elections themselves. Close races in a changing state are exactly where voter suppression can be expected to pay the greatest dividends.

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Around the world, the antidote for American winner-take-all insanity—seen so vividly in Georgia’s Senate races as well as its super-close presidential outcome—is the measured rationality and true majority rule offered by proportional representation.

Yes, elections for president and the Senate must have single winners, because when there’s only one person getting the job, then the races must be winner-take-all.

But the House, state legislatures, and county or city councils could all be redesigned for proportional elections, and it’s clear they should be.

The outsized importance, scorched-earth tactics and exclusionary results endemic to such electoral battlegrounds as Georgia shouldn’t be the way we determine the “soul of our nation.” Duels between individual gladiators in the electoral arena are not the way to conclusively determine what America really stands for.

That’s because what America stands for—or should stand for—is pluralism. The traditional national motto, after all, is “E pluribus unum,” Latin for “Out of many, one.” And that’s one nation, not one winner.

What we need are proportional “participation trophies” for all voters and their preferred representatives. Fairly representing the interests of all voters tends towards coalition governance and true majority rule. Winner-take-all leads to polarization, even the arrival in the House this week of a Georgian who supports QAnon conspiracies—flying under cover of winning a “majority” election.

What Georgia Teaches Us About the Problems With Winner-Take-All Elections
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who has expressed racist views and support for QAnon conspiracy theories, joined Trump during a Monday rally in Dalton, Ga. (Screenshot from C-SPAN)

A shift of a mere 43,000 presidential votes—the cumulative margins of victory in Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin—would have created a tectonic shift in national policy by giving Donald Trump a second term. Several Senate races had outcomes almost as close, and had the Democrats won two of them then the stakes in Georgia would not be very high right now. Is it possible the future of our nation was determined by a North Carolina candidate’s amorous text messages? For want of that nail, our nation might have lost its soul?

Close elections may be more thrilling—just ask the spectators in ancient arenas, we suppose—but they are not inherently more democratic. For voters unable to elect a representative of their choice, losing with 49 percent is no more democratic than getting a mere 30 percent.

Tossup winner-take-all races down ballot in Georgia were no prettier this year. The horror of the half-billion-dollar twin Senate contests was nearly matched by the relative cost of the contest in state House District 132, a politically purple area southeast of Atlanta. It’s home to just one in every 180 Georgians, but the national Republican state legislative campaign organization, alone, invested $1 million to help defeat the House’s Democratic minority leader by 666 votes with ads linking him (unfairly) to rioters and anarchists.

To be sure, the Democrats spent heavily on targeted races, too, and succeeded in defeating the GOP chairman of the state House Ways and Means Committee in an evolving area of suburban Gwinnett County.

Both races beg the question: Why not just have a system that flexibly adapts to such demographic and political changes, and is able to represent all voters?

The key to breaking the winner-take-all stranglehold is adopting a fair proportional method to elect representatives from districts with multiple members. (There are several possible systems in use across the globe.) With more seats to be filled, more voters can successfully elect a representative of choice—so long as a proportional system is deployed.

Averting your gaze from the Senate election for a moment, consider October’s elections in “the other Georgia,” the country half a world away. In their parallel system—split between winner-take-all, with majority-required runoffs, and proportional party seats—the ruling party won 75 percent of the seats in Parliament with just 48 percent voter support.

But that’s not the main story. After even more unbalanced results in 2016, the government violently suppressed protests demanding greater proportionality. The United States condemned the crackdown and supported the demands, and American diplomats then played a critical role in brokering an agreement that will bring full proportionality to Georgia in three years.

Now it’s time to watch the final battle of the four senatorial gladiators in the state of Georgia. Only two will be left standing. It would be nice to say the same about our democracy, but that’s not certain.

Perhaps the U.S. embassy in the other Georgia can help promote proportional democracy back home.

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Fain is a consultant for election reform groups including More Equitable Democracy, which focuses on improving political power for people of color. He was a founder of FairVote, which promotes ranked-choice voting.