11 June 2014

Three steps to repair the two-party system before its next political earthquake

Another “political earthquake,” they say about this latest kooky primary we’ve seen.  The pundits of the two-party media state are once again baffled.

As we see more primaries like this, in which low overall voter turnout, combined with intense fringe groups with access to super-PAC funding, it’s becoming clear, the strain of American politics on the traditional two-party system that has dominated the United States for most of recent memory.  Modern trends in campaign finance law have liberated vast amounts of wealth into American politics that have flowed to candidates increasingly outside of the conventional funnels of the two dominant parties.  In addition, the complex nature of problems facing the country as a whole (e.g. climate change mitigation, global economic interconnection) demand a palette of solutions a bit more diverse than, say, two.  Plus, these solutions need to be large-scale and comprehensive, not the incremental policy compromises are our tit-for-tat two-party system is so typical of producing.

Even more frustrating are the numerous “low-hanging-fruit” issues that are not being addressed by our government, despite widespread bipartisan public support, e.g. marijuana legalization, SOME degree of gun control legislation, curtailment of government surveillance programs.  It seems that our two-party system has reached such a rigid point of deadlock that it can’t even manage to tackle the easy issues that exist today, out of fear that the next minute’s polling will suffer and their coffers will dry up.  Perhaps it’s related to the lack of animated “politicos” that will yell loudly enough on live television for the network to muster up decent ratings for itself from the lowest common denominator of our nation’s viewers.

And you might recall how much of a struggle it was just for our two-party Congress to pay our nation’s bills.

It’s time for our country to have a serious discussion about the limitations of our two-party system.  Rather than perpetuate the partisanship and the division that corporate news/entertainment media empires feed on, it’s time to come together to think about the contributing factors to why our great democratic system has managed to degrade to a staged two-sided shouting match.

What is it that impedes minor parties from thriving, even while public support for our two-party government is at nearly an all-time low?

It is to be acknowledged that yes, minor parties don’t have quite the vast amounts of resources, organization, and connections that today’s 24-hour-cable-news driven political environment requires for viability.  However, one must also account for the impediments faced by minor parties in an electoral system that places significant disadvantage and burden upon “upstart” political parties, especially when you have secretaries of state with a vested interest in one of the two major parties.  Despite these challenges, one can’t say there’s a shortage of ill will out there towards both of our governing parties.  We yearn for something different.

With those things in mind, I would like to propose three steps to addressing the problems with our perpetual two-party media state.

  1. Automate the drawing of electoral district boundaries.
  2. Establish instant runoff voting as a means to foster third-party development and to give people more choice.
  3. End the Electoral College.
In today’s data-driven age, when it’s easier than ever to compile data from devices and social networks to pinpoint who lives where within a few meters, why haven’t we figured out a way to institutionalize an automated process for drawing electoral district boundaries?  Thanks to institutionalized gerrymandering, our democracy has devolved to the point in which voters no longer select their politicians; rather, politicians select their voters.  In the meantime, optimization software has already been developed that will draw district boundaries, even while respecting as best as it can local boundaries defined by townships, cities, counties, etc. (think of it as a “snap- to-grid” function for the electoral map).  It does this through an algorithm whose logic can be made accessible to the public, so as to prevent any attempt at quietly hijacking the procedural steps for any one entity’s benefit.  I propose we banish all factors that have traditionally been used to administer electoral district boundaries (yes, this does include minority and other demographically defined districts), and replace it with a computer process that is simple to understand.  It will save lots of money, and it will eliminate the human and special interest element altogether from this mapmaking equation.  Plus, the maps will be prettier.

Allow for voters to select multiple candidates, in ranked fashion, for each position.  One way to implement this is the instant runoff election.  In this process, the ballots are collected, and the votes tallied.  With these totals, an iterative counting method is used in which the first candidate to receive a majority of the votes is declared the winner.  With this method, first, the #1 selection from each voter is counted and totaled.  If a candidate receives more #1 selections than 50% of the total number of voters, then they win.  If not, then the last-place candidate is eliminated from the race.  If you voted for the loser candidate, I’m sorry.  But the candidate you chose for your #2 selection (if you chose one at all) will now gain a vote from your ballot.  This occurs for all ballots who voted the loser #1.  If a candidate receives enough of those “loser runner-up votes” to put their total above 50%, then they win.  If not, then this process repeats, traversing up the ladder of remaining last-place candidates until somebody finally surpasses the 50% mark.  The important thing to note here is that, at no point, was there a “wasted vote” doomed to “not count.”  Additionally, this system does not penalize voters who may only want to vote for one candidate.  Each voter still counts equally.

Because an instant runoff ballot would allow individual voters to vote for multiple candidates, it does not require the voter to choose “the lesser of two evils” in their candidate choice.  In many cases, especially in a close general election under the present-day two-party system, voters might be compelled to vote for their preferred mainstream candidate instead of a candidate from a similar minor party, with whom they may share more views in common.  This happened in the 2000 election, when many Green Party voters faced the choice of whether to vote for Ralph Nader or to vote for Al Gore out of fear of a George Bush win under the “spoiler effect.”  In fact, it’s still unclear as to the extent of this effect on the razor-thin margins between Gore and Bush.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the Tea Party didn’t have to fight with the Republicans, but could actually work alongside each other, as one would expect with folks with similar philosophies?  Similarly, wouldn’t it be nice if similar conflicts didn’t have to exist between environmental progressives and labor unions within the Democratic party?  A few simple but fundamental electoral reforms, like those outlined above, could make this reality.  And if we could eliminate issues related to primaries that are skewed by low overall voter turnout, then hey, we can save some more money by eliminating primaries altogether, since minor party candidates can now be represented in a big-tent general election with ranked ballot choices.

Ending the Electoral College is kind of an obvious choice, based on the sentiments I’ve discussed above.  Enough folks have already debated this point that I'm too lazy to repeat those points here.

We live in an age now where vast amounts of data are collected about our population and used in order to produce optimized solutions, whether it’s Google Maps collecting traffic data to refine directions for individuals avoiding traffic, advertisements tailored for our shopping and social-networking trends, etc.  Isn’t it time that we, as a country, leverage these tools and capabilities in order to refine the way our democracy represents us?

If it’s true that our antiquated two-party system is indeed facing “political earthquakes” that increasingly take the two-sided pundit class by surprise, perhaps it’s time to improve the fundamental integrity of the structures that support our democracy.

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