Right now many would lament with the state of government and leadership in our country. Trust in government is at an all-time low, and voters feel as though they are no match for monied interests that buy influence from Democrats and Republicans alike. Many complain about the "horserace" mentality in the media coverage of elections, covering who is ahead of who rather than covering the issues. However, these problems are actually weaknesses in the electoral system we have today, and can be fixed by election reform.
The reason why the media is so focused on the "horserace", i.e. the relative positioning of the presidential candidates as the primary season plays out all over the nation, is that it is information people need to know. Why? Our election system forces people to engage in "strategic voting". We are forced to pay attention to how other people vote to determine the best way to cast our vote.
I probably better define what I mean by "strategy". Under a strategy-free system, in a Presidential election, you would vote for the one person who you feel is best qualified to be President, bar none. In addition, there would be a mechanism by which you could submit an ordered list of all people you feel would be capable of being President. You wouldn't need to worry about how your neighbor voted, or the people in your state voted in order to determine how to cast your ballot. You just cast the ballot based on which candidate represents you the best, and rank the rest from there in case compromise is necessary.
Unfortunately, our system is far from strategy-free. We vote for "the lesser of two evils" in order to keep things from getting any worse. There is widespread cynicism about any successful candidate for public office. It is widely assumed that anyone who is capable of running a successful bid for the Presidency has to do quite a bit of backroom dealing to pull it off, and so with a cynical resignation, we vote for the one who won't screw things up too badly, in order to avoid getting the candidate we fear the most.
Imagine if the steering wheel on your car only had two positions: left and right, and that those two positions meant different things at different times. That's what our two-party system is like. We are steering our country with a two-position steering wheel, zig-zagging back and forth in a reckless path that is going to send us careening off of a bridge if we ever take our foot off of the brake (thank goodness for gridlock!).
Because of voters are bound by the strategy dilemma, candidates realize that they have to convince people not only that they are right, but that they can win. Voters don't like wasting votes, and so candidates are forced to spend a lot of money on proving they can win rather than talking about the issues. This illusion of winnability is an expensive endeavor, and so only the candidates that gather a lot of money up front stand a chance.
One of the quixotic ways in which we are trying to fight the battle is to control the amount of money which candidates have to campaign with. The idea is that if we cripple all candidates identically, then it will be more fair for all of them. What really happens is that all candidates are kept from competing with McDonald's, MTV, and Beverly Hills 90210 for the mindshare of the people, which would explain the widespread voter apathy seen today.
Contrary to popular belief, strategy is not a necessary evil in the system (at least not at the level it exists today). There are methods of tabulating the aforementioned list of candidates from every voter which can find the theoretical perfect middle ground between all of the voters. These methods are more complex than our current system on the surface, but are based on sound democratic principles.
Most alternative voting systems are based on the concept of ranking candidates in order of preference, and then using various methods to tabulated the preferences which make different tradeoffs between immunity to strategy, trueness of compromise, and other criteria which may be somewhat subjective in nature. Unfortunately, many claim that there cannot be a "perfect" method thanks to Arrow's thereom, which suggests a small set of criteria that an ideal method should meet, and then proves that no method can satisfy all criteria.
Nonetheless, many mathematicians and electoral reformers have struggled to come up with voting systems that are more acceptable than the status quo, and have done so with great theoretical success. Currently, the most popular among reformers, and perhaps most readily understood, is Majority Preference Voting (or Instant Runoff). This method successively eliminates the least popular candidate from the election until a winner remains, using the ranked ballot to redistribute the votes of the eliminated candidate. This is used in Australia and South Africa already, and has thus been successfully applied in real-world situations. However, though it is better than standard vote-for-only-one methods, it often times fails to pick the compromise candidate, and still may favor candidates who scapegoat minority constituancies.
Though not as popular as Instant Runoff, Condorcet's method is debatably the best of these methods at freeing voters from strategic concerns. Each voter's list is used to simulate how that voter would have voted in pairwise elections between each of the candidates listed on the ballot, and between those listed on the ballot and those that aren't. Separate tallies of every possible two-way election are kept, and the winner is the candidate that wins all two-way elections.
The best property of this method is that if there is Candidate A on one extreme who pulls 40% of the vote, Candidate B in the middle who only pulls 20% of the vote, and Candidate C on the other extreme who pulls 40% of the vote, Candidate B will get elected as a compromise (unlike Instant Runoff, which would declare a tie between Candidate A and Candidate C).
This, of course, assumes that Candidate B is in the middle, and is indeed the second choice for the group who preferred A and the group who preferred C. Here's how it works: in a two-way contest between A and B, B would win with 60% of the vote, and in a two-way contest between B and C, B would also win with 60% of the vote. Since B would win all pairwise elections, B wins the election.
Since a compromise is generally chosen, all voter's interests are taken into account. No longer can right-wing candidates ignore the left and left-wing candidates ignore the right. It's not to say that the nation as a whole won't place their trust in a left-wing or a right-wing candidate, but what will happen is that "extreme" candidates will have to earn the trust of a very solid majority in order to get elected.
How will this address the ills of campaign spending? Well, it won't entirely. However, it will eliminate the two-party duopoly, thus giving voters a way of voting for small-time candidates without "wasting their vote".
If on top of implementing Condorcet's method for the Presidency and Senate, we implemented proportional representation for the House of Representatives, we would invigorate "third" parties, making it much harder for big money to buy influence by buying political parties. Right now, those that tend to vote Democrat tend to turn a blind eye to a corrupt Democrat, and those that tend to vote Republcican tend to do the same with a corrupt Republican. If Democrats had to worry about the Greens or the Rainbow Coalition getting their constituants, they'd think twice before making dollar-pandering votes. If the Republicans really had to worry about Liberatarians or the Christian Coalition getting their votes, they'd also think twice. Voters would no longer need to turn a blind eye. It create a "vote economy" in which vote-market forces were the motivating factor for politicians much more than dollar-market forces.
No, electoral reform isn't going to be the elixir that heals all. People will still go hungry, crime will be everywhere, taxes will still be too high, and the environment will still get trashed. Nonetheless, electoral reform is a solution that solves many of the problems that campaign finance reform proports to do. We should empower voters rather than try to restrict our public servants and those that want to spend money promoting politicians (which some people may support out of the goodness of their hearts and the betterment of all (it happens!)). In the end, it will result in more freedom for all of us.Hopefully, we can once again have leaders that we trust.
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