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Donald Trump and Boris Johnson Enjoy the Same Big Advantage

Both the GOP and the U.K.’s Conservatives benefit from political systems that give them much more power than voters want, writes Brennan Center Fellow Zachary Roth.

December 17, 2019
Johnson Trump
Adrian Dennis/Getty

An erratic right-wing leader, once dismissed as a publicity-seeking buffoon, won over white working-class voters from the nation’s industrial heartland en route to a decisive victory. With his party in lockstep behind him, he can now act on his nationalist agenda despite coming nowhere close to winning support from a majority of the country.

I’m talking about Boris Johnson, of course, whose Conservative Party dominated Britain’s elections Thursday. Many of their gains came in traditionally Labour-voting areas in the industrial north of England where voters were attracted to the Tories’ clear pro-Brexit stance. The result ensures that Britain will leave the European Union quickly. And Johnson’s unexpectedly large majority will give him vast power to reshape the country over the next five years.

But is that what British voters as a whole wanted? The Conservatives won 364 out 650 seats — 57 percent. They did so, however, with under 44 percent of the nationwide vote. That votes-to-seats ratio is even more skewed than we’ve seen in state legislative elections in the most egregiously gerrymandered U.S. states — though the greater prominence of minor parties in the U.K. makes comparisons complicated.

Just as important, Brexit was by far the most important issue of the campaign — “Get Brexit Done” was the Tories’ slogan. But despite the Conservatives’ landslide victory, the parties that opposed a quick Brexit won about 2 million more votes than those that supported it — no surprise, since polls suggest a very slim majority of the country wants to stay in the EU. The problem for Brexit opponents was that their votes were largely split between Labour (which tried to have it both ways by supporting the idea of a second Brexit referendum while staying neutral on the underlying question), and the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalists. By contrast, pro-Brexit voters were unified around the Conservatives, after the Brexit Party made the smart strategic decision to essentially fold so as to avoid splitting the vote.

To be sure, Britain’s election system is designed primarily to produce a government that can effectively run the country — something it succeeded in doing, and then some. What it definitely didn’t do is deliver an outcome that closely reflects what voters want — in other words, a fair outcome. As a result, a party representing a clear minority of the country will have a level of power far beyond its level of support. The Tories have even said they want to introduce a voter ID law and redraw district lines, making the system even less democratic as they look to lock in their gains.

Which brings us to the United States. Like Britain’s Conservatives, the Republican Party benefits from a political system that gives it much more power than voters want it to have. Let’s count the ways:

President Trump did slightly better than the Tories in terms of vote share, but his 46 percent not only left him well short of a majority, but also meant he lost the popular vote. He was bailed out by the Electoral College, which inflates the power of smaller, whiter states in picking the president. And there’s a good chance the same thing could happen again next year.

Then there’s the Senate, which gives the GOP a similar structural advantage, with the result that although Democratic senators were elected with millions more votes, the GOP controls the chamber.

As for the House, it currently has a breakdown that’s pretty well in line with the two parties’ vote share in the last election. But thanks in part to gerrymandering, over the last decade, Republicans consistently won more seats than voters wanted to give them — most egregiously in 2012, when they won about a million fewer votes than the Democrats but still held onto more seats. Then there are states like Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Michigan, where GOP legislators have used gerrymandering to entrench themselves in power, making it all but impossible for Democrats to win control, regardless of the will of voters.

Finally, schemes like voter ID laws and purges, upheld by a Supreme Court controlled by Republican appointees, have helped skew the composition of the electorate itself further to the right.

What’s to be done? British voters rejected a 2011 referendum that sought to move the country to a form of ranked-choice voting (one political scientist described the public debate over the measure as “bad-tempered and ill-informed”). But recent events have spurred new interest in the system on the British left. Though it still would almost certainly have delivered a Tory win, their margin of victory would likely have been far closer to what voters wanted. And in the United States, ranked-choice voting is increasing in popularity, with New York City the latest place to adopt it. There’s also a growing realization among progressives that we won’t have fair elections for the White House and the Senate unless we sideline the Electoral College and take far-reaching steps to counter the Senate’s in-built GOP bias. Other reforms, such as proportional representation, might do even better in ensuring that results mirror the preferences of the electorate in both America and the U.K.

But for now, it’s just worth keeping something in mind amid the commentary about a growing shift among the white working classes on both sides of the Atlantic toward nativism and away from social democracy. It’s not that this shift isn’t happening. But it wouldn’t have nearly the political significance it does if we had election systems that more accurately reflected the will of voters, instead of giving more sway to some groups than others. For those working to fight off the global tide of right-wing authoritarianism and nationalism, creating more democratic elections should be the place to start.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center.