Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Restoring American Democracy: A Proposal

It may come as a shock to most Americans to learn that they do not have a right to cast a vote for "President". Under the US Constitution and amendment 17, the people may vote for US Representatives and US Senators --but not the "President" or the Vice-President.
Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress….

--The Constitution, Article II, section 1, clause 2

As the US Supreme Court observed in the 1892 case of McPherson v. Blacker:

“The constitution does not provide that the appointment of electors shall be by popular vote, nor that the electors shall be voted for upon a general ticket, nor that the majority of those who exercise the elective franchise can alone choose the electors.” …

“In short, the appointment and mode of appointment of electors belong exclusively to the states under the constitution of the United States.”

In 2000, the US Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore reiterated the principle that the people have no federal constitutional right to vote for President or Vice President or for their state’s members of the Electoral College..
“The ... citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the President of the United States unless and until the state legislature chooses a statewide election as the means to implement its power to appoint members of the Electoral College.”
The right of the people to vote, to express their preferences, does not itself make a government legitimate. In my view, a government is legitimate only if it represents what is commonly called the "will of the people". The history of western struggles for Democracy are best understood in terms of how best to determine and to achieve the "will of the people".

Traditionally, the will of the people is associated with the right of the people to vote and have it counted. It only sounds simple. It is the implementation that is complicated. In the US, for example, the campaigns are too long and too expensive. The primary system is designed to exclude candidates and works against popular participation and consensus. Absurdly long and boring, it turns voters off. It makes the cost of seeking the presidency the preserve of the very, very rich and well-connected. It's time for a change.

How is the "will of the people" to be accurately identified or assessed? At a time when Europe was ruled by Monarchs, France became the first country to examine the issue in depth. Pragmatic, utilitarian England and America, for example, favored "the greater good for the greater number", in effect, majority rule. As they are inclined to do, French thinkers complicated the issue with nuance and they were right to do so. They denied, for example, that the "will of Parliament" always reflected the "will of the people". They denied that a "collective will" is always known with a simple majority vote. Thus, a mathematical quest began for a voting scheme that would accurately reflect the wishes of a given electorate.

The quest is not consigned to the salons of 18th Century France. On election day in modern America, an increasingly smaller percentage of American voters show up to cast their vote for President. The shrinking turnout is due to the fact that an increasingly larger percentage of American voters have lost faith in the system. There is the growing belief that at the end of obscenely expensive campaigns, smears, and red, white and blue ballyhoo, your vote doesn't really count. It was a feeling often expressed long before the GOP brazenly stole at least two presidential elections. A centuries old French quest is more relevant than ever.

Aside from technical problems, ballot design, voter intimidation, or GOP interference with recounts, the US election of 2000 pointed up basic problems perhaps inherent in the system itself. In the end, Bush cannot be accurately said to have been elected. A court-mandated recount had not been completed when the US Supreme Court returned the infamous, legally untenable Bush v Gore, the worst Supreme Court decision since Dred Scott. In another system, say, an "instant runoff" the Nader vote would have gone to Gore. Other problems are associated with other elections. Is there a single system that will address every problem in every scenario. Nobel prize winning economist Kenneth Arrow thinks not!

Even before the infamous 2000 "election", it was said: "The plurality vote is the only procedure that will elect someone who’s despised by almost two-thirds of the voters." Tragically for American Democracy, the "election" of 2000 didn't even put that statement to the test, let alone, to rest. Everyone talks about reform. That nothing is ever done proves talk is cheap. American elections are expensive and getting more so.

Assuming the American people had both the means and the will to effect reforms --what kind of reform? And how? Optimistically, there are several alternatives to the present system and all require abolishing the much despised electoral college. There are several systems by which the people may elect their President directly. The top two alternatives to the plurality or one-person, one-vote system, are approval voting and a preference system called the Borda count.

In the US various methods of "approval voting" are termed an "instant runoff". The term "ranked choice" is also used to denote a Borda count specifically. In the UK, the term AV, or "Alternative Vote" is used. In Canada, the term is "preferential ballot".

Approval voting differs from the current plurality voting method in which voters pick a single candidate that they feel is the best for the job. Thirteenth century Venetians used approval voting to elect their judges. Simply, a voter casts a vote for every candidate that they like or think most qualified. For example, you could pick a favorite mainstream candidate as well as a dark horse like Dennis Kucinich or Ron Paul. But, you are not limited to any number. In a field of ten, for example, you might check all ten. Under such a system, the winning candidate is simply the one who gets most votes.

Approval voting has several compelling advantages over other voting procedures:

  • It reduces negative campaigning
  • It increases voter turnout
  • It helps elect the strongest candidate
  • It gives voters flexible and simple options
  • It gives minority candidates equal visibility

  • --Approval Voting Home Page
There is yet another method by which the "will of the people" may be gauged more accurately. Again, the source is France. It was in 1770 that Jean-Charles de Borda proposed to the members of the Paris-based Academy of Sciences what is now known as a Borda count, a "preference" voting system. It is an approval" method in which the voter does not merely select all his/her favorite candidates but ranks them in order of preference. If there are ten candidates, for example, a first choice gets ten points, second choice nine points, and so on. In the end, the points are totaled and the winner is the candidate getting the highest score.

The leaderships of both major parties will oppose this and other reforms. Approval and/or preference voting systems strike at the strangle-hold major party leaderships exercise over the election process. Secondly, approval voting enables moderately publicized candidates to amass popular support. At last, any truly democratic system interfere with the ability of entrenched political parties to raise millions for campaigns.

It is my hope that the benefits to society will outweigh the objections. Our democracy, perhaps democracy itself, is at stake. There are tangible benefits to reform. Under the current system, the GOP has all but perfected the art of political assassination by "negative campaigning". Approval systems mitigate against the "swift boat" hit job and against the same tactic by any other party. Disgusted voters would simply withhold their votes from the offending candidates and parties.

If change is in the wind, we may have Bush's criminality, his incompetence, and his habitual problems with truth to thank. A recent Gallup poll indicates more Americans now identify themselves as Democrats than Republicans —a shift that may give Democrats a long term edge. But will Democrats use that edge to make of the US a better, more democratic nation? Or will the Democrats become as bloated, as arrogant, as ideological, as crooked as the GOP?

Elsewhere there is evidence that the GOP is running scared while GOP positions are often conflicting and hypocritical. Overriding everything else, however, is Bush's catastrophic war on Iraq, supported by almost every American member of the GOP. Bush's tar baby is their tar baby and rightly so. A top-down party should be held to account for goose stepping into quagmire! The war against the people of Iraq is a war crime of unimaginable proportions and, by law, those supporting it materially and from leadership positions are just a culpable for Bush's crimes as were the Nuremberg defendants after World War II. I say: let's have that trial now!

It has been some time now since Bush lead Democrats on the issue of "terrorism". It is clear to all but a few diehards, like the Heritage Foundation who attacked me recently, that the war against Iraq has made terrorism worse, just as GOP regimes since 1980 have always made terrorism worse.

It been about a year since a TIME Magazine poll headlined: 3 in 5 Americans now say the nation is headed in the wrong direction. Certainly, nothing has changed for the better since that time. Certainly, if anything, things are made worse by Bush's perpetual war crime in Iraq. The time has come for a fundamental change. The question is: will the American people seize perhaps the last opportunity they will have as a nation to bring about a "rebirth of freedom".

An update:

Direct Election with Instant Runoff Voting:

Instant runoff voting (IRV) could be used for Presidential elections with or without the Electoral College. With a direct vote, voters would rank their preferences rather than marking only one candidate. Then, when the votes are counted, if no single candidate has a majority, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated. The ballots are then counted again, this time tallying the second choice votes from those ballots indicating the eliminated candidate as the first choice. The process is repeated until a candidate receives a majority, reducing time and money wasted in a normal runoff election.

Instant runoff voting on a national scale has the potential to solve many of the current dilemmas introduced by the Electoral College as well as the problems introduced by some of the other alternatives. It would end the spoiler dynamic of third party and independent candidates and consistently produce a majority, nationwide winner. It also allows voters to select their favorite candidate without ensuring a vote for their least favorite (as often happens when the spoiler dynamic is a factor and a voter prefers a third candidate the most).

Individual states can also adopt instant runoffs without a Constitutional amendment. Unlike proportional allocation, which could be unfair if only used in some states, IRV would not have negative consequences if only adopted by a few states. Each state’s electors would still be appointed through a winner-take-all method, but the IRV states would now be guaranteed to have a winner with majority approval. IRV would be best instituted without the Electoral College though, so that the winner would not just enjoy a majority within any state, but within the entire country.

FairVote: The Center for Voting and Democracy strongly supports abolishing the Electoral College and replacing it with direct elections and instant runoff voting. See our web page on Instant Runoff Voting for more descriptions and visual examples and our page refuting arguments against direct election with IRV.

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