By Frederic Friedel
I have a really good friend named Michael. He is intelligent, well-educated, funny, warm-hearted and kind — when I work at his place I will often find a cookie, a piece of cheese or a slice of jerky next to my computer keyboard. I have stayed in his flat in New York, sometimes for weeks, and never been bored or uncomfortable. He even took me to a club in The Village (where he stays) and I got to meet Janeane Garofalo, for which I am eternally grateful.
So I basically like Mike a lot. But I believe, and I have told him so, that he was personally responsible for getting George W. Bush elected President in 2000. Which means he was personally responsible for the catastrophic Gulf War, the drastic reduction of taxes during that war, the crash of the world economy, and a lot more. Mike refuses to accept all of this, and remains in denial. I think he may even be responsible for Trump’s election — I cannot be sure, since I have broken with him over the above. But I suspect it happened again.
Now Mike is an unblemished left-wing liberal. I have never had a political discussion where he was arguing for something to my right, for something less liberal than my own views. So how could he install George W into office, personally and with full responsibility for the deed? This is what happened:
In the 2000 election Mike — and a number of friends of his ilk — spent time and effort campaigning for the Green Party nominee Ralph Nader in the Presidential Election, specifically in Florida. They did a pretty good job, and Nader got 2.74 percent of the vote nationwide. Of course, he had a snowflake’s chance in hell of actually winning — even Mike and his buddies will admit that. But they got their Green Party message out.
Except: Bush, who Mike and Co. abhorred, got elected, in spite of losing the popular vote to Al Gore, because he picked up all the electoral votes in Florida, after the Supreme Court halted a recount with Bush less than 600 votes ahead. Ralph Nader had received ninety-seven thousand votes in the state, and anyone who thinks those votes would have been evenly distributed among Gore and Bush, had Nader not run, is living in a different solar system. Gore would have crushed Bush, he would have taken the US from the $300 billion budget surplus in the Clinton years to a projected $6 trillion worth of cumulative surpluses through 2011 — instead of the $6 trillion deficit the Bush years had brought us by that time. All this Mike and his friends knew full well. And: they knew Gore would look after the climate problem they so passionately cared about even more aggressively, certainly more effectively, than their Green Party could ever hope to do.
So how come Mike and Co. helped Bush, why did they make it possible for the very antithesis of everything they believed to take over the White House, and put them through eight years of abject misery after the election? I’ll tell you why: because the election system is defective. It is not their fault, it is a problem with the ballot. And I am going to show you how to fix it.
The problem with the Florida vote of 2000 was that Bush, after the recount, got 2,912,790 votes, Gore was written down at 2,912,253, i.e. 537 votes less, and Nader 97,488. After the election was over all votes, except for the ones cast for Bush, became invalid or worthless. This can be much more crass in other cases: candidate A may receive 35% of the votes, candidate B 33% and candidate C 32%. Then candidate A wins the election, while the 65% of voters who were against him are simply ignored. So he (or she, of course) get to take office as a minority candidate.
There are mechanisms that have been installed to combat this clearly unsatisfactory situation, which is even more acute in European countries where there are many more parties vying for power — in the recent Dutch General Election there were 28 parties on the ballot, and the “winner”, VVD, got 21.3% of the vote. The government has to be formed by a coalition of multiple parties.
In a system where you are electing only one candidate to one office or seat, many countries have installed run-off elections: a second ballot is taken with only the two main candidates. In Florida 2000 that would have meant that after the vote was counted, and none of the candidates had achieved an outright majority, a second ballot would be held, with voters only able to select between the front runners Bush and Gore. That would have given us the six trillion dollar surplus and no military escapade in Iraq. 100% sure.
Instant-runoff or Preferential Voting
A second round of voting is cumbersome and expensive, and hardly anyone will advocate installing that in the US presidential elections. But there is a simple, elegant fix that is as good as free and produces very similar results: it is called Instant-runoff or Preferential Voting, and is accomplished with exactly the same ballots papers we use today. Except that instead of voting, with an X or shading a square, for only a single candidate, in the Instant-runoff system voters rank candidates in order of preference: 1, 2, 3… as many as they like. Here are two examples of what it would look like:
Australia has had an analogous method in a governmental elections since the end of the nineteenth century. This picture shows the ballot paper from a recent House of Representatives election, where “Preferential Voting” is used: voters enter a number for every candidate on the list. In Ireland Optional Preferential Voting is used, and the voters can give a rank to as many candidates as they wish.
In the 2000 Florida election neither Bush nor Gore had a majority, so with a preferential system in place the 562 votes cast for the candidate James Harris or the Socialist Workers Party would be redistributed: whoever voted for Bush, Gore or any other candidate as second choice on the Harris poll would be added to that candidate. It would not have produced a majority yet, so the 622 votes cast for David McReynolds of the Socialist Party, the next lowest candidate, would be redistributed to the second-choice candidates. And so on, until either Bush or Gore had a full 50% majority. Mike and his Nader voting friends, who would never in this lifetime vote for someone like Bush, could have put Gore in second place, so that their votes would not have been completely wasted. They would have got their message out, and Gore would have been elected. America would now be a world leader in climate conservation and renewable energy.
Of course the Instant-runoff or the Optional Preferential systems require a number of hours to reprogram the counting algorithms (can I do it?), and many minutes of additional computational time to calculate the results. But it is worth the effort. There are many benefits:
The current system that is in place in the US tends to pare competition down to two candidates — when there are more they are nothing but spoilers, and everyone knows it. If Bernie Sanders had run as an independent candidate in 2016, he and Hillary Clinton would have absolutely guaranteed a Trump victory — something like 37% Trump vs 32% and 25% for Clinton and Sanders. They would share a 57% majority, which would count for nothing. With Instant-runoff in place, in a Clinton-Trump-Sanders race, Clinton would emerge as the winner, absolutely no doubt.
Think of how many people did not vote for Hillary Clinton because they did not like her fingernails, or her laugh, or believed that the most urgent problem facing the country was that nobody in government should use a private server for private emails. Many of them voted for Jill Stein of the Green Party, or the Libertarian whose name nobody can remember. In the preferential voting system they could make their statement, but at the same time make sure their vote would not benefit a candidate they truly abhorred.
This has been a long and tedious read, so you are going to get a cute summary of what I have said above. The following video, by Irish/American educator C.G.P. Grey, is so much more entertaining than my ramblings. You should definitely invest the 4½ minutes watching it.
Instant-runoff voting is not a cure for all the problems of US democracy. One needs to fix the Electoral College, gerrymandering and a few other serious faults. But these are subjects for a separate article.
My son Tommy is currently debating the Instant-runoff system with a very astute mathematical friend who lives in Britain and believes there are some problems to it, especially in his country. Here’s what Tommy said:
I admit I don’t know how the British voting system works exactly, but I’m pretty sure the system in Germany and the US is problematic. In Germany it is not actually first-past-the-post, since the representatives in the Bundestag are simply allocated in proportion to the number of votes their party got. However a party with less than 5% simply doesn’t get any seats, and the result is that if you voted for such a party your vote does not have any influence at all. In our last election, 15.8% of the votes were “wasted” in that sense (except for their symbolic value). Furthermore, people are often reluctant to vote for a party they fear might not reach 5% (strategic voting).
In the US system the same effect is worse. People look at the polls and vote for either the highest ranked candidate (to ensure his or her victory) or the second (to try to prevent the highest one). Other options don’t have a real chance of having an effect. The last election had the two least popular candidates ever leading the polls, and still only few people considered the alternatives. That is because if you vote for a candidate with little support, you lose the chance to make a difference between the leading candidates. This in turn leads to the other candidates having insignificant support.
Using a particular voting system is always going to entail some trade-offs, and what I consider problems could of course be intended by design. But I would definitely favor Instant-runoff over a single vote system for the above reasons.