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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 9/17/12

Let's Have More Political Parties

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Paul Cohen
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With well over 200 years of experience using our first-past-the-goal-post system of elections we surely can now judge whether it works as we would hope. There is a wide body of opinion that is dissatisfied with our system, though that opinion is is far from universal. In particular, the small but powerful class of Republican and Democratic office holders support the current system but then again they know what to expect with it and it works well for them, electing them to well-paid powerful positions again and again.

Voters, on the other hand are often not so happy with the system. The two major parties are increasingly unable to cooperate to perform even the most essential business of government. Given the rigid polarization they represent, voters often feel that neither party is adequately serving their interests. But voters often have little choice but between two unattractive choices; one may be a bit less unattractive than the other but at times, neither generates much enthusiasm. Voting for a third party candidate who has no realistic chance of winning only improves prospects for the candidate we judge to be the worst choice, so that is an unpalatable third alternative. This is how our electoral process actually forces us to live with an unsatisfactory two-party system. The spoiler effect, leaves voters without good alternatives.

Are we stuck with such a two party system? Is there no way to escape having election campaigns that are filled with divisive negative advertisements and little honest debate? Surely, it will not be easy to change the entrenched system that powerful forces prefer, but if we insist on change then it is definitely possible.

More parties does seem a better alternative than big parties. If we could find a way to encourage a system with multiple parties of more or less equal size, that alone would make it more difficult to game the system. With such a system, negative advertizing would be of little use. Simply undermining one opponent would not necessarily help any specific one of the other candidates when there are perhaps half a dozen parties with roughly the same size.

Voting is a Local Matter
Voting is a Local Matter
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Voting is a Local Matter by Microsoft
An important avenue of hope is that elections in this country are local or state events. The actual mechanisms of elections are up to individual localities and states, so reform is possible with no need to overcome the hurdle of a constitutional amendment or even change federal law. Compared to reforming the Supreme Court, simply changing the way we conduct elections should be a breeze.

IRV May Not be The Answer

Almost any serious change to our electoral system would reduce the gaming of the system, if only for the few years it takes for those who feel the need learn what works to subvert the new system. That is true of IRV (instant runoff voting) which has been widely discussed as a possible way out. But IRV seems to have other problems. Voters are reported to find IRV complicated and so voting participation has been seen to drop when IRV is adopted. And IRV does not, as hoped, ten to increase the number of competitive parties in elections. To its credit, IRV does allow voters to cast their first preference for minority candidates with less risk of the spoiler effect, but after a round or two of runoffs those minority candidates are dropped from contention and the dominant majority candidates still win. In this way, IRV reinforces the two party duopoly nearly as well as our current system does.

To see how IRV can fail, consider an example where there is a third-party candidate whom every single voter feels is acceptable, maybe even a good second choice for office, but that candidate is no one's first choice. Our consensus candidate receives no first-choice votes so IRV will reject that candidate in the first round. In the end, the winning candidate under IRV might well turn out to be someone who nearly half of the voters detest. That is the way our elections have been for more than 200 years and it is how they would still be even with IRV.

An Example of Another Electoral System

Our current system and IRV suffer from the very same defect, that they place entirely too much emphasis on who voters like. Meanwhile, these familiar voting systems do not even consider something every bit as important and that is the voters' dislikes. Voting ballots never even ask which candidate is unacceptable to the voter.

IRV is not the only alternative to the system we now use. Let's consider another way that we might hold three-way or more-way elections. What if each voter could only cast one anti-vote. The anti-vote is not for but rather against one candidate -- in effect the voter says that all of the other candidates are more acceptable than this particular one. Voters who happen to dislike more than one candidate might well have as much anxiety about choosing that one candidate, but it is likely other voters who share that opinion would cast their own anti-vote against the other one. In the example above, the consensus candidate would likely be the winner, since few if any voters would have cast a vote against the consensus candidate. This is not the only alternative approach to voting, and it is quite possibly not the best, but let us stay with it for a moment more because it is an instructive example.

Voters and the media would need some time to adjust to such a drastic change in our elections. The media in particular would find itself forced to change the way they cover campaigns; but it would be a welcome change. With only negative feelings about a candidate affecting an election, any candidate lucky enough to be completely ignored by the media would have a great advantage; a candidate who is unfamiliar to the voters would quite likely win. But that would not happen because this new reality would force the media to cover all of the candidates -- they would all get to debate and they would be allowed to reveal their agenda to the public. Instead of the media, the voters would become become responsible for deciding which candidates are viable -- and isn't that how it should be in a democracy.

Other Promising Possibilities

The point is that, in a multiple-candidate election, when you give voters a way to express their dissatisfaction with a candidate, that will discourage polarization and it will actually encourage the more competition than we now have in our politics.

But again, this is only an example; there are other possible voting systems that could work as well or even better. The anti-vote could be used alone as in the example, but it could just as easily be added as an alternative, letting voters choose to vote for or against one candidate. A third alternative would be to allow each voter to cast both a vote and an anti-vote. Which is the best of these three alternatives is hard to say with confidence in the absence of actual experience with them, but there is good reason to think that any of the three would be an improvement on the system we now have and which we are so accustomed to. At the very least, adopting any one of them would shake things up and force politicians to invent new ways to game the system and with any luck that would become more difficult.

So far as I know, none of these alternatives has yet been tried in actual elections. Just as IRV has been tested in local elections, giving us some experience with how well it works, we should try some other alternatives. There are surely other approaches than the three options I've suggested, but these give us some approaches to try. The states and localities offer us convenient laboratories of democracy and we should use them to find out whether there is a better way than the one we have been using to conduct our elections.

All three of these systems discourage candidates from offending blocks of voters but of the three systems, I would lean toward the third system in which each voter casts one positive and one negative vote. This system seems to grant less of a clear advantage to a little known candidate. To win (once the media and the voters have adapted to the new system), someone running for office would have to have significant positive support without offending very many voters. Also, with this vote&anti-vote system, more information about the preferences of voters is collected and and taken into account, so the outcome seems to have a better chance to reflect true aggregate voter sentiment. But this is intuitive guess-work at best. What is needed is to try out some alternatives in real elections to see what works and what does not.

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Attended college thanks to the generous state support of education in 1960's America. Earned a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Illinois followed by post doctoral research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. (more...)

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