Well, it is about time to wrap up this post-election series on Voting and voting reforms. It is a bit of an academic exercise for a blog promising controversial and clever insights. That being said, I think the underlying message is a very important one and grounds a good many of my views on politics and the way we think about politics.
Most recently we have discussed a number of alternative voting methods, including the instant runoff, proportional representation, approval voting and the use of multi-member districts. The goal of each of these methods is to better reflect true voter preferences in the outcome of elections. We began with the recognition that our simple majority system of voting would only reflect those preferences if there were two and only two possible choices. Adding additional candidates, parties, issues or choices of any kind makes it unlikely that any particular choice will garner a majority of the vote. In the absence of a majority, it is hard to defend any choice as being the “will of the people,” no matter how many candidates and pundits may want to characterize the choice in this way. And, if you recall my previous posts on the political spectrum, you will be able to define over two dozen different political viewpoints.
I have already alluded several times to the fact that none of these systems are capable of meeting even the most basic standards for translating private choices into public choice. I will not even try to make the full case for that statement but will only summarize a few key points. If you are interested in reading further on the matter, I can recommend the book Liberalism Against Populism by the late William H. Riker. It goes into great detail and discusses many more alternative voting methods than I can cover here. I am indebted to the work Dr. Riker did as it forms the basis for much of what I’m discussing.
In my opinion, the two biggest objections to all of our voting systems is the inability to guarantee that they will select the choice that could beat all other choices in a head-to-head matchup (the so-called Condorcet winner) and the fact that each is subject to manipulation (through what is called strategic voting.)
Referring back to my posting on the hypothetical three candidate race, you can see an example of where our current system fails the Condorcet test. While it seems very likely that candidate C would have beaten both candidates A & B in a head to head vote, that candidate loses badly under the current rules. There is no guarantee, however, that even under our ranked voting system, candidate C would win. They still would have had to finish in the top two in order for the large advantage they had in second place choices to kick in and that was not at all certain. Approval voting most certainly couldn’t guarantee a Condorcet winner. The least objectionable choice could, in fact, be no one’s first choice. And, while both proportional representation and multi-member districts would seem to assure a greater diversity of viewpoints being represented in a legislative body, that diversity can lead to difficulty in building governing coalitions and governing coalitions being essentially held hostage to the demands of extreme viewpoints in order to remain in power. Allowing small minorities to control the agenda is just the opposite of what we wanted to achieve.
These concerns don’t even take into account the possibility of manipulation or strategic voting. This is where individuals do not vote their true preferences but rather for the choice which best advances their political perspective. Let’s give one real world example. A number of American states have a system of what are called “open primaries” in which anyone can choose to vote in either parties’ primary and they only have to make that decision on Election Day, not by changing their registration in advance. Every four years, numerous Republicans actually vote in Democrat primaries and vice versa. Now, this may, in some cases, reflect a genuine preference for a candidate of the other party but it might also be an attempt to make sure the opposing party nominates what is perceived as a more beatable candidate.
Aside from the problem of the “wasted vote” that plagues our own system, the other systems are also subject to manipulation. It is easy to imagine candidates trying to rig the system in their favor by asking people to only vote to approve of certain candidates but not for the ones they see as their primary opponent or opponents. Under the ranked system, the leading candidates will always ask their supporters to vote their primary opponent(s) as their last choice. Multi-member districts can be less representative if factions end up running slates of candidates and can, therefore , allow well-organized minorities to win, not just a single seat, but multiple seats, disenfranchising an even greater number of voters. And proportional voting can serve to encourage single issue parties which may capitalize on people’s well-founded fears and concerns about a particular matter to advance an agenda that does not reflect the voter’s true range of preferences.
So what to do? If we allow various groups to narrow our choices to only two, we can have our majority winner but how is it democratic to allow that? Otherwise, it appears we have to live with the flaws of any voting method we choose. I think that there are, however, two important lessons to be learned from this discussion.
One is that you should always be skeptical when a winning candidate or party claims to have a “mandate” for some particular viewpoint they hold, even if they won by a large margin. There is no way to know for certain that the people who supported them supported that particular position or not. In voting, we choose among flawed choices and, in some cases, the voter may disagree with almost everything a candidate believes but still think they are a better choice than their opponents. We aren’t voting on a particular issue but only choosing a representative. That representative is entitled to vote their conscience on any matter that comes before him or her but is not entitled to say that that position is somehow the “public choice” on the matter.
And, secondly, we should be careful how many choices we try to make in the political arena. The all-or-nothing nature of politics makes it a last resort for any area of human endeavor. If we limit the scope of politics, we reduce the impact that the outcome of any particular election may have. While I may have a predisposition to favor a more limited government, the difficulty in deciding what is truly in the public interest or, even more narrowly, what is the public choice on any particular issue, should make anyone skeptical of endorsing government action where there is not a clear consensus within the electorate. That consensus is pretty rare.
So there we are. For the few of you who followed along on this five-part series, I appreciate your patience. When this blog next returns, I will return to more “whimsical” topics like internet memes, “fake” news and Christmas! As always, thanks for reading and have a great day!