What’s up with US primaries?

The United States in many respects has a peculiar political system. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Our Constitution guarantees certain checks on political power, mostly by creating intentional gridlock between the three branches of government.

I hesitate to say that there is such a thing as too many checks and balances. That would imply that the federal system and division of power between the various branches is fundamentally flawed. It is certainly not perfect, but as the saying goes, perfect is the enemy of good enough.

What has become apparent to me, particularly in recent years, is that the fundamental flaw in American politics is not the Constitution, checks and balances, or the division of power between the federal government and the states. It’s not even money, although the corrupting influence of money is certainly the biggest threat facing our democracy today.

The fundamental flaw is plurality.

A plurality voting system is a voting system in which each voter is allowed to vote for only one candidate, and the candidate who polls more votes (plurality) than any other candidate is elected. In a system based on single-member districts, it may be called first-past-the-post, single-choice voting, simple plurality or relative/simple majority. In a system based on multi-member districts, it may be referred to as winner-takes-all or bloc voting. The system is often used to elect members of a legislative assembly or executive officers. It is the most common form of the system, used in Canada, the lower house (Lok Sabha) in India, the United Kingdom, and most

The drawbacks of plurality systems are well documented by proponents of alternative systems such as instant runoff voting, alternate vote, and proportional representation. Most of those alternatives, however, are not without their own drawbacks such as increased complexity, both for voters and during tabulation of votes.

Maurice Duverger was one of the first political scientists to notice the correlation between plurality voting systems and the dominance of two-party politics in the 1950s. This correlation has become known as Duverger’s Law.

How is this a problem, you ask?

Well, you might think that if a system has worked for over 200 years, there’s no reason to change it – and that’s true, if you assume that everyone is happy with two political parties.

Except they aren’t.

Gallup polling indicates that around 43% of Americans do not identify with the two major parties. This percentage has increased steadily since 2000, when the identification was split almost evenly in thirds between independent and the two major parties.

It’s very tempting to pigeonhole US politics into red and blue, or left and right, camps. Such branding is convenient for pundits as it creates an “us vs. them” narrative. Either you’re on the right side, or the wrong side. Everything becomes black and white and there’s no middle ground. Problem is, the world isn’t black and white.

In fact, when one takes a closer look at the two major parties, they’re far from monolithic. The intense jockeying of US presidential primaries is actually due to factional rivalries within the parties. On rare occasions, factions will even jump ship (as when the Dixiecrats, pushed by Strom Thurmond, defected en masse to the GOP after the passage of the Civil Rights Act).

But if the parties aren’t monolithic, what’s the problem?

One way of looking at the US political parties is to consider them de facto coalitions of various intra-party factions. However, this optimistic view falls flat when one asks for a defining principle of the party. Coalitions, by their very nature, cannot offer defining principles. They are at best an uneasy relationship.

The second problem is that the party leaders want the parties to be viewed as monolithic due to the previously mentioned us-vs-them mentality. Any perceived disloyalty to the Party, in their eyes, deserves to be punished for endangering the future success of the Party. Outsiders are Not To Be Trusted and independent voters become an Enemy of the Party, which leads us to one of the biggest complaints in the 2016 season: closed primaries.

Don’t closed primaries prevent sabotage?

Sabotage by whom?

We the people?

Setting aside the point that citizens in democratic societies should be more concerned about fraud perpetuated by their leaders, there is such a thing as tactical voting. This practice has become so ingrained in the United States that long-time party voters tend to discount “radical” candidates they agree with in favor of less agreeable but more “centrist” candidates, in the hopes that such a centrist will win over whatever candidate the other party puts up. The arguments usually go as follows:

Only centrist candidates can win.
Don’t vote for the third party or you’ll hand the election to the other party.
It doesn’t matter how bad our candidate is because they’re still better than the other party’s candidate.

Sound familiar?

Such compromise necessarily breeds malaise among voters, particularly in the youth. Who would want to vote when this is the message they’re getting?

Is there a solution?

The fun part about political science is that there’s absolutely no shortage of suggested solutions. The real question we should be asking is: What is the most optimal solution?

It would take far too long to go into exhaustive detail on the merits of various proposed voting systems, but the one system that has stood out to me so far is approval voting. In approval voting, voters are presented with a list of candidates, and mark their preference for one or more (“approve” or “disapprove” of each). Like plurality, votes for each candidate are tallied and the candidate with the most votes wins.

While this system is not perfect, it has several major advantages over plurality:

  • It is mathematically guaranteed to elect a candidate preferred by the most voters.
  • It eliminates spoiled ballots, as there is no penalty for voting for more than one candidate.
  • It eliminates the spoiler effect as voters are free to support as many candidates as they want, without fear of ruining it for an “electable” compromise candidate.

It also enjoys significant advantages over instant-runoff (or alternative) voting:

How does that help in a primary?

Since primaries (and caucuses) are considered to be internal party matters, while it would be possible for, say, a state Democratic Party to decide they want to switch from a caucus or plurality primary to an approval vote primary, I wouldn’t hold your breath for it.

The best use of approval voting would be to replace plurality in general elections. This can be done from the local municipal level all the way up to the state level. Since adoption of approval voting removes the negative repercussions of voting for third party candidates, such a move could create a resurgence of interest in third parties. Considering the national mood in both the Democratic and Republican parties, widespread adoption of approval voting could hasten the inevitable fracturing of the two major parties. Possible future parties might include:

  • Democratic Party (current mainstream Democrats)
  • Progressive Party (Progressive Caucus of the Democratic Party)
  • Grand Old Party (current moderate Republicans)
  • Evangelical Party
  • Tea Party

Then of course you’d have the current national third parties:

  • Green Party
  • Libertarian Party

Obvious coalitions resulting from such a breakup might include:

  • Progressive/Green left-wing
  • Democratic/GOP centrist
  • Evangelical/Tea/Libertarian right-wing

That still doesn’t help with closed primaries…

Or does it?

When you think about US primaries, most of our problems stem from the fact that political parties in the United States are treated like private organizations, yet rely on public voter rolls and public polling systems to handle nomination of local and national candidates.

This system is confusing and undemocratic, since the private party organizations want nothing more than to be left to their own devices to handle matters internally. Parties are either forced to accept non-members voting in their nominating process, or disenfranchise their own members during the process of excluding non-members.

There are several ways around this. One is to continue on with the strange private/public split, and pass legislation forcing all parties to accept open primaries.

The other way is to take the concept of a private political party to its logical conclusion. If the parties are private entities similar to other NGOs, and thanks to approval voting there is no harm in allowing additional candidates on a general ballot, why should we even care how a party conducts its business as long as its members are satisfied?

Privatize the political parties? Are you nuts?

Given how many ballot-approved parties already exist, it doesn’t seem like ballot access laws are a huge hurdle in most states. The bigger issue is getting a party to spread beyond the state it was first founded in. Improving independent candidates’ chances on a general ballot, as approval voting should do, would go a long way toward facilitating the spread of independent parties.

The biggest advantage I see in decoupling party affiliation from state-run voter rolls and making all state elections nonpartisan with approval voting is that it removes the incentive for dominant parties to tamper with voter registration based on party affiliation. With only one ballot, you won’t hear “sorry, we ran out of your party’s ballots.” There would be no need for onerous 6-month+ party affiliation change deadlines.

Furthermore, if parties are indeed private, why couldn’t someone become a member of more than one party, and participate in both parties’ nomination processes? What if an evangelical from Arkansas liked the Evangelical Party, but also liked the Tea Party? What about a progressive who also agrees with the Green Party? Are they supposed to pick and choose? Why not both?

Why not, indeed?

The only limit I can see is that candidates should not be allowed to run on more than one party’s ballot. Even with approval voting, no candidate should appear more than once. Anything else would violate the principle of one person, one vote.

What about proportionality?

The fact is, any election system will always have issues with proportional representation. Party List PR, mixed-member districts and single transferable vote all suffer from their own drawbacks.

Ironically, the most effective proportional representation system is in fact not an election system. Sortition is the name given to a system where representatives are chosen by random lots from the eligible population. In fact, we already use this system to choose representative juries. Such a system for the House of Representatives was proposed back in 1985 by Ernest Callenbach & Michael Philips.

If we were to pass one amendment to the United States Constitution to make our representation more proportional, I would suggest replacing Article One, Section 2, Clause 1:

The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.

with the following:

The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by random lot from the People of the several States.

Clause 2 would still apply, meaning that only adults over the age of 25, living in said state, and citizens for 7 years would be eligible to be selected.

The usual criticisms of Constitutional amendments would still apply, namely the difficulty of passing an amendment. The 27th Amendment took a record 202 years to ratify. However, as an intermediate step, it should be possible to implement sortition sooner in the lower chambers of state legislatures, as the thresholds for amending state Constitutions are much lower.



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