Sunday, October 10, 2004

Insomnia Series: Why Instant Runoff Voting Is A Bad Idea

This article is the result of waking up way too early and tuning into PBS. Note to self: Don't watch idiotic TV programs if you want to be able to go to sleep again afterwards!

The October 8th edition of "NOW with Bill Moyers" featured a "debate" between David Cobb and Michael Badnarik, two third-party candidates who represent established political parties albeit ones which have a snowball's chance in hell of actually winning the presidency. I tuned in little more than halfway during the show, expecting to see more on the real presidential debate--you know, the one between Kerry and Bush--and caught the show as Cobb was explaining the Greens' support of the Instant Runoff Vote idea. After listening for a few minutes, my one hope was that somebody, anybody, grab this guy by the lapels and shake him while shouting "David! This is America, you Euro-socialist!"

Cobb whined about how our winner-take-all electoral college system meant that voters were forced to support one of the two major party candidates or else their vote "didn't count." His solution is to change our current voter system to one where voters can vote for their top three choices instead of a single candidate. Under the Instant Runoff Voting system he proposes, voters select their top three choices for office, and if no candidate gets a majority of the votes then the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and the voters who voted for that candidate (and that candidate only) get their votes switched to their second choice and then all of the votes are recounted. For example, if 45% of the voters choose Bush, 40% choose Kerry, and 15% choose Cobb (heaven forbid!), then there is no majority winner, so we recount while eliminating Cobb as a choice. Assuming the Cobb voters chose Kerry as the second choice, that would give us Bush 45%, Kerry 55%, and Kerry would win the election with a majority of votes.

Instant runoff voting would, therefore turn our voting system towards a parliamentary style of government where building coalitions is important. Major party candidates would be forced to pander to extremist third parties in an attempt to secure that all-important second-choice vote, and extremist voters would have no incentive to moderate their views. Instead, their influence would be magnified when they voted to support fringe parties on either end of the political spectrum. In short, the power of third parties would be multiplied disproportionately to their level of actual voter support, and the coalition-building would not be between left and right but instead between moderates and extremists of the same ilk (liberals and radicals, conservatives and reactionaries). This, of course, plays into the hands of the Greens who have used this artifact of parliamentary systems to exercise a level of influence way beyond their popular support in European politics. In short, instant runoff voting threatens majority rule instead of assuring it, and the Greens know it.

Our electoral college system has been around since the birth of our country, and it has resulted in the longest continual constitutional republic with the greatest amount of individual liberty in the history of the world. That's something that can't be said for any of the European so-called democracies. The beauty of the electoral college is that it tempers the volatile political mood swings of the electorate, ensures that moderates (on both sides of the aisle) control the political system, and encourages compromise across the political divide. Our founding fathers were a lot smarter than we give them credit for.

The electoral college means that you have to work within the system, as opposed to being an ideological bomb-throwing anarchist. The Libertarians were effectively changing the GOP (the Reagan revolution was the result of an infusion of Libertarian philosophical blood into the Republican Party) until they took their ball and went home. Similarly, the Socialists did effectively change the Democratic Party enough so that the current Democratic Party supports all of the Socialist Party platform planks of the 1920s. The crossovers from these parties understood, and more importantly believed, something that Cobb and Badnarik, and Nader, and Peroutka, and other third party candidates do not: legitimately affecting political change in America requires you to work within the major parties and garner the support of a large number of the population nationwide.

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