The view from the Green Party
by Janet Jordan
It’s no secret we need a better voting system. The US uses the plurality system, where the party with the most votes wins, even if it’s not a majority but only a plurality (where the winner gets less than half the votes).
In the plurality system, you’d better vote for one of the two major parties, or you’re a “spoiler.” Call the major parties A and B. People will say, “Candidate C shouldn’t be running! The trouble is, she’s better than Candidate B – more intelligent, better values, more in tune with what I believe in – but a vote for her will spoil Candidate B’s chances!” Then we’re stuck with A or B, much as we dislike both of them.
The election system is the problem
Today, we can’t vote for a Bernie Sanders, or a Jill Stein, or a Dennis Kucinich, for fear of spoiling some Democrat’s chances, and we are the poorer for it. But the problem isn’t Candidate C —it’s the system that pits two candidates representing the same value system (although different points within that system) against each other.
There is a movement for electoral reform that’s gaining strength. FairVote, NextGen America and others propose a change to Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). There’s also a bill for IRV in Congress. A Washington State initiative may come in the fall. I ask that Thurston County voters pay attention to what these voices have to say, and carefully consider the alternatives: IRV? Scored voting? Or some other system?
Instant Runoff Voting
Once a voter realizes plurality voting is a problem, that voter might look at IRV. Under IRV, voter ranks the candidates as first, second and third choices. The candidate with the fewest (first choice) votes is eliminated, and those votes are distributed to the voters’ second choice. There’s no spoiler effect because the voter, in effect, votes for both an outsider candidate and a mainstream candidate, sequentially. It’s “instant” because voters designate their choices on the same ballot rather than returning to vote again in a runoff. IRV can become the preferred voting system for an enlightened voter. I’ve worked for it in the past.
William Poundstone (Gaming the Vote, 2009) looked at alternative voting systems and concluded that IRV is not the best one. To start off, it’s clunky. Even with the “instant” part, the program has to run through many iterations to arrive at the winner. New programs would be needed and even with the proper machinery the process would take days.
IRV gives less information than a “scored voting” system. In that system the voter scores each candidate along a range, i.e., from 0 (no approval) to 4 (high approval). In IRV the second choice selection is counted only when the first choice is eliminated. Scored Voting actually gives credit to the second and third choices – just in differing amounts.
You might rank Candidate A as worst (0), and Candidate B as best (4). That’s expected; it’s the same job plurality voting does. But your score of Candidate C as “good” (1, 2 or ,3)—in the middle—will be more revealing.
If Candidate C gets a 3 from both left and right, it means that candidate has appeal to most people and is able to negotiate the differences between the major parties – in other words, he-or-she probably deserves to win. Such a candidate has been defeated in the past because people recognize that C is not rabidly in favor of a particular ideology and they want the most convinced person on their side to win; so C doesn’t get many first-ranked votes. In this scenario under Scored Voting, C probably will win. C will get a consistent 3 while candidates at one or the other end of the spectrum will get either a 4 or a 0, averaging a 2.
Score Voting ranks the candidates just as IRV does, but it gives more information, and conforms to current voting machines, with some software adjustments. We are all familiar with scoring things (your last BaconBurger for example) from 1 to 5 or whatever.
Approval Voting is a simplified version of Score Voting where you can accept several candidates for any given race. You give each candidate either a Yes (4) or a No (0) – they are acceptable, or they are not.
Remember the 2004 slogan, “Anybody but Bush?” With Approval Voting, you could have voted for everybody except Bush. Candidates you liked would not have been running against each other. Only the disliked would be left out. It’s like having a veto.
Approval Voting is not very intuitive; we’re used to figuring out who we want to win and trying to make it happen. Under Approval Voting we would vote for that person and others. So how does the best one come out ahead of when you have candidates with similar values – say, between Bernie Sanders (who could have gone on to the general election under Approval Voting) and Hillary Clinton? One of the two would have had to get votes from other than Democrats – maybe a few Republicans or some Greens.
The winner might not beat the others by large numbers, in fact other candidates might also have majority approval. But you could be sure the winner was wanted by the ones who voted for him-or-her and was not a second choice, selected by a voter who glumly realizes they can’t vote for their first choice.
Looking again at Instant Runoff
These are two good methods of selecting leaders and neither one is IRV, our favorite for many years. Why not IRV after all? According to Poundstone, there is another flaw with IRV: IRV works as long as there are two major parties and a protest party. The protest party can be considered the little brother of one of the major parties. Under IRV Little Brother gets just a few votes. Their candidate is disqualified and the votes go to Big Brother, who then has a better chance of winning. Everyone who supports Big Brother is happy.
The trouble, says Poundstone, is that Little Brother can grow bigger. Indeed, with IRV it is almost sure to grow bigger. People can make it their first choice without spoiling and with every vote it gains credibility. It might get about a third of the vote – say D’s 34, R’s 34, and Greens 32. Creeping up! But the dynamic is still the same. First choice Green votes will be distributed to the major parties.
When the Greens get to 34, though, everything changes – let’s say it’s R 34, Green 34, and D 32. Now Green votes are no longer re-distributed. They just stay in place, waiting to see if the D’s have given their second-choice votes to them or the R’s. And the D’s can’t be counted on to vote Green.
Poundstone says that as a centrist party, D’s might look askance at Greens for being marginal and flaky. Consequently, they will vote R the R’s will win because of IRV.
The argument seems spurious. First, D’s don’t vote R. Then, if the Greens have, after many years of work, won a larger percentage of the votes than the D’s, they are no longer considered flaky and marginal. Most people had no such impression in the first place; if people don’t vote Green, it’s mostly because they fear the spoiler effect. In short, both Greens and Democrats are diverse groups of people who don’t vote in blocs and whose second-choice votes cannot be predicted (except that a D will never vote R).
Poundstone is correct that with Greens at 34%, a whole new group of people will decide the race, and it will not be predictable. This may seem like a far-off problem, but Greens actually hope and expect to reach 34% —that’s the whole point of the exercise. They are not happy to endorse D plans. So, with regret, I have to concede that this might be a problem, and that we should perhaps work towards either Approval or Score Voting.
The importance of a new system
Voting systems matter. If our system allowed for third parties, we wouldn’t have the two major parties colluding to ignore things like climate change, the plight of the poor, or high unemployment. The third party, being a sort of protest party, is likely to bring these issues up and make it harder to ignore them.
If we had a different voting system, we wouldn’t be opening our ballots and finding only Trump and Clinton for President, plus a few names we dare not vote for, for fear of electing Trump. We are a significant country and it is wrong to be running it like this. It affects the whole world – would our President be tormenting those would-be immigrants if we had a better electoral system? We need to change how we elect our Presidents, and we need to choose the new system carefully. We may get the chance to change our system soon, and we need to do the job right.
Janet Jordan is a long-time resident of Thurston County and a Green Party member.
Ed note. For details about how IRV and RCV worked in practice, go to www.sightline.org where the Pierce County experience with these two methods is analyzed.