Thursday, September 10, 2009

More Choices, More Voices

Voter choice in Massachusetts? Any color, so long as it's blue.

"Any color, so long as it's black," Henry Ford reputedly said about the Model T.

And here in Massachusetts you can vote for whichever party you want, so long as it's the Democratic party.

If you would like more choices, this blog's for you because it discusses a measure that would make it easier for people from other political parties -- yes, there really are other political parties in Massachusetts -- to run for office. The measure is Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) and if the hardworking activists at Voter Choice succeed, you will see a question about IRV on the 2010 ballot.

IRV (a form of ranked-choice voting) lets voters rank candidates in order of preference, allowing you to vote for the party you like most without accidentally helping the party you like least. Let's say you're one of those people who wants to vote Green but worries about wasting your vote and letting in the Republicans. IRV resolves your quandry.

In a three-way race between a Democrat, a Republican, and a Green you could rank the Green first and, by ranking the Democrat second, know that your vote will not give aid and comfort to the Republican. Imagine that: an election where the choice was not simply between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Why do we need IRV in Massachusetts? To bring us a step closer to multi-party democracy and all its attendent benefits, such as decision-makers having to meaningfully engage with a wider range of public policy proposals (e.g. single-payer healthcare). Why am I saying that Massachusetts does not qualify as a multi-party democracy? Because year after year, the vast majority of elections go uncontested giving the Democrats a free ride and, as a result, all the statewide offices (state and federal) and 90% of the seats in the Legislature belong to the Democrats.

Although nearly all the elected officials in Massachusetts are Democrats, it's not as though most of the voters are. In fact, half the voters in Massachusetts are registered independents. There are plenty of Republican and Green voters around too.

So why the no-choice elections and one-party state? Part of the answer is the plurality voting system, which rewards the already-dominant party and punishes challengers, especially challengers from so-called third parties. Plurality voting works well when there are just two parties, but if three or more parties field candidates the system operates like a roulette wheel, a roulette wheel tilted in favor of the major party.

For example, let's think the almost unthinkable and imagine an election where three parties run for every seat in the 160-member Massachusetts House of Representatives. In each and every district the voters would have a choice of Democrat, Republican, or Green. Obviously, in these unprecedented circumstances the poll workers would need to carry smelling salts to revive the stunned voters (and one another).

And if the election itself wasn't peculiar enough, the outcome could be positvely staggering; because even if the Republicans won 44% of the votes statewide and the Greens won 10%, the Democrats -- with just 46% of the votes -- could still win every seat in the House. So long as the Democrats, with the aura of incumbency, eked out a bare plurality in each and every district they would sweep the board, even though most people had voted for a different party.

In other words, the Greens could win 10% of the votes and 0% of the seats. This is the perversity of plurality voting in single-member districts, and it helps explain the reluctance of many potential Green candidates to step up to the plate.

A better way to elect legislatures, in my opinion, is through proprtional representation* but right now nobody is trying to put proportional representation on the ballot in Massachusetts. What we do have a chance to put on the ballot is IRV and if the question makes it to the ballot and most voters say Yes, the new law will go into operation for the 2012 elections. And then who knows what might happen. We could be awash with candidates, swimming in an ocean of democracy.

But first things first. To get the question on the ballot, the organizers need to gather 90,000 signatures over the next few weeks with a maximum of 16,000 signatures coming from any one county. No easy task. So if you'd like to get involved, please visit the Voter Choice website.

* If you'd like to discuss proportional representation, come see me after class.

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