Our system of electing people to political office is broken.
There are two culprits: the way we finance campaigns and the two-party system that locks out potential challengers.
The Supreme Court’s decision on the Citizens United case has undermined our system of choosing leaders, and we hope that one day, despite the entrenched self-interest of incumbent legislators, a Constitutional amendment will clearly distinguish soulless corporations from thoughtful people.
But what can we do about the two-party system? Clearly, political parties are necessary to provide the support, guidance, and infrastructure for budding candidates to become viable. But why only two?
There have been many attempts at third parties – a small number have had sporadic election victories, but most are unblemished by success. Why? Because our system of electing the person with the most votes encourages this duality of choices.
Let’s say there’s an exciting candidate for a legislative seat who attracts a significant minority of the electorate. She may garner 20 percent of the vote while the traditional Republican and Democratic candidates split the remaining vote – each getting around 40 percent. So the traditional party candidate who gets a few more votes than the other traditional party candidate wins, even though 60 percent of the electorate voted against him. Strong third party candidates often become spoilers.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Many countries and some states and cities in America have alternative voting systems that encourage more choice. There are several systems that fall into this category, often referred to as “ranked” or “preferential” voting.
Having lived through a national election in Australia, I’ll describe how that nation’s system of preferential voting works in the election of Members of Parliament. There may be several names on the ballot (in my suburban Melbourne district, there were a few dozen people vying for a single seat). Voters cast their ballot by rank – they select their first choice, second choice, etc., going down the entire ballot. If one candidate garners over fifty percent of first-choice votes, that person is the winner. Otherwise, the second choice votes for each candidate are added, and this continues through third, fourth, etc., choices until a candidate goes over the fifty percent threshold.
Voting becomes more strategic, and the electorate needs to be better educated on the positions of more candidates. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Let’s take a hypothetical (and admittedly contrived) look at how this might work in New Jersey. Imagine a legislative race with the following candidates:
Sam: A hand-selected candidate of the South Jersey political machine.
Sally: A progressive candidate in the Elizabeth Warren mold.
Sue: A pro-business advocate of “trickle-down” economics but a social moderate supporter of minority rights.
Billy Bob: A Trumpster who opposes immigration, marriage equality, and gun safety
Now imagine the following election results in a preferential system. To keep the math simple, assume there are 100 voters in this election.
First choice votes:
Billy Bob: 10
The machine put a lot of money into the election, and Sam got 45% of the votes. In today’s system, he would win the seat without a majority of the electorate. But the people who voted for Sam share many of the same values that are in Sally’s platform, so many picked her as their second choice. In fact, the second choice votes were as follows:
Billy Bob: 16
This gives Sally 61 votes and Sam 57, so Sally is the winner.
A preferential voting system would dilute the influence of the two major parties (that’s good) and would encourage more candidates to step up, especially those who might resonate with the broad electorate.
Naysayers might argue that this would lead to a more dysfunctional legislature, given the amount of horse-trading and strife we see in multi-party European parliaments. But I contend that we’re also there with the current system. Sure, we may have a Democratic majority in our state legislature, but how many “Democratic” parties do we really have? The Murphy Party, the Sweeney/Norcross Party, the DiVincenzo Party, etc.
On a local level, even where we have non-partisan elections, a preferential voting system might encourage more outsiders with new ideas to step up and run for council and mayoral positions regardless of where the establishment stands.
Such changes will not be easy. There are certainly pitfalls and there will be a tremendous amount of resistance from the establishment. Moving such an initiative to the national level will be even more challenging, as a Constitutional amendment might be required. But if we start small, and enfranchize voters who believe that the machine, not they, choose the candidates, we’ll be off to a good start.
(Featured Image: Australia Electoral Commission)