Whether you were happy with the results of the election or most likely you weren’t (like most of the people who may read this) one thing I think we all can agree on is that the way we vote in America is terrible. And this, this is one of the few ways as citizens that we get to participate in our government. I mean, of course, if we don’t like how things are going, we have the ability to vote out the people who are governing. Right?
But how fair is our current system of representation? How easy is it for us to vote? How fair is the math involved in counting our votes? Hopefully I can show that the answer to all of those questions is : not at all. And hopefully I can motivate you to do something about making change in our system of voting.
Let me get an easy one out of the way right off the bat. It is hard for most Americans to vote. We have to Elections are held on work days. Elections are held during (mostly) working hours. We have to register to vote which in some states only happens at an office that is also open during working hours. Registration deadlines vary by state. Sometimes you need to get registered 90 or more days before election day. Once we are registered and finally get time to to the polling place to actually vote we find huge lines awaiting us.
None of this needs to happen this way. There should be little or no hurdles to voting. We should be registered automatically when we turn 18. The state knows who we are when tax time rolls around so they should know who we are when we vote. For national elections we should have a federal holiday. Why don’t we?
And now for something that I spent a lot of time studying and talking about voting systems. If you do any amount of research in this area you soon learn that everybody who studies voting agrees on one thing : Plurality Voting (our current system) Is The Least Fair System We Could Choose to Use. And I know you’re going to get bored fast so I will try to explain this simply. If a group of people have to choose someone from another group of people (more than 3) there are many ways they can do it. Currently we give each person (each _elector_) a vote for one of the candidates and the person who has the most votes is the winner.
At first this seems fair and in the field of voting theory there are many ways to define and measure “fairness” but I’m not going to go into them here. But at first, this seems a fair method because clearly the candidate with the most votes is the one the group prefers. But do they? A simple example would prove this wrong right away:
In this election there are 3 candidates: A, B and C. (You can substitute in whoever you’d like for those letters). A is hated by most of the electorate, B and C are universally liked by the group that hates A. If I can show you a case where A wins would you be convinced that plurality is bad? Ok. Here you go:
Election Results: A gets 100 votes, B gets 99 votes, C gets 99 votes.
Out of the 298 voters this means: A gets 34%, B and C each get 33%
Candidate A is the winner even though they did not gain a majority of the votes. Is that result fair? Is it acceptable to you if you are a B or C voter? Of course not. But variations of this effect occur all the time. Look at any primary that Donald Trump won in the very beginning of his campaign. As an example look at South Carolina
Election Results: Trump 32.5%, Cruz 22.3%, Rubio 22.5%, Bush 7.8%, Kasich 7.6%, Carson 7.2%
Could you tell me that all of the supporters of Cruz, Rubio, Bush, et. al would have preferred Donald Trump to be their nominee? What if they knew the eventual outcome of the presidential election? Would the Bush, Kasich and Carson voters have banded together with some of the Rubio voters to defeat Mr. Trump?
In what world can we say that someone who gets ⅓ of the vote should be the winner of an election? But we do it all the time. Shouldn’t elections strive to reflect the wishes of the voters?
There is a number of ways to run elections that are more fair and more accurately reflect the will of the people. One is Ranked Choice where you list who you prefer to win in order of preference. This is often combined with Instant Runoff where the votes are counted in successive rounds. Another is called Borda Count where you assign points to various candidates. There are countless systems that mathematicians consider to be more fair but my preference is one that is simple, fair and easy to implement with our current voting machines.
It’s called Approval Voting and it’s so perfect that a number of scientific and math societies use it to elect their leadership. Here is how it works : When you go to vote, you vote for _all_ of the candidates you ‘approve’ of and the candidate with the most votes wins. How amazing is that?
Let’s apply it to my hypothetical ABC election above. I said there was a large number of B and C voters that hated A and were equal in their like of B and C so they would vote for B _and_ C so the totals could be something like this:
Election Results: A gets 100 votes, B gets 198 votes, C gets 198 votes.
Out of 298 votes: A gets 34%, B and C get 66%
Of course this is not considering that some of the A voters would maybe approve of B or C and some of the B and C voters may have just voted for B or C alone. But what you see here is that A wouldn’t win and B or C would. Most importantly B or C would also have a majority of the votes in the election! This would mean that the candidate elected would more likely be the will of most of the electors! Wouldn’t this be an amazing system?
Having a system like this would also minimize the effects of strategic voting and reduce our chances of voting for ‘The lesser of two evils’. Imagine if we used this in just the 2000 presidential election: The ‘Nader effect’ would not have mattered and Al Gore would have won. Imagine we used this in our primaries. If we did and we had these huge fields of candidates we would more accurately see who the people would be happy with instead of seeing who can just convince 20-40% of them.
These changes I’m proposing make great sense so why don’t we have them now? I would say that there are a lot of reasons but the main one is that the two dominant political parties don’t want them. They right now control everything. The Democratic and Republican parties (which are not government institutions but private entities) enjoy enormous power in keeping things as they are. They can dominate the message, they can consolidate the power and they effectively make elections feel like we the people have a say when in fact we don’t.
Letting more poor and working people vote, and making election day a holiday would add more control of the system to more of the people the system is aligned against. Changing the voting counts would allow other parties and other candidates a chance to be counted which would dilute the power the D and R’s have over the system.
But we can pressure for change here. We as citizens can and should study up and learn that there are other ways to elect our leaders. We can and should advocate for a system that puts the control over who is elected back into our hands. It is our moral imperative.
All of the things I’m talking about start on the local level. You need to go visit the office of State Senator and go visit the office of your State Representative. You need to talk to them and find out how you can physically help make these changes happen. You need to talk to your friends and convince them of the changes I’m proposing here.
What is happening is that we as a people are being distracted by these huge important issues that we have little direct control over. This is by design. Please understand that making change starts with this simple, wonky boring changes. We need to get control over our government.
There is a lot more I want to say about our electoral system and I will be talking about gerrymandering, primaries and the Electoral College in later posts so please stay tuned.