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Madison's Hope: Virtue, Self-Interest and the Design of Electoral Systems

Posted: 9 Nov 2003  

James A. Gardner

University at Buffalo Law School


In recent years, perhaps no institution of American governance has been so thoroughly and consistently excoriated by legal theorists as the familiar American system of winner-take-all elections. The winner-take-all system is said to waste votes, lead to majority monopolization of political power, and cause the under representation and consequent social and economic subordination of political minorities. Some political scientists have attempted to defend winner-take-all systems on the ground that they perform better than PR in maximizing long-term collective and social interests. This article argues, in contrast, that winner-take-all electoral systems rest upon, and can be adequately defended, if at all, only upon an entirely different set of premises. Specifically, this article argues that the concept of winner-take-all electoral systems grew up alongside, and relies heavily upon, a conception that views politics as an arena for identifying and then implementing the common good. Unlike the common good said to arise under interest pluralism from the aggregation of the self-interest of unrelated individuals and groups, the common good on the conception of politics is typically understood as objective, applicable to all members of society, and indivisible - that is why winners can and should take all.

Keywords: winner-take-all, election, electoral system, common good, representation, vote, majority, politics

JEL Classification: K3

Suggested Citation

Gardner, James A., Madison's Hope: Virtue, Self-Interest and the Design of Electoral Systems. Iowa Law Review, Vol. 86, No. 1, October 2000. Available at SSRN:

James A. Gardner (Contact Author)

University at Buffalo Law School ( email )

Room 514, O'Brian Hall
Buffalo, NY 14260-1100
United States
716-645-3607 (Phone)
716-645-2064 (Fax)


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