Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Process of a fair election

Today I voted for the first time since Bob Dole ran against Bill Clinton in 1996, and the experience of going to the polls calls my attention to two huge flaws in the American electoral process that I feel we should all be talking about. So, straying briefly from theology, here are my criticisms of, and proposals for, the two dynamics that I think ruin American politics.

PROBLEM ONE: You have to vote for a winner.

I have a housemate and another good friend who are strong supporters of Ron Paul, and I have a lot of sympathy for their choice. In particular, he’s the only candidate in either party who is opposed to both abortion and the Iraq war. I also like Barack Obama (whom I voted for today), but I have to admit that I would strongly consider giving my support to Paul instead, except for one thing: Ron Paul can’t win.

Normally, I believe in making decisions based on principle, but in this case the situation is more complicated. Aside from liking Obama as a leader (which I do), I’m also concerned about the alternatives.

To put it as briefly as I can, I don’t think Hillary can beat McCain or Romney, so a vote for anyone but Obama in the democratic primary simply makes it more likely that Clinton will win the nomination and that, therefore, McCain or Romney will be our next president.

Now, I could support Ron Paul as a Republican, but I don’t think he has a shot to win the nomination. And I can only vote in one Massachusetts primary — either Democrat or Republican. That means, paradoxically, that I am forced into a situation where a vote for Ron Paul basically amounts to a vote for McCain/Romney.

Some of this is unavoidable, especially in this case since it wouldn’t make sense to let everyone vote in both primaries — then we’d really see political games going on. But the problem in our system is that Ron Paul might actually have a shot to win if people were voting for exactly who they wanted, without worrying that it might help someone else win. Paul has a lot of appeal, but I’m sure there are many people who won’t vote for him simply because it would help one of the other candidates.


There’s a clear (though only partial) solution here, that would complicate our current electoral process, but that I think is worthwhile. I’ll describe how it would work in the primaries.

The only truly just way to have an election with multiple candidates is to require a candidate to get more than 50% of the total vote in order to win. That way, if 60% of the Democrats don’t want Clinton, she can’t win the nomination with 40% just because the rest of the voters split 30/30 for Obama and Edwards. So none of those 60% percent have to worry about inadventently helping Clinton by voting for Obama or Edwards.

The way this works is, if no one gets 50% (which is likely in this case), you drop the lowest vote-getters from the ballot and then have a run-off election. I would suggest the best way to do this would be to keep the top four candidates, provided they each got at least 10% of the vote. Among the Democrats, you’d probably end up with Obama/Clinton/Edwards, and among the Republicans it would probably be McCain/Romney/Huckabee/Paul.

If someone in the run-off gets more than 50%, they win. But if they don’t (which would probably be the case in both parties this time), then you drop the lowest vote-getter and run it again.

This doesn’t solve the problem completely. For example, I still couldn’t support Hillary in the primary because I don’t think she can beat the Republicans in the general election. However, what this system does do is help candidates like Ron Paul — candidates who have a lot of supporters, but whom people doubt can really win.

The key point is that a vote for Paul in this system makes it no more likely that McCain or Romney will win. So for example, if I just want anyone but Romney, a vote for any of the other Republican candidates will take away from the number of votes Romney needs to get 50%. Once voters feel freer to vote for the candidate they actually want, Paul might end up having enough real supporters to beat Huckabee, which would leave McCain/Romney/Paul for the third run-off.

But — and here’s the key point — even if he doesn’t win, everyone who wanted Paul had the opportunity to vote for him. If it turns out that he doesn’t have enough support to make it to the next ballot, then the people who voted for him get to choose which of the other candidates to give their support to in the run-off. Not only has Paul been given a fair shot at winning (since he didn’t lose the votes of people who were scared of helping someone else), but also his supporters still get a voice in who the nominee will be, among the remaining candidates.

The same process would hold in the general election, which would give a third-party candidate (like Perot or Nader) a fair shot, for all the same reasons I’ve described.

People would object to this system because run-offs would require people to vote more than once, on different days. Also, you’d have a somewhat different electorate for each run-off, since different people would be busy or out of town each day. However, in light of the resources that America already pours into its absurdly long, year-and-a-half presidential election, surely people could find the time to vote three or four times in January and three of four times again in November.

PROBLEM TWO: The only real contests are in swing states

This is the common complaint about the electoral college, which many people think should be replaced with a direct popular vote. That could work, but you still have the problem that each person is only one out of tens of millions of votes, so no one vote seems particularly important.

I think an even better system would be to keep the electoral college, but for each state to divide up its delegates according to the percentage of the state-wide popular vote.

So imagine living in Texas, as I did, when George W. Bush was nominated in 2000. It was so obvious that he would win the state, that I didn’t bother to vote. People who supported him had no reason to doubt that he would beat Gore, and people who supported Gore knew they had no chance of taking the state.

But imagine if Texas’s 34 delegates were assigned by percentage of the state-wide popular vote. Then Democrats would have real hope of winning some delegates, and Republicans couldn’t just sit back knowing they would win the state. Each party would be fighting over real delegates that they had a real chance of winning or losing to the other side. We would no longer have the kind of nonsense from 2000, where Florida could swing the entire election with all of its 27 delegates having to go to one party or the other. Plus, a third-party candidate could win a substantial number of delegates nation-wide even if he or she couldn’t command a majority in a large state.

What’s more, because the parties would be fighting for delegates (rather than just having a national popular vote), a few thousand votes could swing an entire delegate, which could have a recognizable impact on the national election. There would be a real reason to campaign for your candidate locally, and a real reason to try to get out the vote. I have to think this would give a substantial boost to voter participation, and it would also increase the likelihood that the electoral college would mirror the national popular vote.


Both of these suggestions have varying degrees of difficulty.

Having a run-off in the general election would require a constitutional amendment, so it seems the least likely to work out. At the primary level, however, I believe each state’s party can decide on its own procedures, so I see no reason why at least some states couldn’t adopt this kind of system right away.

Concerning the logistical complexity of having repeated run-offs, we might be able to solve the problem by setting up a virtual run-off, where each voter would rank their choices for president. For the first ballot, only first choices would be counted. But if a run-off was necessary, we would simply re-count all the same ballots, but for anyone whose first choice was no longer on the ballot, their second choice would be counted as their vote — and so on, until a candidate won more than 50% of the votes. News broadcasts could do a quick breakdown of each election to show how the various candidates were eliminated and what percentage of the vote they received in each run-off. This would work better in the primary election, since it would be difficult to have states assign their delegates to the electoral college in the same way. Of course, if we went to a national popular vote, this system would make sense at the national level.

As to dividing up states’ delegates according to state-wide popular vote, the difficulty is that the Republican voters of Texas aren’t going to want to pass a law that gives some of their delegates to the Democrats each election, any more than the Democratic voters of Massachusetts are going to want to give up delegates to the Republicans. So this method of choosing delegates would be the most feasible in swing states, where there is no clear majority that wants to protect its block vote. And since the constitution allows each state to decide how to choose its delegates, we can’t simply pass a federal law to change the system.

The other possibility is for various state legislatures to get together and make a binding agreement to apportion their delegates according to state-wide popular vote. (There has been recent talk of a similar suggestion using the national popular vote, but I’ll leave that to anyone else who wants to explain it.) There would have to be enough red states and enough blue states in on the deal, in order for people to feel that the agreement would result in a just election. For it to be truly fair, I think it would require all 50 states plus DC, so it’s hard to imagine how it would happen.

A constitutional amendment, dictating how states must choose their delegates, might be the only way to make it work.

I’d love to get some good discussion here. Surely our presidential elections demand a better system than what we have, but we need solutions that are feasible.


Micah said...

I think a lot of this gets solved, especially in the primaries, if people would just vote for the person they think is the best candidate for President (not the candidate most likely to win). When you start trying to make your vote “count” I think it subverts the democratic process. You vote counts simply as long as you vote. It may not result in an outcome that you want, but that is being part of a community. It seems sad that elections simply turn into contests of who do I dislike the least.

Matthew said...

Ron Paul and Barack Obama seem to have some pretty significant differences. Paul’s philosophy about the legislature seems to be pretty libertarian … in other words, you can’t use government to do social programs like welfare and social security, and Business reigns supreme. Do you line up with Paul on those things, or is there some other reason you’d consider him?

texpat said...

1. Given that 3 of the 4 candidates would make fine presidents and have large, enthusiastic constituencies, I can’t agree that American politics are in ruin.

2. Ron Paul is a fringe guy. His appeal lies in his ideological purity. By definition, he has no chance.

3. Proportional voting is a nice idea, but it will never happen. A constitutional amendment requires 2/3 of both houses of congress + 3/4 of the states. Swing states won’t give up their attention, small states won’t give up their disproportionate influence, and Republicans won’t give up their love for majoritarian politics.

scoots said...

@Micah: I’m trying to be pragmatic. I don’t think there’s any way you can ever get everyone to simply vote for who they want, so I’m trying to think of ways that the system can overcome that. To put it another way, I don’t think you can persuade people to change the way they vote (and by “way,” I mean how they go about making their decision–obviously you can persuade people to vote for someone different). So, the alternative is to find the best system to work with what people will predictably do.

@Jeremy: Whatever you think of Ron Paul, there still are a certain number of people who are going to vote for him or any other fringe candidate, and I think the nation would be better off if those same people ended up having input in choosing between McCain and Romney. So yeah, the system I’m pushing would help fringe candidates only marginally, but it would make the selection of the major candidate more reflective of the will of the people too. As for the impossibility of proportional voting, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re right–but I still find that depressing. Even if the candidates are worthy, the process should be worthy as well.

@Matt: I have no great defense here, except to say that I don’t like what *any* of the candidates want to use the government for. I like Obama for his character and the way he seems to engage ideas (I know that’s vague), and I feel like he will genuinely engage our real social problems–but I’m guessing the way he’ll push to solve them will be more liberal than I would prefer. I like Ron Paul for his stance against the war, foreign intervention, and abortion.

Other than that, I honestly haven’t read enough about issues to have a real opinion — that’s why I tried to focus on process instead of ideology.

texpat said...

the new york times compares obama to a mac and hillary to a pc. i’m afraid the analogy is apt:

While Apple’s ad campaign maligns the PC by using an annoying man in a plain suit as its personification, it is not clear that aligning with the trendy Mac aesthetic is good politics. The iPod may be a dominant music player, but the Mac is still a niche computer. PC, no doubt, would win the Electoral College by historic proportions (with Mac perhaps carrying Vermont).

Daldianus said...

Why don’t you just vote for Huckabee??? He seems to have God’s support since God makes people vote for him! Well, that’s at least what Huckabee claims …..

likwidshoe said...

You like Obama as a leader? That’s funny. The guy voted “present” 130 times in the Senate.

Where is his leadership? The Marxist can’t even take a stand on issues that he is tasked on voting.

scoots said...

Sorry, likwidshoe, but I’m a moderate, and my eyes glaze over as soon as you use “Marxist” as a blanket insult. I support social programs, as flawed as they admittedly are, and I don’t think a person has to support the abolition of private property in order to hold the position I hold.

In all honesty, I don’t really know enough about politics to know what voting “present” means, so unfortunately I can’t give anything like an adequate response. I think that puts me on par with the vast majority of Americans, which could raise questions as to why I should get to vote, but then we do live in a representative democracy.

Anyway, I lend no credibility at all to simple numbers like voting records, unless they’re put into some context. You know: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

I think voting for a president is generally a crap-shoot, and my gut says Obama gives us the best chance of not running the country further into the ground. Granted that it’s risky, e.g., to remove the troops from Iraq quickly, but I’m convinced it would be more damaging to our nation to leave them there. Sincere people can disagree, but I have to vote as best I can.

texpat said...

1. likwidshoe’s comment is a non sequitur. Saying yea or nay in a rollcall vote is not leadership. Leadership occurs where somebody inspires a group of people to pursue common goals. Obama does that better than anyone I’ve ever seen.

2. The votes referred to were not in the US Senate, but in the Illinois senate, where voting “present” is a common practice.