Election Reform: Aren't We Overdue

Here's The Overview

The solution to the problems of democracy tends to be more democracy. Electoral Reform is a permanent feature of any democracy.

Butterfly Ballots, Voter Purges, Hanging Chads, Supreme Court intervention and other questionable activities and whimsical terms dominated the news after the 2000 presidential election. In the aftermath, election officials promised to reform the balloting system in progressively challenged areas such as Florida. But as welcome as such changes are, I fear they fall short of addressing a more important issue: The larger problem of the election was the failure to properly handle the presence of a third party.

The Democratic party is not the first to suffer at the hands of a third party, spoiler, Ross Perot’s candidacy in 1992 made major inroads into Republican support, no doubt helping Bill Clinton (The conservative Perot earned 19% of the popular vote in 1992). The Republicans may justifiably feel satisfaction in their victory with the help of Ralph Nader’s candidacy. But as a society, we should see this as a serious flaw in our electoral system.

While the domination of our system by two parties has become generally accepted as a modern tradition in our nation, it was certainly not intended by the founders of our republic. But it seems to be a natural outcome of an electoral system which forces the voter to choose only one candidate for each position. Clearly, many voters are discouraged from voting for a candidate who does not seem likely to win. Such a vote is wasted in terms of selecting the winner of the race.

New political parties must gather sufficient votes in order to build public awareness and to qualify for Federal matching funds. The two main established parties, who already have vast resources, always qualify for Federal matching funds, while new parties who need the funds most, rarely get the votes necessary to qualify because people are afraid to waste their votes and end up with a candidate they disapprove of winning the election. Thus our electoral system effectively perpetuates the ‘two party system’.

While the members of the major parties are probably satisfied with this situation, we don’t have to be. There are many systems for running elections. Elections are held by corporations, by sporting bodies and at all levels of government in this world’s many nations, using a variety of electoral systems. These systems are not ‘experimental’ in that they have been in use for many years, and we can study the results of the elections under these systems.

I propose that we should encourage the adoption of better election systems at all levels. But, given that our current electoral system is flawed, what are the alternatives? There are actually many systems for running elections, but I find two of them especially noteworthy: Approval Voting and Instant Runoff Voting.

Approval Voting

This system is very simple. Each voter can vote for as many candidates as she wants. The votes are tallied. The candidate with the most votes wins. At first reading approval voting may seem strange, as it is so different from our present system. However approval voting is very simple for the voter and the ballots are easy to count. Approval voting has been found to be a very fair and straightforward system in practice. Try it yourself next time you’re trying to decide where to eat with a group of people. Approval voting is a great way to reach a compromise that is more acceptable to the group.

For example, imagine four people going out to lunch. The closest restaurants are Stellar Salad, Burger Clown and Steak Roundup.

Jim is a vegetarian, so he likes Stellar Salad. But Steak Roundup is also OK because they have Baked Potato.

Betty wants to eat at a nice place, so she loves Steak Roundup.

Pat doesn’t want to spend much. Pat approves of Burger Clown.

Bill loves to eat meat. He wants to go to Burger Clown, but Steak Roundup is also OK.

Jim: Stellar Salad, Steak Roundup

Betty: Steak Roundup

Pat: Burger Clown

Bill: Burger Clown, Steak Roundup

Total Votes: Stellar Salad:1 Burger Clown:2 Steak Roundup:3

Under simple preference voting, Burger clown would have won. Two people would be happy, two unhappy. This demonstrates how simple preference voting tends to polarize people.

Under Approval Voting, Steak Roundup wins. One person is very happy, two are satisfied. Only Pat is inconvenienced. Approval voting is a good way to choose an option that is acceptable to the most people.

Instant Runoff Voting

Instant runoff voting is a little more complex than Approval voting. Voters rank the candidates from most to least favorite. If there is no clear winner, the candidate who did poorest is removed from all ballots and the ballots are recounted. This process is repeated until a clear winner emerges. Instant Runoff Voting is currently being promoted by several alternative political parties and organizations.

Clearly, both Approval Voting and Instant Runoff Voting are superior to our current system in that they allow us more flexibility in choosing which candidates best represent our interests.

Cost: Some may object that these systems are more complicated than our current system. In the case of Approval Voting this is certainly untrue. In the case of IRV keep in mind that votes are tabulated by computers. It is very easy, once the numbers are collected, to have as many runoffs as needed to decide the winner.

But what if I don’t like ANY of the candidates? For example, what if there is only ONE candidate, and I do not approve. We can add 1 more choice to the ballot ‘None of the Above’. If the majority of the voters disapprove of all the candidates, the election should be run again, with a new set of candidates.

Electoral College

Another problem is the Electoral College: Originally designed to protect the interests of smaller states from being overwhelmed by the interests of the more populous states, the Electoral College system for electing the President and Vice President of the United States served an important function when it was created, in the latter part of the 18th century. Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, many people feel strongly that it is time to retire the noble but perhaps imperfect and outdated institution of the Electoral College, to be replaced by a simple direct vote or other straightforward means of electing the US President and Vice President.

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