Ask any school-kid how decisions get made in a “Democracy” and you’ll get the classic two word answer: “Majority Rule.” Or, if the kid went to school during the Bush administration, “The Vice President tells the President what to do and he orders the army to do it.” But I digress. Many people think that majority rule is the way Democracies make decisions, and they’re right, in general. Unfortunately, popular elections in the U.S.A. actually work off plurality, meaning that whoever gets the most votes wins, even if it’s not a majority.
Though most people don’t realize it, this is a grave systematic mistake in the formulation of our democracy. This structural oversight has resulted in harm to the quality of lives of everyday Americans, and its repercussions undermine our government at every level. The fact is that America, pioneer of democracy and land of high-technology, has about the most primitive voting system imaginable.
All you can say is “I choose this one.” This is nothing less than a restriction on political speech when it matters most, inside the voting booth. Why is this such a big deal? First, extremely counter-intuitive outcomes can emerge that greatly hurt the nation. Second, it’s a self-perpetuating system that makes it nigh-impossible for serious minor parties to emerge (Think about the phrase “third parties.” It’s an oxymoron that shows how little we’ve come to regard the voices of dissent in this nation). In 2000, we all know that George Bush won Florida, and thus the election, basically because a small number of people “wasted” their votes on Ralph Nader. The result is that now, liberals warn their yet-more-liberal friends not to vote for Nader because they might inadvertently give the presidency to another guy like George Bush.
See what’s going on here? Because of the braindead nature of our system, expressing your true preference can result in a worse outcome for you than if you express a false preference. That should already make your brain hurt. The current system also nips minor parties in the bud, before they have a chance to grow and put real pressure on the major parties. This is especially insidious, because these parties are the ones likely to fix the system. The more obvious negative in this equation is the death of accountability. If we can learn anything from economics here, it’s that competition creates accountability. When consumers have real choices, they don’t tend to stick with companies that stick it to them.
Two (supposedly) diametrically opposed parties simply aren’t capable of producing enough competition. In America today, there are many, many people who won’t vote for the other party, no matter how bad their party treats them, because of one wedge issue like guns or abortion. This isn’t (only) a problem with the voters, it’s a problem with the lack of choices in the political marketplace, caused by the limitations on expressing preference. There was an article on the old LSH saying that Libertarians should vote for Obama, and maybe this is true under the current system. The full answer is that we should have a system that lets them vote for a Libertarian first, Obama second, and McCain third. This let’s them express their real priorities: free markets, yes, but not if it means warmongering and a loss of civil liberties.
What’s the solution to the madness? There are two sensible ones: run-offs and preferential voting. A run-off is simple: If no one wins a majority, the top two vote-getting candidates are pitted against each other in a runoff election. Since there’s only two of them, someone must emerge a majority winner (If someone wins a majority the first time, the election’s over, same as our system). Preferential voting is simple too: you just rank the candidates in order according to how much you like them. If your first choice doesn’t win, your vote goes to your second choice, and so on. Perhaps the most talked-about form of preferential voting is IRV (Instant-Runoff Voting).
So here’s the bottom line: Let’s put a stop to all the talk of “wasted votes” and fix this system. Check out .org’s like FairVote that are trying to make this happen. The good news (what little there is) comes from the few local municipalities and even states that are trying to implement these systems, or already have. While major candidates like Barack Obama and John McCain have at one point or another expressed support for IRV, nobody knows that, because it’s not in the public consciousness at the national level. Like almost all real (positive) change, it looks like this one will have to come from the bottom up.