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Parties -- What Are They Good For?

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Message Paul Cohen
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In 1969, Edwin Starr

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asked a similar question about war and he then provided the answer, Absolutely Nothing!

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The same answer has some initial appeal here, but I'd not go quite so far with regard to political parties. Several useful services that political parties provide are mentioned in an earlier article. The most important service of having two dominant political parties -- at least for a country that uses plurality voting - is to winnow down the field of candidates so that the final election has the luxury of deciding between just two candidates. That is important because plurality voting is incapable of making reasonable decisions when there are additional candidates.

But political parties also provide connections and guidance to prospective candidates and are sometimes even helpful in providing funding for them. Unfortunately, with just two significant political parties, these two dominant parties become centers of great power themselves and we are reminded of the adage that power corrupts. To paraphrase that saying a bit, we might add that great power corrupts greatly. Our two major parties persist in their status as great powers much as a dominant corporation retains its power. Once established, a powerful entity remain powerful, simply by virtue of being powerful. Being powerful enables it to undermine and eliminate less powerful competitors.

Most of this series of articles has focused on how we might end the two-party duopoly. This may eventually happen but the prospects of such a development soon seems remote. But that raises the question of whether there is some way we could better accommodate the widespread use of plurality voting.

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In theory, we have at least the potential for elections involving many candidates. Occasionally it even happens. In 2016 it happened in the early Republican primaries and in 2000 it happened in the early Democratic primaries. Iowa and New Hampshire can often choose between a wide range of possibilities but candidates tend to steadily withdrew as their funding and media attention dwindles. Many voters, perhaps most, find only two or three candidates on their ballots to choose from while the media assures them that only one or sometimes two that have any chance of winning nomination.

Moreover, even those states with early primaries find themselves voting with a deeply flawed system, plurality voting. Even though voters in these states can often choose from many candidates, they have to depend on a voting system that is supremely unsuited even for a voter to accurately express an opinion of more than one candidate. With several candidates to choose from and only the ability to indicate a first-choice, the voter's ballot cannot indicate what is often a much more complex combination of judgements about the various candidates. In 2016 the final choice for president was between two candidates, both of whom were opposed by a majority of voters. This may seem shocking but it is not at all a surprising outcome when in the primaries, those voters never had a way to do much more than fret about their opposition to one or another candidate.

Is there any reason not to experiment with using alternative voting systems in some state primaries? That is where we do often see multiple candidates and where the need for a better voting system is more apparent. It seems clear that plurality voting served the Republican Party poorly in the 2016 primaries so one might think they would feel motivated to consider a better way of voting. But the Republican Party is our conservative party and following tradition is a core value to conservatives. They would for this reason seem unlikely to be the party to forge an experiment in better voting.

One has to look a little harder at the 2016 Democratic primaries to understand that Democrats too might have fared better in the general election if they had used a balanced voting system in the primaries. They too nominated a candidate with significant opposition from what would otherwise be their base. More importantly, Democratic primaries often involve more than just two candidates; 2016 was more the exception in this respect than the rule.

There is some hope of change coming from the major parties, but that does not really seem particularly likely. Perhaps it will be the major party primary elections where we see some experimentation with better voting systems, but even the more progressive of the major parties suffers from the inertia that makes it averse to risking the power it now has.

But let me suggest yet another possibility and that is to establish a new party -- the name does not really matter, but lets call it the Open Election Party. As that name implies, the OEP would be open to whoever wants to throw their hat into the ring and run for the OEP nomination. The OEP might just bypass the government sanctioned primaries altogether and use mail-in ballots or some other approach to allow any citizen to vote in a series of elections (using balanced voting systems) to select a single candidate to become the nominee of the OEP. The series of (perhaps only two or three) elections could be along the line of the two suggested in an earlier article.

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Compared to the other parties, the novel openness of the OEP and its approach of giving the entire voting public help decide its candidate, might just give it a real chance to compete against the existing major parties. But even if not, even if the OEP does not gain ballot access in many states, it could become an important player in elections. Candidates for nomination in other parties could run for the OEP nomination with the understanding that if the candidate wins in both the other party and in the OEP elections then OEP would withdraw from the general election but would instead endorse the candidate for its election as the other party's candidate. Presumably this could become an important endorsement that would encourage even the major-party candidates to run for the OEP nomination.

(Article changed on December 15, 2016 at 12:04)


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A concerned citizen and former mathematician/engineer now retired and living in rural Maine.
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Series: "Balanced Voting"

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Series: "Balanced Voting"

A Voter's Quandry (Article) (# of views) 12/10/2018
Opposites (Article) (# of views) 10/20/2018
A First Experience with Ranked Voting (Article) (# of views) 06/13/2018
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