Friday, November 7, 2008

Post-election politics, part I of several: Parties

This series of posts, "Re-examining the Election," will be my "super-post" about the election that I promised.  Tonight I will focus on the two party system that we have had for generations here in America.  George Washington warned against parties, but James Madison saw them as essential to a new type of democracy.  All democracies in the world (that I know of) have some sort of party system, but is there a better way?

Last night I was chatting with Kelsey of Plastick Manzikert and he brought up the religious right faction of the Republican Party and how he thought that this election would be the death knell of the religious right.

That would be great if it were true.

Overall, I don't think the Republican Party membership agrees with the religious right - at least, not the Ron Paul-esque factions of the party - but what ends up happening in elections is that religious right candidates and leaders get into positions of power within the party when they would not generally be accepted by a majority of party members.

This got me thinking - if party platforms were less catch-all and more specific, then we would have a more diverse set of parties to choose from and thus we would "weed out" the extremist factions from "mainstream" parties.  This is the kind of thing European governments do.

To which, of course, Kelsey replied "What about the FN in France [and the BNP and the UK]?  They still get 10% of the vote.  It means no power, but they are scary as heck."

Yes, diversifying and specifying does mean that we get some really scary parties out there, but it also means that they are isolated and can't worm their ways into mainstream, catch-all party leadership and run the country from there (think Karl Rove and Dick Cheney).  Not without a coalition, anyway.

OK, so smaller parties are better, but two major problems remain: 1) How do we change the election system to promote more parties?  After all, there is nothing in the Constitution that limits us to two parties (or mandates parties at all), so we must have arrived here somehow.  2) How do we deal with the election of an executive when no party receives an absolute majority of the vote (or something close to it)?

There is a principle in political science called Duverger's Law which states that an electoral system based on district plurality (like the electoral college, where the winner of a state gets all the electoral votes, no matter the margin of victory) or single-member district plurality (where specific districts individually elect their own representatives to a legislative body) will favor two parties or factions in the system.

Since I can't explain it any better, let me just give you the example from the Wikipedia page on Duverger's Law: 
Duverger suggested an election in which 100,000 moderate voters and 80,000 radical voters are voting for a single official. If two moderate candidates and one radical candidate were to run, the radical candidate would win unless one of the moderate candidates gathered fewer than 20,000 votes. Observing this, moderate voters would be more likely to vote for the candidate most likely to gain more votes, with the goal of defeating the radical candidate. Either the two parties must merge, or one moderate party must fail, as the voters gravitate to the two strong parties, a trend Duverger called polarization.

In addition to this effect of polarisation, Duverger also pointed out a purely statistical problem with single-member district plurality (SMDP): if a statistically significant third party is spread out over several districts, then no single district has enough support for that party to elect a representative from it.  This problem can be solved, but can also be created, with gerrymandering, the oft-criticized act of redistributing and redistricting to benefit or hinder on party or group of voters.

Now before you go around thinking that SMDP leads only to two parties, I have to point out that many successful multi-party democracies have SMDP systems; India, Canada, and the UK all have more than two statistically significant and politically significant parties.  The US, however, doesn't.

In every election since 1980, no third part candidate has received more than 3% of the popular vote, with the exception of Ross Perot, who received 18.9% of the vote in 1992 and 8.4% of the vote in 1996.  More significant in the American electoral system, no third party candidate has won a state, nor received an electoral vote (discounting faithless electors), since George Wallace won five states and 46 electoral votes in 1968.  No non-Republican/Democratic party candidate has won the Presidential election since Zachary Taylor, a Whig, in 1848 (at that time the Whigs were a main party).

So, how can we promote the growth of more (and not just more, but smaller and more specific) parties in the American electoral system?  Well, for a start we can get rid of the electoral college and the system of Congressional Districts.  Yes, they were a good idea when the fastest method of communication was a horse and rider, but today these are simply outmoded concepts.  

We should hold national elections for parties to see what percentage of the public actually identifies with a party's platform, not their candidate.  Assign seats in the Congress based on the national results of this election, not individual state results (i.e. 45% Democrat, 30% Republican, and 25% Whig would yield 196 Democrats, 130 Republicans, and 109 Whigs in the House of Representatives and 45 Democrats, 30 Republicans, and 25 Whigs in the Senate).  This is called proportional representation (PR).  Distribution of the Representatives would still be based on population, and the individuals could still be elected by their respective state parties or local district parties, but this ensures that no gerrymandering to disenfranchise third parties could occur.  This might work, though not as well, on a state-by-state level.

Also, a problem that has grown in recent years, but was not even imagined in colonial days, is that of campaign finance.  I realise that I'm reprimanding my own party here, but I don't think that one party or candidate should be allowed to massively outspend the other.  Much as I love the things the Obama campaign and the Democratic Party have been able to achieve with the millions upon millions of fundraising dollars that they received this election cycle, I don't think it was very fair.  I think that it is every citizen's responsibility to find out as much as they can on a particular candidate; no party should have to plaster posters and fliers around and buy up as much television airtime as possible to inform a voter or scare them into voting one way or another.  If ignorant voters vote for someone out of ignorance, well then the country will be run by ignorant people.  You only get out as much as you put in.  But I digress.  

All candidates, in all races, should be publicly funded.  Either no outside funding should be permitted or it should be severely limited and regulated, as it is in France.  If you want to volunteer for a candidate, that's great, go out and do it.  Just make sure that everyone is on equal footing.  Historically this has been one of the biggest hurdles for third parties; they just can't afford to run campaigns.

On the fiscal side of things, though, funding ~15 parties through a primary season all the way to the election could get expensive for the government.  In that case, maybe some tax should be instituted to pay for campaigns, or maybe campaigns should be funded 50/50 publicly/privately if they receive a required amount of the vote.  NO MORE HUGE, LONG PRIMARY SEASONS!  Campaigning should begin maybe in April, at the earliest.  Not only would this save a heck of a lot of money, it would save us all the headache of having to watch political careers go down in flames as well as preventing long, drawn-out party infighting.

OK.  Well then, on to question two.  How do we deal with the election of an executive when no party receives an absolute majority of the vote (or something close to it)?

This is a difficult question.  In other developed democracies, Prime Ministers are appointed by the ruling party or coalition (a subject for another post) or a President is elected via a system of run-off elections which progressively eliminate candidates until only one is left (wouldn't that be a fun reality show?  Run-Off Terror!).  I think that perhaps the latter would be more appropriate for the United States, but then again, we also have a provision in the Constitution that deals with the possibility of no candidate receiving a majority of electoral votes that could be easily adapted to fit a system without the electoral college.

Article 2 of the United States Constitution on the election of the President and the breaking of ties:
if there be more than one who have such Majority, and have an equal Number of Votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately chuse [sic] by Ballot one of them for President; and if no Person have a Majority, then from the five highest on the List the said House shall in like Manner chuse [sic] the President. But in chusing [sic] the President, the Votes shall be taken by States, the Representation from each State having one Vote; a quorum for this Purpose shall consist of a Member or Members from two-thirds of the States, and a Majority of all the States shall be necessary to a Choice. In every Case, after the Choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President. But if there should remain two or more who have equal Votes, the Senate shall choose from them by Ballot the Vice-President.

This method could work in a popular vote system, and I think, considering the existing infrastructure and tradition, it would be the most practical.

Parties might also form coalitions to achieve greater amounts of power.  Allowing large coalitions would be a mistake in a new elections system.  Coalitions are simply another name for "big, catch-all parties," just like "factions" were for "parties" in the 18th and 19th centuries.  If coalitions with large, moderate member bases and radical leadership get into power, they could do some nasty things.  I'm all for majority rule, but coalitions are a perversion of majority rule in that the few control the many, who in turn control the even many-er.  If that makes sense. 

As you may have noticed, quite a bit of my proposed electoral system comes courtesy of France.  France has a very good elections system, I think, especially with regard to campaign finance and advertising (there is no TV advertising, only government-regulated news coverage where everyone gets exactly the same amount of time, and no candidate can use the French colors of red, white, and blue in their campaign material).  Maybe we should learn something.  After all, our Constitution could stand an update, and the French have the most similar form of government (we did inspire their revolution, and they did make ours possible).

Well, that post was long enough, so I think I'll finish it here.  I have more post-election issues to discuss, but those can wait for another day.

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