Fix the vote(ing system)

By Sean Aqui | Related entries in Elections, News

(crossposted at Midtopia)

Diverse and Contradictory has a post discussing why political parties are congenitally incapable of governing.

The Republicans and Democrats have tried so hard to be the party of everyone, that it’s impossible to gain any real consensus among their members.

Republicans have fought this weakness by creating polarizing issues and then standing for them. The Democrats haven’t fought that weakness, which leads to a muddled message and no clear direction. The only thing this leads to is the ability of the opposing party to point out the weaknesses of the other’s strategy.

Parties are literally unable to do this and remain the large, overarching, all-issue, conglomerates they want to be. They squabble internally, and rip themselves apart by overindulging in the stands they think they want to take. There can actually be no strategy for them to implement.

The solution is the obvious one: vote for the individual, not the party.

The problem, of course, is that doing so takes a bit more work than simply walking into the booth and voting the straight party ticket. And as economists point out, there are no tangible cost-benefit incentives to go vote. Thus a lot of people don’t bother to vote, and many of those who do don’t bother to educate themselves. It’s quite rational, if a little sad, and destructive to democracy in the aggregate.

So let’s make things easy on voters. Specifically:

Make election day a holiday, so people don’t have to take time off work to vote. And what about holding them earlier in the year, when the weather is better? Then we could put on ice-cream socials or something at voting stations, making going to the polls an event instead of the rather beige experience it is now.

Implement instant-runoff voting, so voting for the individual has more meaning.

Make ballots easy to read. I’m not a big one for micromanagement of local elections, but it’s high time we paid a competent graphic designer to create a standardized, easy-to-understand ballot that can be adapted for use in every race. Think of the nutrition labels on food as a model: the same information presented the same way no matter what product you’re buying, making it easy to understand and compare.

Lower barriers to voting, notably by not forcing people to stand in line for hours to cast their ballot.

We could also try lots of little things to help people vote and vote intelligently: street signs with “Election Day today!” and arrows pointing to the local voting site; standardized reference sheets at voting stations, listing the candidates and their positions on key issues so people can refresh their memory; things like that.

Very few of these ideas are attractive to parties in general or incumbents in particular. So they won’t happen without serious pressure from below. But since elections are implemented by local governments, a small number of voices can make a difference.


This entry was posted on Sunday, April 30th, 2006 and is filed under Elections, News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

14 Responses to “Fix the vote(ing system)”

  1. Callimachus Says:

    Leaving aside the specific suggestions — some of which I think are good and some of which I don’t, you realize you’re tinkering with a building block of the American republic here. The two parties were never enshrined or envisioned by the founders, but they deliberately set up an electoral system whereby any candidate who hoped to succeed at a national level would have to build coalitions and run on a platform of broad appeal. We no longer live in 1787, but I would argue that the country is no more unified now than it was then; the faults and schisms are in different places, but they run just as deeply. Just because the two current players have forgotten how to play the game doesn’t mean we should rewrite the tules to suit them. Don’t let the fact that our history has been mercifully free of demagogues at the highest reaches of power lull you into thinking there’s never a threat of it, and the brakes can be removed from the vehicle.

  2. Daniel DiRito Says:

    We used to be a country of yes and can do’s…but we are fast becoming a country of no and don’t do’s. It can never succeed…it will never succeed…it will in fact destroy us and our way of life. So long as we only have politicians who “say� they believe in something in order to lead…instead of politicians who want to lead because they actually “believe� in something…we will flounder along with focus group figureheads. Unless a leader steps forward to heal all of America, the wounds on both sides will widen such that we run the risk of draining what precious lifeblood remains.

    We aren’t going to make it if fifty percent of the population lives with the belief that, unless their Party regains power during the next election cycle, their way of life is doomed. The politics of division may win elections but the price is steep. There is great irony in hearing some say that “exporting Democracy is a good thing…freedom is on the march.� I worry that in our zeal to export this thing we call Democracy, we may soon wake up to find that our own supply has vanished.

    Given that the middle is the largest single segment, it would seem logical that politicians’ should first court this segment of the voting public. Save for a two party system, they might. The obstacles to this approach are the caucus and the primary systems where participation is typically skewed to the extremes. In essence, those individuals at opposite ends of the spectrum that are seeking to be accommodated make the most demands. By their nature, they actively pursue and participate in the struggle to obtain the promises or concessions they desire. This pushes the candidates of both party’s away from the center as they each battle to win their respective nominations.

    I think this goes a long way towards explaining the typically low American voter turnout. The middle is seemingly neglected (or at best taken for granted) until the general election and by that time they likely feel neither candidate represents their moderate positions. In many ways, this is the predictable outcome. Independent and moderate voters are under represented in the process which means the candidates they might prefer probably won’t even make it to the ballot.

    It is time for the middle to take its rightful position in politics. So long as we allow the extremes to dictate the dialogue, rhetoric will prevail. As with a pendulum, in order to find the center, conflict tends to first reach the extremes. History is the virtual seesaw of this process. Groups who see the resolution of conflict as simply a matter of power are destined to see their own power wane because they fail to persuade those over which they exert power. Over time, it is only persuasion that prevails. Until society rethinks its methods to resolve differences, tomorrow will merely look like today…the only difference will be whose in charge. I’m suggesting that its time for the middle to lead.

    read more observations here:

    http://www.thoughttheater.com

  3. Pooh Says:

    I think Daniel went a ways towards capturing my thoughts, I just wanted to respond to something Cal said:

    Just because the two current players have forgotten how to play the game doesn’t mean we should rewrite the [r]ules to suit them.

    It’s not difficult to make the case that they the two parties, have de facto rewritten the rules to suit themselves. And a fairly natural result of this duopoly is the eventual treatment of politics as completely zero-sum. Which, I think we can agree, sucks for the governed.

  4. Mike The Actuary’s Musings » 2006 » May » 01 Says:

    [...] [...]

  5. Bob Aman Says:

    I am absolutely all for making it a holiday. I’ve long wondered why it wasn’t one. It seems to work fairly well in most of the other countries that do it. India, for example, has tomorrow (er, or is that today?) off for their elections.

  6. Joshua Says:

    I’d not only make Election Day a national holiday, but also move it to either Monday or Friday so it’s like a long weekend.

    And also to reiterate another point I’ve made in the past, another deleterious side effect of the two-party system is that, since each party’s moonbats tend to set the tone for their respective campaigns, which set of moonbats one finds least distasteful often becomes a big part of the voting decision, even if neither candidate has anything other than party loyalty in common with the moonbats.

  7. Jimmy the Dhimmi Says:

    Shouldn’t the results of the New Hampshire and Iowa primaries remain secret until all other primaries have finished as well? Why do those two states always get to set the trend?

  8. reader_iam Says:

    Personally, I find the idea of “secret” and anything having to do with elections scarey. That said, I think the primacy of the Iowa caucuses and the the NH primary is a problem.

    This is a huge issue, not one that can easily be addressed in a post, much less a comment. The issue of “frontloading” alone has inspired book-length treatment.

    At a miminum, it seems to me that “first-in-nation” etc. status ought to rotate. Or perhaps we should have more super-primary days, or regional primaries. Or … well, there are a lot of ideas out there.

    I (nerdy, as always) watched on C-Span the proceedings of the Democratic Party’s Commission on Presidential Nomination Timing And Scheduling during which this issue, among others, was addressed. You can read about this here (where you can download the report),
    here and/or
    here. (There is probably material on C-span somewhere; I a superficial-quickie Google.)

    What the news articles don’t reflect (the report might, but I haven’t read it since I caught most of the televised proceedings) is how vehement the opposition is to IA’s and NH’s assertion of some kind of historical “right” to go first and wield disproportionate power. It take a long time–and specifically a lot of lead time–to set, much less change, primary schedules, so I think you won’t see as much change before 2012, but I’m betting the changes will come. There will already be some in ’08.

    It’s important to keep in mind that individual states’ caucuses and primaries are governed by individual states, not the national party leadership. State law comes into play, in some cases.

    Also, the national parties/state parties have to work together in setting the schedule … unless we want to see Dem and Repub caucuses/primaries on separate days.

    Anyway, just a few cents’ worth, on a superficial basis … .

  9. Sean Aqui Says:

    Callimachus,

    I don’t think anything I’ve suggested would reduce the need for coalition building or broad support to get things done.

    And speaking of building blocks of the republic, the founders envisioned a weaker president and a stronger Congress. Parties are largely responsible, IMO, for the inversion of that relationship.

    I agree that the country is no more unified or divided than it was back then; all you’ve got to do is read some of the rhetoric that swirled around the administrations of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, for example. Not coincidentally, that was the dawningof political parties. But also the questions were more serious and fundamental, with the first Republican party and the Federalists battling to sort out fundamental questions of just what sort of country they had created.

    I see the current Rep/Dem polarization as being less about fundamental underlying values and more about political advantage. It’s just as polarized, but the polarization is built around small issues. The motivation is job security and fundraising as opposed to what’s truly best for the country.

  10. Dan Redys Says:

    The basic problem is that we have basicly a two party system due to how the political system was set up in the constitution. To correct for this and allow people to vote for people who beleive in the same things they do the following should be done for the house elections :

    1 : Instead of districts in each state there will be a unified party ballot.
    2 : A voter will vote for his party of choice.
    3 : Based on the total vote for each party that party will send in so
    many from the top of the party list to congress.
    4 : In this way Libertarians, Greens and so forth will get elected to
    congress and the two party hold on our election system would be
    destroyed.

    Dan

  11. Mike Says:

    I love most of your specific suggestions, although there is a problem with your point that we should “vote for the individual, not the party.”

    I’ve never voted Republican (in a contested race), but it isn’t because I haven’t liked some Republican candidates. It’s because those candidates, by running as Republicans, are implicitly promising to vote for the Republican leadership once they get into office. Get me a Republican House candidate that promises to oppose the DeLay establishment, and I’ll give them serious consideration.

    In a political system where a vote for a Republican for Representative is implicitly a vote for Tom DeLay as Majority Leader, how can I, in good conscience, cast that ballot?

  12. Sean Aqui Says:

    I understand where you’re coming from, Mike. But by such a decision I think you strengthen party control over both candidates. The Dems get your vote even if their candidate stinks, and the Reps have no reason to try for your vote. Or you don’t vote and become irrelevant. Some thoughts:

    *Candidates need to pander to their party base to some extent merely to get nominated. If you insist on a candidate that will poke a finger in the eye of his own party, that’s almost never going to happen. So if the mere fact of their party affiliation turns you off or on, they have no reason to buck that base in the general election and afterward.

    *Party incumbents elect the party leadership. So electing Republicans you agree with will help elect a party leadership you agree with.

    *If a candidate is not dependent on party support for their election, they can go against the party more often. Candidates in swing districts are often granted latitude by the party leadership to vote their conscience. The more such districts we can create, the less the “party line” matters. Both Reps and Dems have used redestricting to practically eliminate swing districts. But demographics change. If people vote for the individual, “safe” districts become scarcer.

    To be clear, party affiliation and attitudes on party leadership are legitimate parts of the voting equation. Sometimes I’ll feel it’s time for a change in which party is in charge, and so I’ll go out of my way to vote for the minority party. And I routinely look for candidates who have minds of their own and aren’t just party robots.

    But I think it’s a mistake to become something of a single-issue voter in that regard.

  13. A Name Says:

    The best way to encourage voter turnout is to have a lottery. Give 1 million dollars to 1 random voter in each of the 50 states. Have a grand prize televised drawing for those 50 for 100 million. Have them tour Washington D.C. with their senator or house representative and show it on T.V. a la modern competitve reality shows. You can mix in education about government with the thrill of a competition.
    Entry would be free, so people would be motivated to just give it a shot.
    People don’t vote because they don’t think it matters. Well, give ‘em a one in a million shot to win serious money, and they will think it matters, in the same way people spend billions on existing state lotteries.

  14. ascap_scab Says:

    I kind of like A Name’s idea, but instead, let’s make it $1 million do-nothing no-bid cost-plus Government contracts to better reflect how Washington really works!! That way, with cost-overruns, the winners can make $3 or $4 million!!

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