Why the U.S. election method sucks.

Nov 5, 2008

(Although, as much as it sucks, it still manages to work out sometimes — like last night.)

Often people whine about having to choose between the lesser of two evils, not wanting to throw away their vote on a candidate they really prefer, but who has no chance of winning. Or worse, the dumber ones among them refuse to compromise and go ahead and waste their vote on a third party candidate who has no chance of winning. And I do mean waste.

Not all votes for a third party are wasted. If polls are showing that a third party candidate does indeed have a viable chance, then a vote for that third party candidate would not be wasted. In 1992, when Ross Perot ran as an Independent, and got almost 19% of the popular vote. That’s a good enough showing that I would not call a vote for Ross Perot “throwing your vote away.” Likewise, if you really do have no preference between the major party candidates, then I suppose a third party vote does not amount to throwing your vote away, but this possibility seems unrealistic or the result of ignorance, most likely. How could a knowledgeable voter really have no preference between two major party candidates? But, when polls are showing clearly that a third party candidate has no realistic chance, with the percentage of people who say they’ll vote for him polling in as single digit figures, and one does have a preference between the major two candidates, then a vote for that candidate really is throwing your vote away.

The problem with our voting system here in the U.S. (and most places with voting systems) is that they allow the voter to express an opinion about only one candidate. In a three way race, a voter may have opinions about all three candidates. He may have a favorite which he prefers to the other two, but among those remaining two, he may also have a preference. If the remaining two are the major party candidates while his true favorite is a thrid party candidate with no chance of winning, if a voter votes for his true favorite he must abstain from expressing a preference between the remaining two candidates, even if he has a strong preference for one over the other. This is the central problem with our one man one vote for one candidate voting system. It mathematically enforces a two party system because voters can express only a preference for a single candidate and cannot convey to the election system any information about preferences among candidates for which they do not vote.

This creates the problem of “spoilers,” in which popular — but not popular enough to win — third party candidates can “steal” votes away from the two main parties and tilt an election in a direction that most of the people do not want it to go. Many people think this is what happened in the 2000 U.S. presidential election, the theory being that most of those voting for Ralph Nader would had voted for Al Gore if Nader had not been an option, and had Nader not run, Al Gore would have won. And if an election is tilted in a direction that most people do not want it to go, the entire point of the election — to get things to go in a direction most people want — has been subverted.

How to fix this: Condorcet or instant runoff election method. (Edit: Dec 6, 2008: See the comments for more about instant runoff vs. Condorcet.)

In these election methods, voters do not simply vote for a single candidate, they rank their choices in order of preference. This means for example, if your true preference was for say, Ralph Nader, you wouldn’t have to throw your vote away to express this. You simply rank him first, and rank the remaining candidates in the order you prefer.

This would eliminate the effect our current voting system has of mathematically crushing third parties out of existence.

However, in order to get a sane voting system, a Constitutional amendment is required. This is an incredibly difficult thing to accomplish, made all the more difficult by the fact that incumbents elected under our current system are benefactors of the effects of our third-party-crushing system, and have no reason to want to change it. So I’m not holding my breath.

I’m just sick of the third party supporters insisting that they aren’t throwing their vote away when most of the time it is clearly a certainty they are throwing their vote away.

~ by scaryreasoner on November 5, 2008.

3 Responses to “Why the U.S. election method sucks.”

  1. Instant runoff is pretty popular as an alternative voting system. However, I’m not so sure that it’s a whole lot better. I do like Condorcet, though Range voting also seems promising.

    Now, ideally, I would like to see the Senate as it currently is set up replaced by a nation-wide proportional representation scheme of some sort, but I know that that is probably out of reach, as that would require unanimity from all states.

    But on the whole, I agree that plurality voting sucks.

  2. I’m not sure I really understand your objections to instant runoff, though from what I remember reading (a long time ago) Condorcet did seem the better option (thoogh a bit more complicated to do, iirc).

    There used to be a site (wayback machine archive of) electionmethods.org that seemed quite good, but then the owner of it got pissed and decided the election method didn’t matter so long as the people were ignorant (oddly I think he liked Bush? I remember thinking it very strange, hence my digging around on archive.org to find the old site, and squirrelling that link away). Now it seems that it is either unoccupied, or occupied by a domain squatter.

    Ah, digging around on that archive: The problem with instant runoff voting.

    Thanks for reminding me of that.

  3. I don’t like really like IRV and I don’t like the Condorcet method for regular voters. With a Cordorcet method, I’m afraid that voters will bury candidates they don’t like with candidates they don’t know and someone could accidentally get elected. I do think a Condorcet method would be a great way to elect a Prime Minister or a Speaker of the House though.

    I think the best voting method is to replace party primaries with non-partisan primaries that use approval voting to get the top two. This would make it much easier for voters to vote on issues and it could create some very powerful voting blocs. Instead of running candidates, parties could become very effective advocacy groups that just endorse candidates that support their platform. Let’s say that the only issue you care about is legalizing pot. You could just vote for all the candidates endorsed by the “Legalize Pot Party.”

    This would also mitigate the problems of gerrymandering. Even districts dominated by one party would be competitive and everyone would get a say. It would move candidates to the real center and there would be no more safe seats.

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