It’s about that time, every four years, when we begin to look at the dysfunctional methods by which we elect our presidents. We get the obligatory crop of articles about the idiotic electoral college, but of course the problem extends way beyond that.
A couple of weeks ago I was exchanging heated e-mails with a good friend who’s supporting Nader, and of course she was advocating for opening our process up a lot more to third parties. That would certainly be a step in the right direction, but it’s credulous to think that that would bring about any real change. Third parties are successful exactly to the extent that they drain votes from whomever would be the second choice of their voters, usually splitting the vote and handing the election to the least-favored candidate. Some envision a true multi-party system, with five or six factions forced to form ad-hoc coalitions, and nobody operating under the illusion of having majority support. But this is the system they have in Europe, and politics do not work demonstrably better there than they do under our system.
But look: we’re living in a time of some pretty big changes right at this moment, and thinking big about our political system doesn’t seem as out-of-bounds as it might have before. So there are two questions to tackle. One, if we were starting with a clean slate, what sort of system would we want to put into place. Two, how to go about enacting that system.
So, election theory gets extremely thorny extremely fast, with various systems having their various pros and cons (note: the system we currently use is generally considered the least ideal for elections of more then two candidates). Let’s take as our starting point the system that Ze Frank used (transcript here)for electing the winner of the “I Knows Me Some Ugly MySpace Contest” (the silliness of the candidates has no bearing on the validity of the process). The election takes place in two rounds. In the first round, each voter gets ten votes, to be distributed as they choose among the candidates. Take this election as an example. You might choose to give five votes to Obama, three to Nader, and two to McKinney. You might give all 10 to McCain. Whatever. Votes get tallied, results announced, and a run-off election is held with the top two candidates from the first round. This time of course everyone just gets one vote. Under this system, even if you put all 10 of your votes in the first round toward a looser, you have a viable second choice you can vote for in the run-offs. Under this system, the influence of each party is clearly demonstrated even if it does not produce a winning candidate, and that in itself is a boon for democracy.
The classic objection to this system is that voter turnout is already low in our country, and asking voters to turn out twice is unreasonable. The obvious solution to this is internet voting. I’ve argued here here that the concerns over security are at least as easily overcome as security concerns surrounding paper ballot voting, but suffice it to say that if online banking can be secure there’s no reason online voting can’t.
So assuming that’s the system we want to go with, the next big question is how we get there. Since the electoral college is written into the constitution, it’s not going to be by bringing a trial and getting it to the Supreme Court. Procedures for amending the constitution from Wikipedia:
[A]mendments may be proposed by the United States Congress or by a national convention assembled at the request of the legislatures of at least two-thirds of the several states. To become valid, amendments must then be ratified by either the legislatures of or ratifying conventions held in three-fourths of the several states[.]
That’s quite a hurdle, and don’t expect current politicians, who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, to go along easily. What’s required is a major grass-roots effort. Since the hurdle for the state-originated amendments is higher then for the Congressional route, what’s required is an effort directed at congressional candidates. Get a movement going, get candidates in close elections on board, and who knows — one day we might actually fix this thing.
Update: Kottke points to another alternative voting scheme that attempts to do something like what I’ve proposed, but in one step: Majority judgement.
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