Real Reform Begins In The Ballot Box

I remember about a month ago there was a lot of bruhaha about Pennsylvanian Republicans trying to change their contribution to the Electoral College by divvying up the votes based on Congressional districts, like Maine and Nebraska. Naturally, a lot of people got upset with that, with some (like Doug Mataconis and George Will) saying we should keep the Electoral College just like it is now, and many others saying that we should instead move to a National Popular Vote system. Now with Occupy Wall Street taking over our media senses, some of that talk has been pushed aside, with people instead focusing on Wall Street rather than Pennsylvania Avenue.

I would like to go back to the Avenue, however, for multiple reasons. First off, I actually think that a lack of serious political reforms is the reason for much of the discontent we’re seeing in Zucotti Park. Second, we have Congressional deadlock, as always—but in recent years, the vitriol and polarization we have seen has increased dramatically. Third, even with the 2010 GOP landslide in the House, we still have a very high incumbent reelection rate—although it was lower in previous elections, it still stood at 87%. Fourth, we have not seen any new ideas with regards to the major issues of the day: our debt crisis, our flagging economy, our eroding civil liberties, or our overburdening government.

Clearly, the emphasis is on the egg and not the noggin in the egg nog, here.

Very little can be done to change or institute major reform, even though we need it, badly. Part of that is by design. The Founders wanted a system where it would be difficult to radically change it, in order to preserve the liberty they had fought so hard for. In the modern era, that backfired. Instead of preserving liberty, the system is preserving the corrupt bog from which liberty is being drowned in.

There are numerous ideas floated in order to fix Washington. Term limits are a very popular one, and I agree with them. Then there are myriad forms of “campaign finance reform,” which I doubt will actually fix anything. Balanced budget amendments are another. So are independent redistricting commissions (which, I think, are a fantastic idea.) Unfortunately (or fortunately, in some cases), none of these will ever pass due to a much more fundamental problem being ignored, a part of the system that is at the very crux of our democratic system, even more basic than the three branches of government and separation of powers.

It’s what voting theorists call the “first-past-the-post system.”

Currently, when we go to a voting booth and are presented with a multitude of options (if that does happen, thank your lucky stars), we are allowed to choose one of the candidates to vote for. I always like to take the 2000 presidential election as an example, since its the most clear version (especially when simplified a bit.) So, you have Bush, Gore, and Nader. Now, the most sensible thing to do would be to vote Nader, so you could annoy just about everyone, but nobody truly votes sensibly anymore. So, if you’re fairly conservative, you vote for Bush, and if you’re fairly liberal, you vote for Gore—because he’s the only one with the chance to beat Bush. This system leaves Nader and other third party candidates out in the cold, a symptom known as the “spoiler effect.” In fact, the 2000 election is the quintessential example of it, as Nader “spoiled” the election for Gore by diverting just enough votes to throw the election into question. Nevermind that the only truly spoiled vote is the vote for someone other than your first choice, it’s still the leading and most popular argument against third party candidates and the main reason why they can’t get any traction.

But what about approval voting?

You have the same situation: Bush, Gore, and Nader. But this time, if you’re fairly liberal, you can vote for Gore and Nader; you can vote your conscience (if voting for the guy who killed muscle cars is your sense of “conscience”) while at the same time engaging in tactical voting. Neither candidate is truly hurt, and you win. On the flip side, in 2008, you might have written in Ron Paul and voted for him…while simultaneously voting for Bob Barr on the Libertarian Party ticket or McCain (or both!)

The thing is, first past the post system worked in a very different time. It functioned fine in the early days of the republic, when the electorate was very narrow and essentially restricted to wealthy, male, landowners. Even if Candidate A beat Candidate B in a tight race (that old “51% lording it over the 49%” saw), the interests of the two groups were still relatively close, at least as compared to, say, the general population, who couldn’t vote.

But that was 1791. Now it’s 2011. Our electorate has ballooned from a couple of million old white guys to well over 200 million whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, women, men, old, young, some who own property, others who are penniless, some with twelve degrees and an alphabet of postnominal letters,  and some who didn’t even graduate high school. Opinions are not similar at all; they are wild and varied, with no hard and fast lines delinating one school of thought from another. Sure, you have liberals on one hand and conservatives on the other, but then there’s a whole murky purple haze in between where they start to blur together, sometimes leading to socialism, other times leading to libertarianism. And that’s before we get to the infinite variations in each camp! (Or the fact that the political “spectrum” is not based on two points, either.)

Trying to shoehorn this eclectic electorate into two ill-fitting boxes is producing unbelievable amounts of distress and discontent. Part of this is helped along by the media, who try to latch on to the “frontrunner” immediately, then ignore everyone else and push that frontrunner to the top because, well, the voters don’t know anyone else. Part of the Occupy Wall Street crowd are there because they thought they were getting a left-wing president who jived with their viewpoints…but really, thanks to this system, what they got was a slick salesman who was a mishmash of a bunch of ideas that didn’t work well together and certainly didn’t benefit anyone on the ground. I guarantee, no matter who wins the GOP primary and (with all likelihood) the general election in 2012, there will be similar discontent and unhappiness on the Right, because they will not receive a conservative president.

By switching from this antiquated, obsolete, and dsyfunctional electoral system, wholly in hock to Duverger’s Law, and moving towards this modern, responsive, and functional one, we can reap several benefits:


  • “Consensus” Candidates: If group A strongly back Candidate A, and group B strongly back Candidate B, but large parts of both groups also like Candidate C, C will most likely get elected. This will go a long way towards tempering the heated rhetoric and hyperpolarization we’ve seen in the past couple of decades.
  • No Spoiler Effect Means More Independents & Third Party Candidates: Many people would not run on a third party or independent ticket for any office (except maybe at the municipal level) because they fear the “spoiler effect,” which is that they will not get any votes since voters don’t want the other guy to win. Not so with Approval; there will be a much more diverse base of candidates, and more likely there will be someone people will like. The Center for Range Voting, which, admittedly, only prefers Approval Voting as a secondary measure, has this to say:



In any race with more than two candidates, plurality [first-past-the-post] may elect the candidate least acceptable to the majority of voters. This frequently happens in a three-way contest, when the majority splits its votes between two centrist candidates, allowing a more extreme candidate to win. Plurality also forces minor-party candidates into the role of spoilers, as we saw in USA 2000, which can be decisive in a close contest between the major-party candidates. That in turn causes many voters to refuse to vote for their true favorite unless it coincides with one of the two candidates that seem most likely to win – out of a (justified) fear of creating a “spoiler” or “wasted vote” scenario. And that in turn causes third parties to die out over time, causing 2-party domination, which severely reduces voter choice and thus makes democracy work badly.

With approval voting, spoilers do not happen; approving your true favorite is never strategically unwise; approving candidates unlikely to win is no longer “throwing away your vote.”


  • Cleaner Campaigns: One of the worst aspects of modern political campaigns is the mudslingling and negative ads. Nobody likes it, but everyone does it. In a zero-sum game under first-past-the-post, you have to get the electorate to hate your opponent so they will vote for you. Under Approval, however, there is less of an incentive. Sure, they might vote for your opponent…but at the same time, they can vote for you too. There’s less of a need to go negative, and more of an incentive to stay classy and on the level—lest voters think you’re just a nattering nabob of negativity and disapprove of you.
  • Better Candidates: With cleaner campaigns come better candidates. How many would really want to put their hat in the ring for public office, knowing that their every word will be scrutinized, their past will be dug up and aired out for potential scandals, that they will not only be misconstrued but actually demonized in front of millions of people. Some people are masochists who live for that stuff, but I would suspect that the majority of Americans really aren’t in for that sort of thing. They’d rather upload an offensive video to Youtube while using a pseudonym like “Dumbguy999”. With Approval, more will be tempted to run for office, knowing that their time and resources won’t be spent just making sure the public knows he or she isn’t a bat demon from Mars. Who knows: if we implemented Approval years ago, maybe Steve Jobs would have been President of the United States rather than President and CEO of Apple, Inc. (Whether or not that would have been a good thing, I leave up to you, dear reader.)
  • More Libertarianism: Okay, this one is something of a joke, though not entirely. It’s essentially Point #1, but applied. Think about this: since the financial crisis and the non-cessation of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq (plus the expansions in Libya and now Uganda of all places) there has been a not-inconsiderable shift in public opinion towards libertarianism. The problem is that neither party supports this view: they may be fiscally conservative, but also socially conservative, or socially liberal, but also fiscally liberal. What voters would need is some candidate that combines the best of both worlds. Under Approval, those who generally see themselves as more left-wing but supportive of libertarians would vote for both the Democrat and, mayhaps, the Libertarian Party candidate, while the same would happen for those who see themselves as generally right-wing but also supportive of libertarians. Now, true, the majority of people saying they are “libertarian” under these guidelines probably still want their government “services,” but not to pay for them, but with Approval, that might actually register with real libertarian politicians.


Now, there are a few niggling questions. The first is, “But what about ‘one person one vote?’” A very good question, and the answer is: same as it ever was. Under our current system, a “vote” is construed as your entire ballot. Under Approval, you will still have one vote—for each candidate. If you don’t mark a candidate for approval, you don’t get to “save” that vote and use it on another; instead, you’ve effectively voted yourdisapproval on that candidate. All the ballots are weighed the same, nobody receives more votes than another. The Center for Election Science (well, that’s what they call themselves) have a better explanation on the subject than me.

Second, you may have heard of “Instant Runoff Voting,” or IRV. You might be asking: “Why don’t we use that?” Simple: it sucks. No, wait, let me rephrase: it is needlessly complicated, inherently flawed, and extremely susceptible to tactical voting shenanigans. It led to ridiculous absurdities in the 2009 mayoral election in Burlington, Vermont, and the official results of other elections are impossible to decipher for the ordinary voter (thus leading to increased suspicions of “cheating” or election fraud, which is never a good thing.) Approval voting, meanwhile, is practically impervious to tactical voting, and is extremely simple. In fact, the machines and calculations don’t have to be changed at all.

When you look at all this evidence, it’s clear our own voting system has failed us. It can’t cope with all the myriad variations out there, leads to increased antagonism and polarization, and rewards the same tired old views without allowing any new blood in. The real question we must face is: “So how do we get that?” Unfortunately, right now, I do not know. We are in such a hole, with our finances, with our economy, with our national security and foreign policy, it seems difficult to imagine how we will be able to make this a reality.

But maybe that’s the key, right there. Things seem to be breaking down all around us. The old paradigm is being washed away. We saw big flips in 2006 and 2010, as our electorate grows increasingly dissatisfied with the choices presented. Jay Cost wrote back in 2009 that we may be entering another “Jacksonian moment” (bolded emphasis mine.)


We might be on the verge of another Jacksonian moment: a time when the people awake from their slumber, angrily exercise their sovereign authority, and mercilessly fire the leaders who have for too long catered to the elites rather than average people. The first time this happened was in 1828 - when the people rallied to the cause of Old Hickory to avenge the “Corrupt Bargain” of four years prior. It’s happened several times throughout the centuries. Most relevant to today, it happened time and again in the 1880s and 1890s, as the people hired then fired one Republican and Democratic majority after another in search of leaders who could attend to the people’s interests instead of the special interests. That age saw the birth of the Populist Party. It was a time when so many felt so disgruntled by the political process that young William Jennings Bryan - just thirty-six years old and with only two terms in the House - came within a hundred thousand votes of the presidency.

I wonder if we’ve returned to that kind of dynamic. In true Jacksonian fashion, the country fired the Republicans in 2006 and 2008 because they bungled the war in Iraq and allowed the economy to sink into recession. They might soon have another Jacksonian moment, and fire these equally useless Democrats for hampering the recovery, exploding the deficit, and playing politics with health care.

Similar sentiments are expressed in Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch’s new book, Declaration of Independents, where they argue the duopoly of the two parties is not stable, and will eventually give way to something new (and, they additionally argue, libertarian.) I think this is pretty much on the money, mainly because we don’t have any money to pay for either Republicans’ defense programs or Democrats’ social welfare projects, and so these things will go by the wayside one way or another. Maybe in this new environment, we’ll see the plurality vote system go as well, replaced by Approval Voting and cleaner, calmer, easier elections.

May we live in exciting times.


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