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The Norwegian Parliament. It has 169 representatives of which 150 are selected from Norway’s 19 provinces.

Why Only Two Parties in the US, But Nine in Norway?

How the US voting system reduce the number of parties and how voting systems in other countries give more selection to voters

Since my home country Norway, has been in the news in resent times ever since Trump made his “shithole” comment, I thought it might be interesting to discuss why it is so difficult to introduce a third party in the US, while quite easy in a number of other countries.

This isn’t simply a cultural phenomenon. When looking at the discussion around this in America it seems like people believe it is an issue with respect to people’s attitudes. Somehow they need to stop voting democrat and republican and give a third party a chance. However as I will try to explain, this is a natural outcome of how voting works in the US.

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Some of the biggest political parties in Norway. From top left to bottom right: communists, socialists, labour, farmers party, christian party, liberals, conservatives, low taxes and anti immigrants party.

Call Your Congressman!

One of the more confusing expressions to me as a Norwegian familiarizing myself with American political life, is the common utterance of the phrase “Call your congressman,” or alternatively, “Call your representative!” To Americans this is a central thing. When I first kept hearing this I asked myself, who is my representative? Do I even have one? Why does nobody in Norway ever utter this phrase, while Americans do it all the time?

It is easy to understand why, if you compare how representatives get elected in each respective country.

The US has 50 states which each send representatives to congress. Norway has 19 provinces which sends representatives to parliament. At this level it is fairly similar. In both cases the number of representatives sent from a state or province will depend on the population. In Norway it also depends on the geographical size of the province.

However, how each of these representatives get selected is fundamentally different. In the US every state is split into a number of voting districts. Each district elects one representative. Hence there is actually one elected official that represent you in the US. You can even find out who it is by entering your zip code on a web page.

In Norwegian provinces in contrast, there are no voting districts. Instead all votes for each province is counted, and each party is assigned zero or more representatives in parliament according to the number of votes they got.

How this works is more complex than I will explain here, so I will give a simplification which explains the general idea as an example.

Say the province of Finmark sends 12 representatives to parliament. Lets say the outcome was this:

  • 17% voted Socialists (2/12)
  • 33% voted Conservatives (4/12)
  • 50% voted Liberals (6/12)

Then the Socialists would get 2 representatives, the Conservatives 4, and the Liberals 6, to send from Finmark. Hence all of these representatives will represent the inhabitants of Finmark in parliament. There is no single representative assigned to you, the voter. If you have an issue you may contact any of these representatives. Although naturally you will contact a representative belonging to the party you voted for.

How Does This Affect Choice of Parties?

In an American election, if the Socialists only got 17% of the votes in each district, while the Conservatives and Liberals took turns getting 33% or 50% of the vote, then the Socialists would not get a single representative in the American system. That is because a district can only select one representative. In essence, the winner takes all.

In the Norwegian system however, the Socialists would end up with roughly 17% of the representatives in Parliament.

That means in Norway, you don’t risk wasting your vote by voting on small parties.

Swing States

Another novelty to Norwegians is the American concept of swing states. This concept exists because when electing the president (not electing representatives to congress/parliament), the whole state functions as a voting district.

Except this time one isn’t selecting representatives to congress but what Americans call electors. These are part of what is called the Electoral Collage, rather than a form of parliament. The member of the Electoral Collage, are the ones who select the president.

If you run for president and get the majority vote in a state, then you get all the electors of that state. That means there is little point in spending time and effort to get more voters in a state which already has a clear majority favoring your bid for the presidency.

Instead candidates for the presidency will focus their energy on states with even odds. States where the outcome could swing either way. Hence they get named swing states.

Norway has no equivalent concept of swing provinces. The quick answer is that, there is no election of head of state in Norway. Norway is a constitutional monarchy, which means the head of state is the king.

Parliamentarism

To understand what that means, it is useful with a history lesson. If one head back to the 1800s in Europe, when the Norwegian constitution was made, kings and queens served the same role as the president in the US. They made the major decisions. However like the American presidents, they had to pass new laws in parliament. A monarch had like an American president, his/her own government or administration. Heads of ministries or departments that is. The most important of these ministers would be the prime minister, who essentially carried out the orders of the king by interacting with parliament. Hence a prime minister was not a head of state, but rather more of a practical arrangement.

However when European countries introduced parliamentarism, the king’s role became largely symbolic. Parliamentarism, meant that the king’s government had to be a reflection of parliament. The largest coalition of political parties, which would unite in a coalition would form the government (administration) of the country. They would sit with the king making decision, but at that point, the king would sign off on any action by the government in a mostly ceremonial manner.

No Prime minister election

What all this means is that there is no separate election of the prime minister and government. Government follows directly from whatever the composition of parties is in the parliament.

That means that in a parliamentary system, like in Norway the prime minister is in power and importance not remotely as important as the president in the US. In the US, the president was elected directly by the people and hence derives his or her legitimacy and power from that.

In a parliamentary system, people don’t elect a prime minister. A prime minister is no different from other ministers in a government. Parties who join in a coalition with each other to govern will negotiate all the minster positions including that of the prime minister. Usually the party with the most votes get the prime minister, but on rare occasions in Norway, a minor partner in the coalition government has negotiated to have the prime minister position filled by their candidate.

A bigger party might agree to do this to get other important minister posts such as finance minister and foreign minister.

Hence there are no swing provinces, because there is no electoral college. In US terminology it would be as if there was only elections for congress, and congress decided the makeup of the government.

How you end up with multiple parties

What I’ve covered is basically the two reasons why it is easy to form new parties in Norway and hard in the US.

  • No voting districts with single representatives.
  • No electoral college or direct selection of prime minister

That means small parties are able to get representatives into parliament. You don’t risk wasting your vote by voting on a minor party in parliament/congress elections.

Because the prime minister isn’t elected directly, you can vote on a minor party. Your vote isn’t wasted, because a minor party is able to form a coalition with other parties to form a government. The politics of the smaller party will have to be taken into consideration for the coalition government, otherwise they will not join the coalition. They will typically demand control of particular ministries/departments in exchange for their support.

Hence whether you want a left wing or right wing government you can as a voter help configure how left or right wing the government will be.

E.g. the conservative party might chose to govern with a far right party or a party at the political centre. The choice will decide which direction the government will be pulled.

Third Parties in Presidential Systems

Getting more parties is of course not impossible in a presidential system. The French system with two rounds to elect president makes it easier for third parties. The two candidates with the most votes enter the second round of voting in France. That means you can afford to vote on a candidate you are in doubt will gain majority, because your vote isn’t wasted.

I have seen people argue that the US already has a two round election process. But that is not entirely true. Voters in the US elect the candidate for their party, however that does not make it easier for third parties in any way.

Consider the last US election. Voting in Bernie Sanders as candidate for the democratic party felt risky for many democratic voters because they were afraid he would not have bi-partisan appeal. There was no easy way of testing his appeal among voters who were not registered democrats.

With the French system, anyone can vote on any candidate on the first round. So if e.g. Bernie Sanders had had appeal among independents and traditional republican voters, he could have secured those votes as well in the first round.

That means Bernie Sanders could have knocked out Hillary Clinton in the first round, despite having lower appeal among registered democrats.

In my next story, I’ll discuss whether Donald Trump could have won a Norwegian election.

Written by

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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