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Reform the Electoral System Before It Malfunctions Again

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Bush-guitar

People on the left should not vote for third party candidates in 2016. But we also shouldn’t forget that we have a bad electoral system that can unnecessarily produce inaccurate results:

But the bigger problem is that supporting any Green candidate for president is all downside and no upside. The only possible effect Stein could have on the presidential election is to attract enough votes to allow Donald Trump to win, which would have horrible material consequences for countless important issues: civil rights and liberties, economic equality, the environment, women’s reproductive freedom, and on and on.

The idea that without third-party challenges the major parties will just take their supporters entirely for granted, and hence that third parties are necessary for major change to occur, sounds plausible in theory but is egregiously wrong in practice. Conservatives didn’t capture the Republican Party by mounting vanity general election candidates against the establishment. The Social Security Act of 1935, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the national right to same-sex marriage were not the result of mass defections from the Democratic Party and effective third-party challenges from the left. Presidents inevitably disappoint their allies, and as Bernie Sanders recently noted, politics has to continue after Election Day. But some presidents are amenable to pressure from progressive groups and some aren’t, and activists who know what they’re doing do what they can to elect the former. In 2016, Hillary Clinton is in the former category and Donald Trump the latter.

Still, why should the consequences of voting your first choice be so potentially perverse? It is a function of the electoral system. To get a state’s Electoral College votes, a candidate does not need a majority, only one more vote than the runner-up. These simple plurality electoral systems have become increasingly discredited among liberal democracies, for good reason.

Plurality systems effectively ignore highly pertinent information. They treat all voters as having no preference between the candidates they don’t mark as their first choice, when we know that in most cases that isn’t true. (A person voting for Jill Stein will, in all likelihood, prefer Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump.) Because of strategic voting (e.g., liberals of all stripes voting to keep Trump out of office), plurality elections tend to produce acceptable, majority-supported winners—but not always. Electoral systems that take this information into account—and hence prevent the spoiler effect of third-party candidates—are available and could be instituted.

The problem with the electoral system is not Trump per se; after all, one of the most severe democratic malfunctions of the Electoral College gave us Lincoln. The problem is that it’s a lousy electoral system, and the majority should reliably get their choice. I myself don’t see much value in expressive voting for third-party candidates but an electoral system should accommodate those that do.

For those interested in electoral reform, The Center For Election Science is running a fundraising campaign. And, also, never forget.

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