Elections in the United States

United States Electoral System

The electoral system in the United States is a relative majority system: the winner of an election is the one who receives more votes than any other candidate.

Example: Lets say there are three candidates:

  • Candidate A receives 25 percent.
  • Candidate B receives 35 percent.
  • Candidate C receives 40 percent.

Although 60 percent have voted against candidate C, he has received more votes than any other candidate and – in a relative majority system – wins the election.

Thus the relative majority system encourages a tactical voting technique (compromising) and usually results in a two party system.

Example: Lets take our three candidates again. Imagine you are absolutely in favour of candidate A. Candidate B is okay. But you are totally against candidate C. If it were up to you, you would vote for candidate A, but then you read the opinion polls that say:

  • A: 25 percent
  • B: 35 percent
  • C: 40 percent

Your favourite candidate A does not really have a serious chance of winning, but if you vote for him, candidate C will probably win the election. So the best thing is to make a compromise and vote for candidate B instead of A – B has a greater chance of winning than A, and you definitely dont want candidate C to win.

As you can see in the example, if two candidates stand for similar ideas but act as competitors, they often lose the election to a third candidate with completely different views. Therefore, in a relative majority system it is always better if voters only have two options. This is the reason why there are only two major parties in the United States – the Democrats and the Republicans.

Since 1852 the United States President has been either a Democrat or a Republican. Although independent or third-party candidates do also run in elections, they do not have a realistic chance of winning. The problem is, however, that the Democratic or Republican candidate might lose votes to that third candidate.

Other terms used instead of relative majority are: plurality, Single Member District Plurality (official term in political science), winner take all or first past the post. The latter refers to an anology with horse racing.

Primary and General Election Period