I usually try to keep partisan politics to a tolerable minimum on this blog, and I still intend to. But I had a crazy idea that I wanted to share somewhere other than Twitter.
This year, a significant fraction of the country isn’t happy with either major party candidate. But because of the “first past the post” plurality voting method all states use for selecting their electoral college representatives, it makes it extremely hard for there to be more than two major parties at any given time. You see transitions when one parties goes the way of the Federalists or Whigs, but you never see three major parties stably coexist for very long. There is however no requirement that a state use a plurality voting system to select their electors. For many years, many people have been advocating for alternative voting methodologies such as the Instant Runoff/Preference Voting method (my personal favorite alternative voting method).
For those who don’t want to read the Wikipedia link above, the tl;dr version of Preference Voting is that on the ballot, instead of just making one candidate, you get to rank your order of preference. Ballots are tallied, and if no candidate gets at least 50% of the vote based on everyone’s first choices, the candidate with the least votes gets dropped, and the analysis rerun using the 2nd choices of those voters who picked that candidate. The process is continued until one candidate gets at least 50% of the vote.
The process isn’t perfect, it’s provably impossible to construct a perfect voting system, but if you’re unhappy with the two-party status quo, it’s probably the most practical option out there. It’s currently being used in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, India, and many municipalities in the US.
The challenge with enacting any alternative election method has always been that how do you get a two party system to enact a law that deliberately limits the power of their two parties?
One fact that helps is that you don’t actually have to do this on the national level to make a difference. A few states have already passed slight variations on the theme of winner-takes-all plurality voting. Nebraska and Maine both have plurality voting by congressional district, with the plurality winner at the state level getting the remaining two electors. But while the Nebraska and Maine approach does make marginal differences around the edges on how many electoral college votes each major party candidate gets, it still stacks the vote against third parties.
What finally got me thinking about an alternative when when I heard about Maine having a ballot initiative this year on whether or not to switch to a “ranked choice” (aka IRV or preference voting) scheme. Unfortunately for some reason they don’t include the presidential election, just governor, their US congressional representatives/senators, and state legislators, but it’s still a step in the right direction.
The nice thing about a ballot initiative is that this provides a potential end-run around the two-party machine in any given state. Admittedly, there are still tons of ways that political parties can oppose such a ballot initiative, but there have been examples of ballot initiatives passing even when strongly opposed by the two major parties.
So, my windmill tilting idea is that I want to figure out if we can get a similar ballot initiative started in Colorado, but this time with the presidential elections included. Here’s several reasons why I think Colorado might be an ideal state for such an initiative:
- Colorado has a track record of third party votes already–Ross Perot got nearly 1/4 of the votes in 1992, for instance, and Gary Johnson is currently polling up in the ~15-16% range in the state, and Jill Stein is up around 7% currently, with ~3% undecided.
- Colorado is a purple state, which means neither major party has a clear lock on the state. This means that there’s a chance you could get major party voters to vote for this if they thought that their candidate might benefit from more of the 2nd-place votes from 3rd parties.
- Colorado requires signatures from 5% of the people who voted for the Secretary of State’s last election in order to become a ballot initiative, but the secretary of state gets elected in non-presidential election years, so the turnout is typically lower–the 98k signatures requirement for a ballot initiative would only be 3.8% of the 2012 voter turnout, for instance.
- Colorado has a track record of passing iconoclastic (or at least leading-edge) ballot initiatives like the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights and the recent initiative that legalized the use of Marijauna.
Here a few thoughts in response to likely questions:
- What good will it do if only one state has an IRV voting process for president? First, I think it will likely lead to other states following suit, especially if the experience works out reasonably well. Second, in extremely close presidential elections, even one state going third party could prevent either major party candidate from securing 270 electoral votes, thus throwing the election to the House of Representatives. In the house, each state delegation only gets one vote, and the vote can only be for the three candidates with the highest electoral vote counts. In the case of a close presidential election, I think this would potentially give a benefit to compromise candidates who can appeal to members of both parties.
- Wouldn’t Preference Voting be more confusing for voters? According to the Wikipedia article, “In American elections with IRV, more than 99% of voters typically cast a valid ballot1.” This seems like a solvable problem.
- Isn’t it too late to get this on the ballot for 2016? I think so. But in some ways it might be better to start pushing for this in the next election. If this year’s presidential election is close, especially if the margin of victory is less than the third party vote, voters for whichever major party loses in Colorado might be swayed to support this initiative if one can make the plausible argument that their candidate would’ve benefited from being the 2nd choice of third party voters. Frankly if you’re a Democrat that thinks Ralph Nader cost Al Gore the election in 2000, isn’t that functionally the same thing as saying you think Al Gore would’ve benefited from a preference voting system? Ralph Nader only cost Al Gore the election if Al Gore was really the second choice of enough Nader voters to have tipped the Florida election to Gore if Nader hadn’t been on the ballot.
It’s still a long-shot, but I think this is a really good idea, especially with the bad taste many people will have in their mouths from this year’s presidential election. I think I’ve found a political windmill well worth tilting at.