Sunday, March 13, 2005

Out of the Box

While perusing Matt Yglesias's blog, I couldn't help but notice that one of his titles looked startling familiar... I can't imagine that Matt reads the Renaissance Men, so we can only assume he's aware of Bismarck's famous quote. However, even without the title grabbing my attention, the content of his entry sparked my interest.
"The real world, obviously, involves political constraints on what's realistically doable... That said, I think it's a problem when commentators leap too quickly to take these constraints as given when talking about policy ideas, because writing in that way winds up re-enforcing the constraints, whether or not the constraints are good ideas."
While Matt brings up the concepts of taxation and health care, I thought I'd go a different direction, to something I've felt strongly about for a while. In case anybody hadn't noticed, I tend to focus on the seemingly eternal struggle between the Democratic and Republican parties, and how one party can manage to win the plurality of the vote. Step out of the box with me, and realize that our very voting system is critically flawed.

With our current system, plurality voting, each citizen gets one vote, each candidate gets a percentage of the votes, and the one who captures the most votes wins. Seems simple enough. But it has repeatedly produced candidates supported by less than half the populace, doing exactly what it was designed not to do. In the 2002 elections in France, unabashedly racist Le Pen received 17% of the vote, second only to Chirac, with 20%. Fortunately, France allows for a runoff between the top candidates, and Chirac was overwhemlingly chosen. The United States has no such provisions to its plurality vote.

The runoff solution which helps France is not the answer to American partisanship, since our two-party system would hardly be affected. Instead, I advocate the implementation of Approval Voting. In such a program, citizens can vote for as many candidates as they like, whichever ones they 'approve of'. Instead of having a percent of the vote totaling 100%, each candidate would individually have a percent of the voters who approve of them, from 0-100. This system would fix the flaws left in our two-party plurality system.

For one thing it would get rid of what I call the Nader effect. There would be no more talk of 'throwing away a vote' by supporting a candidate who accurately reflects your views but is unlikely to win. In the same vein, voters would no longer feel as if they are taking away from the preferred mainstream candidate by voting for a third party in close elections. In allowing voters to support multiple candidates, third parties would have a greater chance of receiving votes, and enabling more voices to be heard. Even if the third party candidates are not elected, they could affect the others' campaigns merely by being a viable alternative.

The idea behind two-party plurality vote is that the candidates will be forced to move center in order to capture the most votes, thus preventing any extreme candidates. However, this view is overly simplistic, attempting to put the scale of American politics on a single axis of right vs. left. There are social, economic, and international interests to consider, which have only aligned themselves into right/left due to the necessity forced upon American politics by the two-party system.

There are multiple examples of how plurality voting does not accurately reflect the will of the people. When a party is divided, there is little chance of that party winning the election, such as in the 1912 elections. The two Republican candidates Roosevelt and Taft split the majority of the vote allowing Wilson to win, though most voters would have preferred either of the Republicans. If 1912 is too far back, how about 2000, when we can assume Nader supporters would rather Gore over Bush, and took the electoral votes from him in Florida. There is no denying that things have gone wrong, and there is no indication that 2000 was the last time.

Approval voting has been instituted in a few places, most notably the Secretary General of the UN, and even in the United States, where it was used for internal elections for parties in Pennsylvania. I can find no constitutional law forbidding the use of approval voting, I do not believe our current two parties would support any changes that would open the field. But with fresh examples such as the 2000 election in people's minds, perhaps there will be sufficient dissatisfaction in the future that something will be done. I urge you all to look into it, either at the Approval Voting Homepage, or a colorful, easy-to-read explaination, if I was unclear.

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