The Alabama Special Election and the Need for More Representative U.S. Politics

Supporters of Doug Jones celebrated on Tuesday night at a watch party in Birmingham, Alabama. (Credit Bob Miller for The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/12/us/politics/alabama-senate-race-winner.html?_r=0)

Across the United States, Democrats are celebrating Doug Jones’ win (or, equally likely, Roy Moore’s loss) in the Alabama special election.

The Washington Post reported Tuesday night that Jones had won the race for the Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions with 670,551 votes to Moore’s 649,240. Commentators across the web are hailing the victory as “decisive” and a “turning point” for U.S. politics after the disastrous first year of the Trump administration.

Yet while a democratic victory in a deep red state like Alabama is certainly nothing to scoff at, it seems important not to lose sight of the sobering fact that more than 48% of Alabamians voted for a man accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women, the youngest of whom was 14 at the time of the alleged incident.

Rejoicing at such a narrow margin of victory seems to wilfully ignore the wider fractures present across not just political, but economic, social, and racial lines in the U.S. today. Herein lies the inherent problem with majoritarian systems when the major parties are as divided as they currently are in the U.S., true representation is incredibly hard to achieve. Margins of victory such as those seen in the Alabama race mean that a significant proportion of the electorate will be represented by someone with opposing views on many key subjects.

Political scientists have long acknowledged that the trade off between majoritarian and proportional representation systems lies along the spectrums of accountability and representation (PR systems are representative but not accountable, while the opposite is true of majoritarian systems, so the common wisdom goes). Some have proposed an “electoral sweet spot” which maximises both representation and accountability by establishing PR systems with low district magnitudes (three to eight representatives per district). This would allow for both a range of opinions to be represented and provide incentives to coordinate around viable parties (hence alleviating the accountability problem). Systems such as these currently exist in countries ranging from Costa Rica to Portugal, Ireland, and Hungary, and arguably should be adopted in many more.

Overhauling a political system as old and complex as the United States’ is no small feat. Nonetheless, it is one that Americans should seriously consider if they are to move past the extreme politics of the current age to one that is representative of the growing diversity of the American electorate. The literature (and common sense) tells us that absent external shocks, established parties have no incentives to modify electoral norms. If change is to happen, it must begin, as always, with citizens and voters. Americans proved their ability to procure change when they rose above race to elect their first black President in 2008. I look forward to seeing them do it again.      


Samantha Fu is a Master of Public Administration candidate at the London School of Economics. Prior to pursuing graduate studies, she worked on the analytics team for the 2016 Clinton campaign, as an economic consultant in New York, and earned a Bachelor’s degree from McGill University in Montreal.