Thursday, November 29, 2012

Ranked Ballot Voting

One of the constant themes of modern politics is the polarization of the political body. We have members of congress who no longer seem capable of thinking for themselves. When they are in the minority, it seems their sole goal is to obstruct the party in power. When they are in the majority, it is merely to maintain power.  Policy plays second fiddle, bipartisanship is a sin, and seeking compromise makes you a Judas. How did we get to this point?

The problem is that political parties have turned elections into sporting events by radically fragmenting the electorate into two camps.  Rather than serving to identify a candidate who is widely acceptable to the general public, we go through a primary process which serves to first sub-select candidates who represent extremes of their parties, and allow the full voting public to hold their nose while voting for the lesser of two evils in the general election.  Voting for a third party is tantamount to abstaining.  The result is predictable... a congress of representatives that is pre-seeded not to achieve policies in the best interest of the people.
Example of a ranked ballot
Enter "Ranked Ballot Voting".  This is an election process where individuals will rank their preference for all candidates they would be willing to vote for.  As candidates are eliminated, the first place votes for those candidates are redistributed to the voters next highest choice.  Typically, when no candidate has received more than 50% of the vote, the candidate with the least number of first place votes is eliminated, and the votes are re-tallied.  When any candidate has accumulated more than 50% of the votes, they are declared the winner.

So how does this help us with our political gridlock?  First of all, it allows us to vote for candidates who are less objectionable in the event that our favorite candidate gets eliminated.  I could still vote for all candidates in my party ahead of the opposition, but in the event my parties candidates were eliminated, I could still vote for the least objectionable candidate from the other party.  This serves to elect candidates that represent the middle ground within voting districts.  Second, ranked ballots allow us to fearlessly cast votes for candidates who best represent our principles, rather than simply voting for a candidate based on their ability to win.  This allows third parties to participate in a role that is not merely a spoiler.  If they are eliminated, our vote will still be counted towards one of the remaining candidates.  If a large enough percentage of the electorate can feel confident that they can vote outside of one party, it may help break the stranglehold that the two parties have on the political system.

Third Party Candidates

Imagine the outcome in the 2000 presidential election if Florida voters had been able to vote both for Ralph Nader, but also a backup candidate like Al Gore, who they trusted more than George W Bush.  Imagine if the 1992 election allowed candidates to vote their principles and cast a ballot for Ross Perot, without worrying that they would be taking a vote from George H.W. Bush in the process.  Imagine in 1972, if the extremes of McCarthy or Nixon weren't to your taste, you could still vote for a Humphrey or Rockefeller as a more centrist candidate?  There are a lot of examples where we can see how our current political system favors the extremes.

The thing is, there are already places where this system is in place.  In 2010, Jean Quan won the election for Mayor of Oakland by ranked ballot voting.  As it turned out, Don Perata was leading in the first nine rounds of the instant runoff, but could never achieve more than 50% of the vote.  In my opinion, this is a huge success... more than 50% of voters decided that any candidate was preferable to him.  Even though there was a fractured opposition, one candidate rose to the top.  It is through elections like this that we can see a leveling force in politics come into play.

I predict that parties will fight tooth and nail against reforms like Ranked Ballot Voting, but the will of the people will prevail.  Incremental steps are now in place in states like California, where there is an open primary.  This addresses only half of the problems ranked ballot voting would solve, but it is at least a good start.  I encourage you to go out and learn more about this unique voting system, and if you like me agree that this could in principle be a huge tool in ending the partisan gridlock in Congress, push with me to get this system in place.

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