CHAPTER 3: TWO MANIFESTOS ON VOTING REFORM

 

 

                                                      CHAPTER 3

 

                                   TWO MANIFESTOS ON VOTING REFORM

 

The first item of this chapter consists of a "manifesto," as Professor Steven Brams labeled it, which I wrote as a basis for trying to organize a study group for promoting much needed voting reform.  The second item represents more developed, and my latest, ideas on this question.

 

                                                A First Approximation

 

 

                                AMERICAN COALITION FOR ELECTION REFORM

                                                           January 2001

                                    Third Parties, Approval Voting

 

                                                 and Election Reform

 

Given the inability of the major parties to deal with much needed election, entitlement and welfare reforms the need for viable third parties has been evident for some time now.  In the 1992 and 2000 elections two movements, the Reform Party and the Green Party, have had a profound impact on the outcome of the presidential election through a "spoiler" role, but with little impact otherwise on our political processes.

 

If we wish to move away from the excessive partisanship that has come to characterize our political processes and to grapple successfully with some of the important issues facing the country, it is essential that effective ways be found to lower the barriers to the operation of responsible third parties in our political processes.  To do this three things are needed:

 

     1)  Major third party trends like the Reform Movement and the

     Green Party need to reorganize on a more solid ongoing basis

     rather than just largely mobilizing for presidential elections.

 

     2)  With Congress so evenly split between the two parties, more

     focus needs to be put on promoting and electing third party

     candidates to the legislative branch to take advantage of the

     opportunity that the absence of a clear majority presents for

     influencing political decisions in American governance.

 

     3)  And a campaign to lower barriers to responsible third parties

     through election reform needs to be given top priority.

 

If we wish to open up our political processes to third parties and eliminate the spoiler role of third party candidates, as we believe we should, the country can readily do so.  And it could do so by a simple statutory act that could easily be implemented in time for the next national election.

 

The passage of federal legislation requiring approval voting in all federal elections is an easy way of doing this.  Under such a system, every voter could give one vote each to the candidate or candidates he or she approves of with the candidate with the largest number of approval votes being elected.  In the case of the presidential candidates, of course, the electors in each state pledged to the candidate with the higher approval vote there would be those elected for that state.  In addition to opening up our elections to third parties and eliminating the spoiler role, such a system would allow Americans to better reveal their voting preferences and enhance minority input into out political processes.

 

It is our belief that approval voting could, as opposed to some other reforms that would clearly require a constitutional amendment, be instituted by a congressional statutory act.  In the case of the election of representatives and senators, Article I, Section 4 of the US Constitution specifically gives Congress the right to pass legislation governing "the times, places and MANNER", of their election.  Such legislation would clearly supersede any state laws on the matter.  In the case of the election of presidential electors, the Constitution is not specific.  However, we believe that under the Fourteenth Amendment, one could make a strong case that Congress could mandate approval voting for the election of presidential electors as well.  The amendment specifically assumes in Section 2 the popular election of electors which was, of course, not part of the original practice under the Constitution.  And we would think that under the privileges and immunities clause of Section 1 and the enforcement provision of Section 5, Congress could pass legislations mandating approval voting for electors to assure all citizens fair and just participation in the process of electing our president.  It seems to us that the intent of the framers of the Constitution was to give Congress the right to regulate citizens' direct participation in federal elections and that this intent in the context of the Fourteenth Amendment can properly be applied to our presidential elections.

 

It may be true that if Ross Perot had stayed in the race throughout 1992, he could have won the 1992 election.  But we think that it is unrealistic to believe based on this and on Jesse Ventura's success in Minnesota, that a third party presidential candidate could have a chance of being elected under our current system.  Even if a third party candidate were to have the same success as Ventura did in his election in Minnesota, he or she would not likely be elected under our current system of presidential electors, a system which does not apply to the election of a state governor.  Such an outcome is likely simply to send the election to the House of Representatives with either the Democratic or Republican candidate being elected.

 

Even if a third party candidate could, a la Ventura, succeed in being elected under our present, in all but two small states, first-past-the-post, winner-take-all system, he or she would still face a grave problem in demonstrating any clear mandate to govern which would much less likely be the case under a system of approval voting.

For these reasons, we think that it makes sense for anyone considering a serious third party presidential bid to strongly support the introduction of approval voting in federal elections.  Although one could abandon the winner-take-all system for choosing presidential electors in most states by electing individual electors in each state by separate districts, it may make sense to keep the current system to maintain a bias against a plethora of political parties while lowering the barriers to the development of major third party alternatives.

 

Given the need for building serious third party alternatives for the country, we consider the self-destruction of the Reform Party in

2000 to have been unfortunate.  From our perspective we believe that it is a disservice to the country for the majority that has now been excluded from the Reform Party not to get together to reconstruct a genuine National Reform Party committed to the election and entitlement reforms the nation needs.  If they could do so, we also believe that they could do a great service to the country by joining a cooperative effort with those in the Green Party to campaign for the introduction of approval voting in federal elections.

 

Had such a system been in place during the 2000 presidential election, the outcome in the electoral college would have surely better reflected the popular vote as well as reveal the true support for Bush, Gore and Nader.  Given the role of third parties since 1992 and their likely future role, the country would be wise to consider introducing approval voting in its elections to minimize the chance of repeating the unfortunate situation of the 2000 election.  Our appeal is that in addition to supporting an effort to have Congress mandate standard procedures for the mechanics of casting votes and providing adequate funding to effect this, that an effort be made to institute approval voting in federal elections.  We ask those concerned about the effect of our voting procedures on our political processes to join us in a serious and workable effort to reform the system.

 

 

 

                                AMERICAN COALITION FOR ELECTION REFORM

                                                           April 2, 2005

                                    Third Parties, Approval Voting

                                                 and Election Reform

 

                                                      (APPENDIX)

 

At the time I wrote the above "manifesto," I was unaware of the legal

precedent of the case of Oregon v. Mitchell (1970).  In his opinion

expressing his own views of the case, Justice Black who announced the

judgment of the court, wrote:

 

     I would hold, as have a long line of decisions in this Court,

     that congress has ultimate supervisory power over congressional

     elections.  Similarly, it is the prerogative of Congress to

     oversee the conduct of presidential and vice-presidential

     elections and to set the qualifications for voters for electors

     for those offices.  It cannot be seriously contended that

     Congress has less power over the conduct of presidential

     elections than it has over congressional elections.

 

 

                                       Several Iterations Later

 

                                                November 2007

               

                                    Third Parties, Approval Voting

 

                                                 and Election Reform

 

 

It surely is clear that a vast majority of Americans realize that our

political system has badly broken down as witnessed by the excessive

partisanship which has come to characterize our two-party system of

governance.  Given the inability of the two major parties to deal with

pressing problems in the areas of global warming, energy, immigration,

fiscal deficits, entitlement reform and the like, the need for a

remedy has been apparent for some time.  It is my contention that a

solution to our problems here must start with reforms that will open

up our political processes to responsible third parties, especially

at the federal level.

 

Many national political candidates argue, as Barack Obama currently

does, that the solution lies in electing people of goodwill to our

highest national offices.  The problem with this is that such goodwill

has and does nothing to change the incentives under which our

politicians currently operate nor the system under which they are

elected.  That these are increasingly working against us, is surely

illustrated by the fact that we seem to have been getting increasingly

poorer candidates for our highest office as illustrated by the

previous and current president and by the poorest choice in living

memory for that office in the last general election.

 

It is my belief that the answer lies in developing vibrant, viable

third parties to compete with the two major parties at the national

level.  The argument against this "is that it's very difficult to

compete as a third party candidate with the two major parties because

of their ability to raise money and organize."  In addition, people

have pointed out that it is difficult to break with our current

political structures because of Americans' inherent conservatism and

the constructs set up by the system and the two major parties over

time.

 

It is my contention that the impact of these considerations has been

exaggerated at the expense of the much more basic problem here--the

consequences of our system of plurality, or first-past-the-post,

voting which we share with the British.

 

Although the British have a parliamentary system as opposed to our

presidential system, you have a strong tendency for two parties to

dominate in their system at the expense of third parties.  It would be

difficult to argue that this is due to high barriers of entry or the

role of money.

 

Any person in Britain can run for a parliamentary seat by simply

making a deposit of 500 pounds (about $1,000 US) which is refundable

as long as a candidate gets at least 5% of the vote--surely not a

major impediment for third parties to field candidates.  In addition,

money simply has not played the role in British national elections as

it plays in ours in part because British campaigns are quite short and

also because of greater access to the media through an organization

like the BBC.  Yet one finds third party movements in Great Britain

facing much of the same problems they do here.

 

If you look at US experience over more than two centuries, you will

find no period in which a third party rose to a major position

nationally alongside the other two major parties.  This is not

accidental.  It is clear that in the past the barriers to third

parties were much lower than they are today, but that made no

difference even in the age before radio and TV.  The reason lies in

the voting system that has basically remained unchanged since America

achieved its independence.  It is not hard to see why.

 

If you have, as we have in most of our elections, plurality voting,

there is a strong tendency in elections with something like three or

more viable candidates for a candidate that a majority would not

approve of being elected.  An example one could cite in living memory

would be the election of James Buckley to the US Senate from New York

in 1970.

 

Under these circumstances, there is a very strong incentive for a

majority to organize itself into a party with some primary process to

ensure that a candidate acceptable to the majority in fact wins.  That

necessitates, if they want to be effective, the minority to coalesce

into an opposition party.

 

With a system of plurality voting in which a voter can only give a

vote to one candidate, it simply does not make sense to "waste" one's

vote which means that most voters vote strategically, not sincerely in

terms of their preferences, which entails supporting one of the

candidates of the two major parties.  Similarly, it does not make

sense for political contributors to "waste" their money on third party

candidates under a system of plurality voting for the same reason.

The situation would differ greatly if we had a voting system open to

third parties that got rid of the "wasted vote" syndrome and "spoiler

role."

 

There are a number of attributes which a good voting system should

have--there is no such thing as a perfect one as the economist Kennith

Arrow showed in his seminal work which led to his Nobel prize.  Among

these I would include the following: 1) That the election outcome

effectively reflects voters' preferences, 2) That it is transparent to

voters in terms of understanding the results, and 3) That it is easy

to administer.

 

On none of these criteria, as the technical literature clearly shows,

is instant runoff voting (IRV), favored by a number of people,

superior to approval voting.  Approval voting (AV) is a system in

which in multi-candidate elections a voter can give one vote each to

the candidate OR candidates he/she approves of with the candidate

having the most votes winning.

 

IRV can eliminate a consensus candidate early on and thereby elect one

less acceptable to the majority.  Even worse, as the technical

literature has well established, under IRV a candidate who would

otherwise win, can actually wind up losing an election if he/she

garners more first place votes in the course of a campaign--surely a

perverse result which does not infest AV.

 

Given the additional complexities of IRV as opposed to AV and the

difficulties of explaining this to voters, surely no one can seriously

argue that IRV is a more transparent system than AV.  In addition, as

the recent experience in Ferndale, Michigan shows, it is not as easy

to introduce IRV into our existing voting structure as AV would be

since the latter only involves more counting.

 

AV can provide voters the chance to vote for their true preference

without fear of throwing away their vote as it does not exclude their

participating in the real choice as well in contrast to the situation

in which Nader's supporters were excluded in the choice between Bush

and Gore in the 2000 Florida presidential election.  On this score, it

would make our national elections more competitive and the outcome

more "democratic" in terms of reflecting voters' preferences.

 

Given the requirements of the Constitution, Article I, Section 4 and

the 14th Amendment, and the precedent in Oregon v. Mitchell in a 1970

Supreme Court decision, it is clear that AV can be mandated in federal

elections by a simple federal statutory act.  Or as Justice Black

writing for the Court in Oregon v. Mitchell (1970) put it:

 

     I would hold, as have a long line of decisions in this Court,

     that Congress has ultimate supervisory power over congressional

     elections.  Similarly, it is the prerogative of Congress to

     oversee the conduct of presidential and vice-presidential

     elections and to set the qualifications for voting for electors

     for those offices.  It cannot be seriously contended that

     Congress has less power over the conduct of presidential

     elections than it has over congressional elections.

 

Such an act should do two things: 1) Mandate approval voting in all

federal elections and 2) Mandate a place on the federal ballot for

five political parties, four occupied by the four top parties in terms

of numbers of votes cast and the fifth position filled by a nation

wide competition open to other parties and groups.

 

The statutory logistics of passing such an act are very simple; the

real question is: How to achieve this politically?  It has been argued

that the two major parties will never countenance such a change.  This

could be, but we will never know until such an effort has been made,

especially by third parties, to put this issue on the national

agenda--something that has never happened.  The advantage of pushing

for approval voting is that it represents a simple and straightforward

means of trying to profoundly change our political processes which the

country clearly recognizes is sorely needed.

 

Three things can bring this about.  First, we need to have a public

discussion on how to improve our political processes, including our

elections, to improve the operation of our political system.  Second,

the two independents in the Senate, Lieberman and Sanders, ought to

consider using their considerable leverage in a closely divided body

to push for the election reform the country sorely needs.  And,

thirdly, the electorate ought to make it clear that they will not

support any Democrat or Republican in the next election who cannot

support a better voting system for the people to express their

preferences in elections and open up our political processes to

responsible third parties and to more independent individuals in our

federally elected offices.