Private Choices/Public Choices (Voting Reform, Part Three)

It is funny how different the business of making choices is in our private lives from the choices we make in the public realm.  The most obvious difference is the sheer number of options we have when we make decisions in the private marketplace.  When it comes to most anything we buy and, in fact, most anything we do, whether it involves money or not, the choices are almost overwhelming.  And it seems like every year there are more of them to make.  I guess you could call it a “first world problem” if you like.

When it comes to the world of politics, however, we find our choices quite limited.  Perhaps that was more tolerable when we had fewer choices in our day to day lives but people increasingly find it frustrating.  There are, however, good reasons to limit the number of choices in the public sphere as it makes it more likely that a majority of people will coalesce around a particular candidate, party or issue position.  It isn’t particularly important to anyone else what brand of shampoo I purchase but it is awfully important how I vote.

And “how” we vote is the topic of this post and it may be part of a few more.   And that “how,” in most cases, is casting a single vote for a single candidate in a district/state in which only one candidate will be elected.  But that’s not the only way it can be done.  The question I am going to address in this series is whether there may be a better way.  Before I do, I will tell you that there isn’t going to be an ideal solution and there can’t be.

The first important point I want to make is that different ways of voting can lead to different outcomes, even when the individual voters have the same preferences.  Reread that if you have to because it is pretty shocking.  Depending on the way we vote, the same group of voters with the same exact preferences regarding candidates, parties or issues, will produce different outcomes.  Let’s take a look at one example that should illustrate that point.

One alternative voting method, instead of simply selecting a single candidate and casting a vote for that candidate, requires the voters to rank them in order of preference.  If one candidate is the first preference of a majority of the voters, the election is decided, just as it would have been using our current system.  If no candidate was the first choice of a majority of the voters, the candidate who was the first choice of the smallest number of voters is eliminated and their second choices are now added to the votes of the remaining candidates.  This continues until one candidate has a majority.  This voting system, more or less, eliminates the “wasted vote” argument which is often used against supporting an independent or third party candidate.  If, as expected, your candidate finishes third in a three way race, your second choice would allow you to choose the “lesser of two evils” between the other two.

Let’s imagine a scenario that is not that unlike what took place in the most recent Presidential campaign but has a couple of important differences.   First of all, it is not a Presidential campaign because there is no complication involving the Electoral College and, secondly, there are exactly three candidates on the ballot:  A Democrat, a Republican and an Independent.  It will be similar in that both the Democrat and Republican candidates are very unpopular with voters  and in that a large number of voters see one candidate as significantly worse than the other.  We will also posit that the Independent candidate is generally well liked, moderate and competent but has neither the money nor the party backing enjoyed by the two major party candidates.

Under our current system, the fear of either the Democrat or Republican candidate by people in the other party or those who may lean that way would lead to a great many “lesser of two evil” votes being cast and will likely doom the Independent candidate to a poor third place finish, even if he or she might be seen as the best choice by a plurality of voters.  Thanks to my special powers,  I happen to know exactly what the voters’ actual preferences are between the three candidates:

Candidate               1st Choice       2nd Choice     3rd Choice

A (Democrat)                32%                     23%                   45%

B (Republican)              33%                      17%                  50%

C (Independent)           35%                      60%                   5%

If you look at this chart, you will notice two things.  One is that the Independent candidate is actually the first choice of the largest number of voters and has an enormous advantage in second choice votes.  The other is that a very large number of voters rank either the Democrat or Republican as their least desired choice.

Under the system of ranked voting, it is pretty clear that candidate C is going to win.  He/she has finished in the top two and so the third place candidate (A) is eliminated and their second choice votes will go to either B or C.  Based on how much they dislike B, most all of them will go to C and he/she will win the election.  However, under our current system, it is likely that voters will feel compelled to choose between A and B as they want to avoid the worst possible outcome, which is the election of the their third choice.  From the chart, I would guess that the largest number of candidate C’s voters will actually choose to vote for candidate A to prevent candidate B from winning, a slightly smaller number will vote for candidate B to prevent candidate A from winning and a fairly small number will choose to case their vote for candidate C.  Let’s imagine that the outcome looks like  A: 50%, B: 45% and C: 5%.

Quite different, isn’t it?  Definitely something to think about and some people have been thinking about it very seriously.  In fact, the state of Maine just passed a statewide Initiative which will basically implement the system I have described.  Should be something to keep an eye on over the next few election cycles.

But that isn’t the only voting alternative available and, yes, it has its faults as well. I will talk a little bit about some of the other choices next time and discuss why all voting methods fall short of some fairly simple standards of fairness.  Until then, thanks for reading and have a great day!

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