It's time to make American elections more like Albania's

Our two-party system is terrible. Here's the fix.

Voting booths
(Image credit: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, and Lindsey Graham do not belong in the same political party.

Take a moment to think about it, and it's instantly obvious. Ronald Reagan may have described conservatism as a three-legged stool, but today more than ever, economic libertarians, social conservatives, and foreign policy hawks have radically different policy priorities and constituencies. In fact, when asked whether he'd vote for Paul in the general election were the Kentucky senator chosen as the GOP nominee, Graham could only barely bring himself to acquiesce, bound by a partisanship that is mightily at odds with his foreign policy beliefs.

But here's the thing: In America today, economic libertarians, social conservatives, and foreign policy hawks pretty much have nowhere to go but the Republican Party (well, hawks are welcomed by many Democrats, too). Though only one-fifth of Americans say our government has the consent of the governed — and voters, especially millennials, are abandoning party affiliations at record levels — running as a third-party candidate continues to be an utterly fruitless endeavor.

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To give American voters a real range of choices — and to allow candidates like Paul, Santorum, and Graham to happily go their separate ways — America needs to become more like Albania. Or Argentina. Or Iceland. Or any other country with a multiple-winner system of representation.

Now, there are almost infinite varieties of voting systems. And it is difficult to understand the nuances and problems of each without experiencing them directly. Nevertheless, a party-list proportional representation system (like the ones found in Albania, Argentina, Iceland, and many other countries) would offer a far more fair and far more diverse electoral outcome than the winner-take-all structure we have in America.

Here's how it would work: Instead of slicing states into increasingly populous and gerrymandered electoral districts, House elections would go statewide (as Senate elections are now), with multiple winners representing the entire state. Within each election, every party would present a ranked list of candidates totaling the number of seats available.

So, for example, my state of Minnesota has eight seats in the House of Representatives. Under this system, each party would make a list of eight candidates. (Since no one party is likely to win 100 percent of the vote, none of the lists would be elected in full.) Then, come Election Day, each party would win seats according to the proportion of votes it received. They would fill those seats from their list, starting at the top and moving down. If the Democrats received 25 percent of the vote, they would get two of the eight seats. If the Libertarians received 12.5 percent of the vote, they'd get one seat. And so on.

Exactly how the seats would be divvied up would depend on which party list calculation system we used: Some slightly favor larger parties, while others slightly favor smaller ones. We'd also need to decide whether there would be a minimum support threshold to claim any seats at all; in Germany, for instance, there's a 5 percent threshold, while in the Netherlands it's just 0.67 percent.

The advantage of this system is that it doesn't leave 49 percent of voters without a representative who shares their views. Though a handful of states (like Delaware and North Dakota, which have only three representatives total in the House and Senate) would not see a significant difference in electoral outcomes, for the vast majority of the country, third parties would instantly become viable. The Green Party can't swing 50 percent of the vote, but it's not hard to imagine it taking, say, 10 percent — which would bring five House seats — in California.

Now, for the presidential election, there obviously can't be multiple winners. But given the diversified party base which our new congressional voting would create, there's room for change here, too. I'd suggest we use ranked voting, in which each voter would rank all the presidential candidates from their most to least preferred choices. (This would be a great boon to the civil libertarian New Hampshire voters who apparently can't decide between Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders.) We could even have a separate ranking for vice president to allow for some diversity within the White House, but single-party tickets could work, too.

Imagine if we could enact a colossal constitutional overhaul like this. We would have a much more representative government, with a legislature marked by shifting, issue-based alliances. The Republicans, Libertarians, and Constitutionalists might team up for fiscal conservative positions, while the Libertarians, Greens, and Socialists could oppose the drug war together. Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats would likely ally against the rest to push America into myriad ill-advised wars. (Some problems are really hard to fix.)

In the presidential race, someone like Santorum might draw the support of former Blue Dog Democrats. Bernie Sanders at the helm of an explicitly socialist party would free Hillary Clinton to drift back toward the center and more fully embrace her hawkish proclivities — maybe even picking someone like Graham as a running mate on a foreign policy-focused ticket (which I would place at the very bottom of my ranked ballot).

Voters would be able to try something new without making a comparatively massive leap across the aisle; and without a single us-versus-them dichotomy, I suspect the more vitriolic side of partisanship would decline.

The sheer size of the Republican field, and, to a lesser degree, the contrast between Clinton and Sanders, is a symptom of the increasingly bad fit our electoral system offers an ever larger and more diverse population. Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, and Lindsey Graham do not belong in the same political party — and if we overhauled the way we vote, they wouldn't have to try.

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