Alivox on Elections

The U.S. Presidential election of 2000 was a travesty, especially for the country that calls itself the home of democracy. Not only was there quite a bit of hanky-panky in the swing state, but there is no controversy over the claim that the loser received more votes than the winner.

But even before that election, problems had been evident in the way we Americans elect our government officials. Given the importance of that process to the success and stability of our society, it deserves to have the attention it needs.

Here follows a collection of points comprising a program for reform of all our elections, from federal down to local level. Each point will bring us a step closer to the ideal, and the whole progam considerably so.

Let every voter vote on every candidate
Eliminate the Electoral College
Eliminate the Senate
Eliminate Electoral Districts
Eliminate Parliamentary Procedure
Eliminate Simultaneous Elections

Let every voter vote on every candidate top

Illustration by Jeff Koegel As things now stand, a vote for a third-party candidate is a protest vote, and the voter's preference between the other candidates is ignored. Yet it would be reasonable to guess, for example, that most of Ralph Nader's 4 million supporters would have preferred Gore to Bush, had they been given the opportunity to express a preference. The current procedure answers the question "Which candidate is the first choice of the most people?", when the correct question is "Which candidate is acceptable to the most people?".

The current system has other disadvantages. It gives a tremendous amount of power to political parties, without whose support no victory is feasible. It discourages the candidacy of anyone who can't win, even though such candidacies serve to bring important issues to the forefront and have a marked influence on platforms. And it encourages negative campaigning, since every vote lost to your opponent is won by you.

Worst of all, it has resulted in a system which reduces voter interest and turnout, not to mention fundamental belief in democracy, by offering us the blandest and least inspiring candidates, so much so that everyone complains about the poverty of choices.

The solution is simple: the ballot should list every candidate, and offer you the choice of whether or not that candidate would make an acceptable president. For each candidate, you would simply vote yes or (by not voting yes) no. So you could vote for Gore and Nader, or Nixon and Wallace, secure in the knowledge that your vote is not wasted.

This system is called Approval Voting; it is one of several similar systems for improving how voting measures our preferences. Another interesting one is Instant Runoff Voting, in which voters don't just say yea or nay to each candidate, but rank them in order of preference. More complicated systems include Condorcet Voting (wherein candidates are compared pairwise), Borda Count (in which points are given for 1st through 4th place votes), and Cumulative Voting (in which voters are given three votes to cast as they wish).

All of these are interesting methods, and a good case can be made in favor of each, but I prefer basic Approval Voting because it is so simple: just vote for all the candidates you could accept. Everyone understands how to do it, and everyone understands what the results mean, so it takes the focus away from the mechanics.

But any of these would be better than the current system!

Eliminate the Electoral College top

Why should the vote of someone in Alaska be worth roughly three times more than the vote of someone in Florida? The explanation is historical, but that's no excuse.

There is, in my opinion, only one justification for the electoral college that has the slightest hint of legitimacy: the argument that the president must not only earn a numerical mandate from the populace, but must demonstrate a broadness of support across America.

This is valid enough, but the electoral college doesn't achieve this goal. The diversity of America is not primarily geographic - we are a remarkably homogeneous land. The most important differences among Americans are those of income, education, and other indicators of social class, plus the contrast between urban and rural. Both of these differences are reflected in voting patterns, and neither of these by the electoral college.

If we want to come up with a system to ensure that the winning presidential candidate will receive a substantial amount of support from every social class, and from cities, suburbs, towns, and country, we need to come up with something better.

Eliminate the Senate top

Illustration by Jeff Koegel When the constitution was being written, the less populous states were concerned that they would be unequally represented. That was a reasonable concern back when it could be presumed that issues would split along state lines. But that is no longer the case, if it ever was.

In the modern era, the effect of having two legislative chambers is primarily to gum up the works. The cynics might say that's a good thing, but the supercynics can retort that even a unicameral legislature, like the British Parliament (now that the House of Lords is irrelevant) can gum up the works all by itself quite well, thank you.

As it now stands, every bill is passed in slightly different form by the two chambers, who then meet to resolve the differences, then send the bills back for approval. Both chambers can claim to derive their legitimacy from the same electorate, but that doesn't seem to result in agreement all the time.

With the vast differences within states, and the interstate mobility of the population, we no longer identify with our states as much as we did when they were separated by culture, religion, and days of travel. Despite our name, we are really the "United People of America", not a loose federation of independent states. So there's no reason to represent states at the national level.

Eliminate Electoral Districts top

Why should I share a Congressman with my neighbor? He and I might have completely different views, despite the fact that we live next door. Why should one of us not be represented in Congress?

In fact, why should we only have a choice between two or three candidates, or even a dozen? If I'm a retired born-again lesbian monarchist of Ethiopian extraction, and I feel I can only be represented by one of my own kind, why should I have to put up with a choice between two virtually identical middle-aged white male lawyers?

Let every voter choose who will represent him in Congress, with every Congressman voting based on the strength of his support. In other words, the vote of a Congressman with 1 million constituents would be worth ten times that of a Congressman with 100,000 constituents. His office would also receive ten times the public financial support.

Right now, a bill could pass with 51% of the vote in Congress, cast by Congressmen who had received only 51% of the votes cast, which might be only 51% of the eligible voters. That means only 13% of America might support that bill.

Even those who did vote for one of the majority might have voted for another candidate had the choice been available, or might disagree with their candidate on this issue. The end result is a system which does a poor job of translating voter preference to legislation. No system is perfect, but it isn't hard to come up with one that's much better than the current one.

Eliminate Parliamentary Procedure top

Illustration by Jeff Koegel Both chambers of the legislature currently operate using parliamentary procedure - remember Robert's Rules of Order? This provides for "the Chair" recognizing speakers, for quorums and minutes, and all the rest of it, including filibusters and other procedural tricks.

In addition, Congress has rules assigning members to committees, in which most of the work is done. Congress also has sessions, and doesn't work when not in session.

Why do we need all that? Why not just let Congressmen make their own efforts to educate themselves before each vote, by listening to each other or other sources, and then vote whenever they feel ready? Of course, we'd need a few rules about how to submit bills, and how to reconcile small differences, but the process isn't so different from drawing up a contract among several interests, as happens all the time. The authors of a bill would have to persuade enough Congressmen to support it so as to earn a majority of the available votes.

And why should they all go to Washington DC and cast their votes by hand in a big room? Why not let them open offices wherever they want and cast their votes electronically?

Eliminate Simultaneous Elections top

Why should everybody choose their Congressmen at the same time? Why not just allow voters to choose their Congressman whenever they want, and change their choice whenever they want?

Each Congressman should also have a Vice-Congressman who would take over in case of death or disability, perhaps a whole succession plan. These Vice-Congressmen would be on the ticket when voters choose, so they also claim legitimacy.

In order to induce people to vote conscientiously, I propose a one-year lag when changing Congressmen. If you want to change, you would inform the board of elections, and then wait a year before choosing your new representative. During that year, your old Congressman wouldn't have your vote, but you could choose him again after the year was out. This encourages incumbency, but also stability.

The aim of this device is to encourage people to choose a representative to whom they feel comfortable delegating their vote, not to choose one who will vote as they want on every issue. One of the principles of representative legislature is to enable representatives to investigate an issue at a deeper level than his constituents, and even to let him vote against their desires as part of a compromise.

While this step wouldn't eliminate the importance of money in being elected, it would dramatically reduce it. Congressmen could represent very small constituencies, and could earn constituents by their work, instead of bombarding us with sound bites and staged photos.

Some of you may wonder why we're tinkering with the world's oldest constitution. Isn't its longevity a sign of success? Yes, and we shouldn't tinker lightly. But we also have problems with our system, and it's the price of our inheritance from our founding fathers that we continue to fine-tune our democracy, as they did in their time.

Illustration by Stephen Schildbach

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