Maybe I live in a bubble, but it seems like almost everybody would love to ditch America’s two-party political system. If it weren’t so impossible due to our institutions, it’s be a sure bet….
Let me begin with an off-the-cuff history of elections in the US. In the bad-old days, political parties picked who their candidates were behind closed doors. The electorate got tired of the smoke-filled room stuff and insisted that party primaries be open to voters. For the most part, that’s where election reform has stood for the past 100 years: Open primaries, and then a general election where the party candidates compete.
Fast forward to California (and several other states) circa mid-2000s. Primaries in California are now “open”: All the candidates are lumped together for the primary, and the “top two” advance to the general election, irrespective of their political party.
At first glance, this seems like a major blow against the two-party system, since they now have no role in constraining who voters select. But in the real-world, the results can be very troubling. Take this example from 2012:
In the 31st Congressional District down in Southern California, it’s a majority Latino district, but there were so many Latino Democrats running in the primary that they split the vote. And the two Republicans - only two Republicans […] ended up getting the most votes. So now, you have this majority Latino district being represented by a Caucasian Republican.
—Steve Chessin, President, Californians for Electoral Reform (CfER)
That’s just one scenario, but there are countless other scenarios that either put an unpopular candidate into office.
Instant Runoff Voting (also known as Ranked Choice Voting) accomplishes what the supporters of open primaries intended without falling prey to the problems above. IRV allows voters to vote only once and rank their choices, with votes being tallied by eliminating the least favored candidate and transferring those ballots to the next preference until a winner emerges.
In the case of the 31st Congressional District, Democratic voters would likely have ranked their preferred Democratic first, followed by the other three Democrats, and only then would they have ranked Republicans. The tallying process would have resulted in Democratic candidates being successively eliminated and having the associated ballots transferred to the next-most-preferred Democratic candidate, until a Democratic candidate had over 50% of the votes and was declared the winner. It’s also possible to structure an election so that there are still two rounds, but the candidates that advance to the general election are chosen by IRV tallying until two candidates remain. This too would have corrected the problem of Democratic candidates splitting the vote.
Open primaries play to the electorate’s strong desire to move past two-party politics, but the evidence just doesn’t show that it is a viable answer. Skip the open primaries snake oil and hold out for real electoral reform!
I’ve been pretty religious about voting in every election since I turned 19 or 20. I can remember flaming a good friend of mine who shall remain nameless when I found out he wasn’t planning to vote in an upcoming election. Our conversation when something like this:
"Yeah, I’m not informed enough about the issues so I don’t think I should vote."
"That’s crap, you could take one hour and be informed about things enough to vote. Stop being lazy."
And he voted and we all lived happily ever after.
Fast forward about 7 years and I’m still voting religiously, or at least I thought I was. I’m a (minor) shareholder in a company that shall remain nameless. I received a ballot in the mail asking me to participate in a shareholder election to elect the board of the company. I put the ballot in my backpack and resolved that I’d maybe look at it some time in the next few weeks. Naturally I forgot about it and opened it a while later and found the deadline had passed. Meh, no big deal, I threw it away.
Some number of weeks after that, it hit me square in the face: This is the way a lot of people feel about real elections!
I walked through my catalog of feelings about why I didn’t really care about the shareholder election:
- The result of the election won’t impact my life
- The system is rigged such that it’s Tweedle Dee vs. Tweedle Dum; there’s no difference between the people I might vote for
- I don’t really care how well the company is governed (short-term gains aren’t on the table, long-term gains are too distant to worry about)
And there I was, feeling exactly the same feelings that people who don’t vote feel!
I haven’t figured out whether I ought to care more about voting in shareholder elections, but I have thought about why I do care more about governmental elections: For whatever reason, I spend a lot of my attention on things like worrying about US foreign policy and how to improve our society at home, and therefore there is a big impact on me. But what if I were living a different life where those things didn’t weigh on me? For the “rigged” feeling, that’s the reason I spend my energy working on electoral reform, because I want to see our election system changed to allow for real choice and representation.
I feel like I ought to have a home run last paragraph, but I don’t…I still have mixed feelings about my apathy toward the shareholder election. As for apathy towards real elections, I guess the key is to make people feel connected to the outcome, i.e., to the governance of our country or state or city.
Drawings of actual people from Portland bar last night.
This has all been reported plenty already, but just in case there are some folks who haven’t come across it yet, I wanted to point out some things about Nelson Mandela that not everybody realizes.
Mandela was not a pacifist; he organized acts of sabotage in South Africa. Quoting Wikipedia:
[…] acts of sabotage to exert maximum pressure on the government with minimum casualties, bombing military installations, power plants, telephone lines and transport links at night, when civilians were not present. Mandela stated that they chose sabotage not only because it was the least harmful action, but also “because it did not involve loss of life [and] it offered the best hope for reconciliation among the races afterward.”
He was a true political prisoner, because all he would have had to do to get out of jail was say a few words he was told to say by the government. But he refused. South Africa’s government offered to let him out of prison, but Mandela refused to renounce violence or the Communist Party. Quoting Wikipedia:
[they offered] to the release of political prisoners and the legalisation of the ANC on the condition that they permanently renounce violence, break links with the Communist Party and not insist on majority rule. Mandela rejected these conditions, insisting that the ANC would only end the armed struggle when the government renounced violence.
Mandela may or may not have been a communist (especially in his early days), but he may have moderated later in life. Quoting Wikipedia:
Mandela was “openly opposed to capitalism, private land-ownership and the power of big money.” […]he denied being a communist during [his] Treason Trial. […] In the 1955 Freedom Charter, which Mandela had helped create, it called for the nationalisation of banks, gold mines, and land, believing it necessary to ensure equal distribution of wealth. Despite these beliefs, Mandela nationalised nothing during his presidency, fearing that this would scare away foreign investors. This decision was in part influenced by the fall of the socialist states in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc during the early 1990s.
And last but not least, the US had a troublesome time agreeing on how to oppose apartheid. According to Wikipedia’s article on the “Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act”:
Sponsored by U.S. Representative Ron Dellums in 1972 with support from the Congressional Black Caucus and Rep. Howard Wolpe, chair of the House Africa Subcommittee, the law was the first United States anti-apartheid legislation. The act was initiated in reaction to the plight of blacks in South Africa and demanded the end of apartheid. The legislation banned all new U.S. trade and investment in South Africa and was a catalyst for similar sanctions in Europe and Japan.
…but it wasn’t till 1986 that sanctions were passed by congress (superseding executive sanctions).