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Choice in Elections

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Time to Jettison the Parties?

Published: Oct 2016

Have you lost confidence in the American two-party system? You are in good company!

George Washington warned the country in his farewell address about the “mischiefs” likely to be caused by partisan, or party politics. Today a record number of Americans are beginning to understand just what he was talking about.

In 2016, Americans watched the Democrat party carry on the illusion of fairness in their primaries. It was obvious, Democrat voters preferred Bernie Sanders over his tired and scandal-ridden opponent, Hillary Clinton. Yet the party’s “anointed one” still managed somehow to end up with the nomination. The Wasserman-Schultz debacle revealed clearly, just how corrupt the party system is, and how Bernie never really had a chance.

The Republicans were not quite as brazen. It was clear, Jeb Bush was their chosen one. But they were unable to gerrymander the outcome, and the whole thing blew up in their face. Then, many Republican voters watched as, one by one, their favorite candidate was eliminated from the race. And they ended up with someone lacking in core support from his own base, and with an unfavorable rating just as astronomically high as Hillary Clinton’s.

Yes, the 2016 presidential campaign was an ominous wake-up call for Americans. We were reminded, the parties’ primary election process is not defined by Constitutional, or really any other law. The Founding Fathers did not establish a “two-party system.” That evolved on its own.

Our political parties are much like private corporations. They can make their own rules and can choose their own candidates any way they want. If they happen to operate a seemingly democratic process, that is fortunate. But they are certainly not required to.

The principles of democracy are pretty simple. People should get to vote for the candidate they think is best suited for the task. And the person with the most support should get the job.

But the Democrat and Republican parties have manipulated the process to serve solely their own interests. Today, few get to vote for the candidate of their choice in a real election. Instead, we are effectively forced to choose from among two candidates who were chosen for us in an extra-constitutional, primary process that is often not very democratic at all.

Wait, you say! What about the Libertarian, or the Green Party candidates? Aren’t they proof we really do have more than just two parties to choose from?

Technically we can have more than two parties. But the big two have arranged things so it is nearly impossible for any other parties to have much success.

In fact, if you try to start a new party, or launch an independent candidate, the results are nearly always disastrous to your intended cause. If you lean to the left, you will only siphon votes away from the Democrat candidate, who is probably your second choice. If you are conservative, you will probably assure victory for your least preferable of the mainstream alternatives, the liberal.

In short, there is no incentive to enter a race with a third party candidate—unless your real goal is to trick the voters into electing a candidate who otherwise, could not have won a majority.

The solution is not too difficult. And we already use it in a number of local, state and other convention settings. It is called a “runoff election,” or sometimes a “multiple ballot election.”

The process is simple. You conduct a ballot where people can select from all the candidates—not just a chosen few. The candidate who receives the least number of votes is eliminated from the race, and then you hold another ballot with the remaining candidates.

This process is repeated until only two candidates remain—the most popular two. And a final ballot determines which of these will win.

The best thing about a runoff election is, the winner always ends up with a majority of the vote. This is unlike our current system where a candidate in a three or four-way race may win, but only with a plurality of the vote.

The only problem with runoff elections seems obvious—particularly in a general election. It is cumbersome to hold multiple ballots when people have to take time out of their lives to go to the polls and vote each time. This is why the process has, so far, been limited to a convention setting where ballots can be counted immediately and repeated as many times as necessary to produce a majority winner.

But there is an easy solution: It is called instant runoff voting.

This idea too is pretty simple. Instead of recording a vote only for the candidate of your choice, you instead rank all the candidates, in order of your preference. The one you favor most, goes at the top of your list. If there is someone you can live with, but is your least favorite, put him at the bottom. If you don’t want to vote for someone under any circumstance, just leave him off the list.

Your ballot is processed by a computer which runs each of the necessary ballot rounds, separately and in order. If your most favored candidate gets eliminated in one round, the computer goes on to your next choice in the following round. You might not get your first choice pick. But if a majority of people put a candidate high enough on their preference list, that candidate will win, and with a guaranteed majority.

Sounds great, you say. So how could we implement it?

Well, don’t count on your typical Democrat or Republican official volunteering to get this done. Instant runoff voting would eventually spell the end of the two party duopoly we have suffered under all these many years. It would mean an end to virtually uncontested and perpetual power for a relatively small minority of power brokers and professional politicians who think they know what is best for us.

Instead, this kind of change will only happen if it comes from the “grass roots.” Interested citizens would have to join together to implement instant runoff balloting in their local elections. It would probably be easiest to start with non-partisan elections, such as some mayoral and school board elections.

Once people become accustomed to the idea, it will then be easier to drag Democrats and Republicans, kicking and screaming, into using the process for state house, senate and gubernatorial races. We can hope for a day when a majority of Americans understand the benefits of the idea, and just want a chance to vote for their favorite candidate in a general election, regardless of what some party hack may have to say about it. That’s when a national grass-roots movement, or even a state-lead effort could muster the strength to implement instant runoff voting at the federal level: First with senate and house races, and eventually even extended to the electoral college.

So let’s jettison the two-party system. George Washington didn’t have much use for it. Why should we?