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#2 Voting like the Irish while campaigning like the French

With the following set of proposals, we'll shift our focus from citizen deliberation to the voting booth. Elections have been with us for a long time, yet in most countries they continue to operate in ways that are too protective of established interests. This chapter explores some ideas for how elections—despite their intrinsic limitations—might be reformed. More concretely, we will look into changes that could (i) allow voters to more fully express their preferences and (ii) make the electoral process fairer.

Voting like the Irish

For those of us who still bother to vote, an election day often forces us into a tricky situation. On the one hand, we have our actual preferences over the different candidates. On the other, there is that little voice inside our head reminding us that only one or two of them actually stand a chance of winning the majority of the votes—and we had better take that into account, or else a candidate we particularly dislike might win the election. [19]

Thus, voting becomes a difficult exercise of trying to reconcile two different realities: our multifaceted preferences and the fact that we can tick only one box. As a result, many voters end up casting ballots for establishment candidates from a mainstream party that they do not truly support. They reason (correctly) that, by voting for a smaller party, they might be “wasting” their vote and that they'd better help elect the “least bad” of the mainstream candidates.

While arguably making a country more “governable,” the fact that the larger, mainstream parties end up receiving a greater percentage of the votes also has serious negative implications. In particular, the big parties feel less threatened by elections and, thus, become even less accountable to the citizenry. At the same time, outsiders are dissuaded from launching new political projects that could challenge the status quo since they know that they stand a minimal chance of getting elected. These factors contribute to the existence of a stale, self-assured political class that knows itself to be largely untouchable.

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Things could be different. We could, instead, use a voting system that would allow us to more accurately express our preferences over the different candidates, while also helping to break the stranglehold that the large, established parties have on our political systems.

“Rank voting” is a simple and powerful idea. Instead of casting a vote for a single candidate, voters are asked to order all the candidates according to their preferences. For example, voters are able to express that they like Small Party A the best, that they prefer Big Party B over Big Party C and that they strongly oppose Small Party D. Ranking alternatives is something that is intimately familiar to most of us: the adoption of rank voting simply extends this common, everyday practice to the act of choosing who will represent us.

Rank voting is easy: voters simply order candidates according to their preferences. (Adapted from the BC Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform report.)

Rank voting is, perhaps, more accurately described as a “family” of voting systems. Though the underlying idea is always the same, voting theorists have devised quite a number of variations. These variations all look alike to voters, but there can be big differences “under the hood” in terms of how individual preferences are aggregated and then used to distribute the available seats among the candidates. [20]

This book proposes the adoption of a rank voting system known as “single transferable vote” (STV). While some other good options exist, STV has two important advantages. First, it is a form of proportional representation. This means that, unlike what happens in majority (“first-past-the-pole”) systems, as long as some conditions are met, then the set of representatives who get elected will closely mirror the proportion of votes cast for the different parties. Second, STV is already in use in several parts of the world. For example, it is currently employed at the national level to elect the members of the Irish and Maltese parliaments and of the Australian senate (in addition to a variety of regional and local elections around the world). Therefore, advocating its adoption should be easier since we can point to the cases of Ireland, Malta and Australia when fending off accusations of “experimentalism.”

How does STV combine the preferences of individual voters to select a set of winners? The algorithm isn't trivial, but the idea behind it is easy to understand. STV works by “transferring” votes between the different candidates in such a way that (i) when a candidate stands no chance of being elected, any vote cast for her is transferred to that voter's next favorite candidate who has not yet secured a seat; and (ii) when a candidate has already received enough votes to be elected, any “surplus” votes she receives will likewise be transferred to the next preference of those voters. The following analogy by Douglas J. Amy, professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College, might help clarify how this works:

Imagine a school where a class is trying to elect a committee. Any student who wishes to run stands at the front of the class and the other students vote for their favorite candidates by standing beside them. Students standing almost alone next to their candidate will soon discover that this person has no chance of being elected and move to another candidate of their choice to help him or her get elected. Some of the students standing next to a very popular candidate may realize that this person has more than enough support to win, and decide to go stand next to another student that they would also like to see on the committee. In the end, after all of this shuffling around, most students would be standing next to candidates that will be elected, which is the ultimate point of this process.

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However, an improved voting system is not, in itself, enough to ensure better electoral representation. A variety of other (even geekier) factors should be kept in mind. An important one is how to define and allocate seats to constituencies. In particular, one needs to guard against attempts at strategic manipulation by larger parties.

The reason for this is that dominant parties will often try to use their power to redefine the boundaries of constituencies so as to make it easier for them to gain more seats in coming elections. They can accomplish this by redrawing the lines so that in each constituency: (i) the party has just enough supporters to secure a majority; and (ii) the party splits its main opponent's voter base across multiple constituencies, so that, within each constituency, that opponent no longer receives sufficient votes to win any seats.

It is also possible for the more powerful parties to “break” proportional representation by splitting the territory into a larger number of constituencies, each of them electing just a handful of seats. As the number of seats in each constituency decreases, so do the smaller parties' chances of securing any representation at all. This “trick” makes so-called “proportional representation” systems produce results that resemble those of first-past-the-post elections—thus cementing the power of the large, entrenched parties at the expense of non-establishment voices.

Campaigning like the French

Another issue central to electoral reform is that of campaign and party finance. The promiscuity between private funds and political parties is a well-known issue in almost every country. When discussing why vast sums of private money and electoral politics do not belong together, we can start by making two simple observations:

  1. If we are to respect the notion that elections are about the citizenry choosing candidates based on their intrinsic merits, then it makes no sense for some to stand on a taller soapbox merely because they have privileged access to greater pools of money.

  2. Even in the absence of outright corruption, the dependence of the political class on massive private donations is bound to make politicians unduly sensitive to the needs of the individuals and special interest groups who contributed to their campaigns.

Both of these premises seem straightforward. [21] However, they describe a world that is a far cry from the reality most of us live in. The reforms enacted in France between the late 1980s and the early 2000s suggest that things could be different. Over this period, that country took significant steps to curb the role of money in politics and seems to have succeeded. Without painting an excessively rosy picture—or suggesting that we should hope to ever truly separate the two—the French experience suggests that it is worthwhile to ask ourselves how to insulate the realm of politics from the corrupting effects of money.

Our best shot at holding fair elections is to have purely public funding of political parties and campaigns, handed out according to an equitable and democratically acceptable principle. It should be evident that private funding (regardless of whether it takes the form of donations, advertising or any other kind of paid support) is problematic. Unless you accept that catering to the interests of the wealthier segments of the population and moneyed special interest groups legitimately entitles a candidate to be better heard at election time, then private funding should be reduced to (at most) modest individual donations. [22] Given that operating a party and running an electoral campaign costs a substantial amount of money—i.e., far more than what parties and campaigns might net from small individual donations—it will be necessary for the state to step in and finance these activities.

So, what is an “equitable and democratically acceptable” way to hand out public funds? Obviously, governments cannot unquestioningly hand out public money to anyone who announces the intention to run for office. That would not only be impracticable, but would also likely result in an indecipherable election-time cacophony. We need a “filter” of some kind. Two possibilities are:

  1. giving out a flat subsidy to any party that is able to collect a required number of supporting signatures; or

  2. handing out public funds in proportion to each party's performance in the last general election, with newcomers (who demonstrate having an adequate number of supporters) being awarded a more-basic subsidy.

The first rule has the advantage of coming close(r) to establishing a level playing field for all contestants, while the second introduces an element of positive feedback that can promote some stability in electoral results (admittedly at the expense of smaller parties). Both are defensible goals, with the latter system already being used in multiple countries. In either case, the required number of signatures must be chosen carefully, so that spurious candidates are filtered out, while incumbents are not excessively protected from the threat of newcomers. [23]

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Such reforms on sources of funding, though, are only half of the picture. Equally, if not more, important is to cap campaign and party spending. There are at least two reasons for aggressively pursuing such a strategy:

  1. If campaigns and parties are not allowed to spend more than the total amount they collect from public funding and small individual contributions, then their incentives for illicitly obtaining additional funds from private sources will be reduced. While clever campaign/ party operatives might still find a way to misrepresent the true origin of illegally obtained funds, most effective campaign spending will, by definition, be highly visible. (For example, according to the New York Times, in the 2012 US presidential campaign, “media and advertising”—neither of which can be “concealed”—accounted for half of the total expenditures by both candidates.) Radically cutting how much money candidates and parties are allowed to spend will reduce the influence of money on electoral politics and, thus, help level the playing field.

  2. Such a drastic reduction in funding would also necessarily alter the way political campaigns are conducted—perhaps changing the terms of political competition for the better. In their current form, electoral campaigns spend most of their resources trying to gain an advantage by means that have little to do with either reasoned, informed argument by the candidates or reasoned, informed reflection by the voters. Mass advertising, rallies at which candidates preach to the converted, and the use of political consultants to strategize ad nauseum about whom to “target” or how to tweak a candidate's “message” can hardly be seen as bringing us closer to any ideal of democratic representation.

Drastically cutting campaign spending while promoting a cost-effective—and, most importantly, “debate-improving”—transition to largely Internet-based campaigning could meaningfully change the face of electoral politics.

Although the low quality of millions of Youtube comments admittedly suggests otherwise, we can now build web-based platforms that allow a large number of people to make meaningful contributions to a discussion. Such systems could be used, for example, to gather questions and counter-arguments from the general public in response to a candidate's public statements or media appearances. Journalists, bloggers and activists would then be able to follow up on the issues identified in that way.

For example, a web platform could be devised in which each candidate would be given the opportunity to host all of his or her media content and public appearances. Citizens at large and the other candidates would be able to attach questions to—or otherwise critically engage with—each candidate's materials and public statements. Contributions made in this way would gain visibility as they got more votes from other participants in the forum. The task of moderating this forum would be delegated to a committee of representatives from all the other candidates running in that election. That would ensure that the questions that rise to the top—and, thus, have the best chance of spanning media coverage and debate—are not just relevant, but are those that the candidate's opponents would most like to see addressed. The candidate's answers to these questions would then also become available for challenge, and this cycle of public scrutiny and debate would start over again.

While I don't harbor any fantasies that information technology will magically bring about a golden age of reasoned political debate, much of what currently passes for political discourse sets such a low bar that thinking that an intelligently designed system could improve upon the present situation doesn't seem far-fetched at all. The massive electoral advertising campaigns we find in many countries do little more than bombard the public with generic messages promoting the “honesty” and “respectability” of a candidate. These campaigns work solely by appealing to either primitive forms of identification (“this is the candidate of my party, so I will support her”) or, more perversely, by tapping into subconscious preconceived notions of what a “respectable” or “competent” politician is supposed to look like. If caps on political spending resulted in far fewer such messages, it might even happen that quite a number of voters would redirect their attention to the more reasoned content of a web platform like the one described above. And that, I would argue, could, in itself, turn out to be pretty good news.

Actually implementing voting law reforms

Wrapping up this chapter, it is important to reemphasize that the devil is in the details. Switching to a “better” voting system is meaningless if the number of seats in most constituencies is so small that the victory of the largest parties is effectively ensured. Similarly, it is also easy to leave loopholes in campaign and party finance regulation. For example, limits on campaign spending are of little use if electoral campaigns are defined as starting just a few weeks before an election, and parties are free to spend as much as they like promoting their candidates before the official start of the campaign.

We have to carefully address these and myriad other questions if reforms are to prove effective. In fact, this is true of all of the proposals presented in this book. Readers who are wisely allergic to generalities can rest assured that the challenges—and opportunities—this presents will be addressed later in the book.


19. ^ As will soon become clear, this section could just as easily have been entitled, “Voting like the Australians” or “Voting like the Maltese.”

20. ^ It is worth keeping in mind that no voting system is perfect. In fact, it is known to be mathematically impossible for any voting system to meet all the desirable criteria that voting theorists have identified.

21. ^ Not so in the US, though. In that country, many equate donations and other forms of paid support for political campaigns to constitutionally protected political speech. In particular, over the last four decades, the US Supreme Court has repeatedly supported the notion that constraints on money spent to promote (or attack) a political candidate are inadmissible. One can take the extent to which the US political system has been overrun by corporations and other special interest groups as at least indicative of the perils inherent in that approach. As an illustration, consider the unexpectedly candid words of Dick Durbin, a senior US senator, after the near-meltdown of the global financial system: “[T]he banks . . . are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place.” Similarly, in his influential 2009 essay The Quiet Coup, Simon Johnson, former chief economist of the IMF, pointed out how the financial industry has effectively gained control over the US federal government and, thus, has become impervious to any kind of meaningful supervision.

22. ^ The definition of “modest” is obviously open to debate, but it is probably a fair bet to say that this principle requires ruling out individual contributions that would represent a sizeable chunk of the disposable income of most citizens.

23. ^ Public funding handed out according to popular support for a party/candidate also serves as the inspiration for a set of proposed reforms in the US. Acting within the strong constraints imposed by the US Supreme Court on campaign/party finance reform, Yale law professors Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres' idea of “patriot dollars” would endow US voters with a government “voucher” that they could distribute as they saw fit among running candidates. In his most recent book, Lawrence Lessig made a similar proposal. His “Grant and Franklin Project,” named for the past US presidents whose faces appear on $50 and $100 bills, would see citizens receive a $50 or $100 tax rebate that they could use to fund political candidates or parties of their choosing.

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