By Jake Albert
Most elections in our country are winner-take-all. Parties will spend all of their time and money supporting a certain candidate for office, and the candidate that receives more votes wins 100% of the power. That is how our country is run at the federal level: we only have one President, no matter how many votes other candidates receive. But states sometimes employ alternative methods for certain local elections, with Connecticut being one of them.
In 1959 Connecticut passed a minority party representation statute, which created what is called a “limited voting” scheme in the state. About three-quarters of municipalities in the state use the limited vote system. Under the scheme, parties are limited to two-thirds of the seats in any partisan, at-large elected body, such as town councils, boards of education, and boards of finance. In most municipalities each party can only nominate the number of candidates that would full two-thirds of the seats if all were elected. For example, if a town council has six positions, any given party is only allowed to hold four of those seats, and each party is only allowed to nominate four candidates for the six positions. The only other state with a similar limited voting scheme is Pennsylvania. In some municipalities, the parties may nominate more candidates but can still only win two-thirds of the positions.
There are various pros and cons to such a system. First, it ensures that minority parties are represented in these local governing bodies, whereas otherwise the bodies could be made up entirely of the majority party. In fact, the process even led to a third party gaining council positions in Hartford, the state’s capitol. The Working Families Party gained three of the nine seats on the council in 2011, gaining more votes than any Republican candidate.
However, there are serious voting rights concerns that result from such a system. Suppose, for example, there is a town council with six positions. There could be an outcome where five or six members of one party receive the most votes in the election, but one or two of them will not be elected. Instead, the candidates from other parties with the highest vote totals will be elected even if they had significantly fewer votes than the majority party’s candidates. There is something fundamentally worrisome about such a result, as the voters’ wishes and the results of the election are not honored.
A recent 7th Circuit case analyzes this worry. Indianapolis, Indiana, used limited voting in judicial elections, prohibiting any party from nominating more than half the number of candidates to be elected. The court struck down the law, stating that it severely burdened the right to vote because ensuring a fifty-fifty split among nominees leaves no choice to the voter, as it would be a fifty-fifty split (assuming there is no third party candidate) no matter who one votes for.
While the Connecticut scheme has been upheld in the past, it is still interesting to analyze its system after this case. The Connecticut system results in less of a burden if analyzed in the same way, as the parties are still competing for a two-thirds majority in the elections instead of a fifty-fifty split. However, there is a still a burden. Someone that would be duly elected under a winner-take-all system and receives more votes, even significantly more votes, than an opponent might still have to cede the seat to the opponent, thus rejecting the will of the voters.
Overall, Connecticut has employed a limited voting system for the last fifty-eight years, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. Whether this limited voting system or a winner-take-all election is better or fairer is a topic that will likely continue to be debated in the years to come.