Change the Election System

The 2016 South Carolina Republican primary highlights two very large issues I have with our election system.

First past the post voting is “just about the worst possible system.”

Take a look at this Stanford News article on ranked choice voting.

“One advantage of the system we use in our national elections, the ‘first past the post’ method, is that it is easy to understand. Everyone votes for one candidate and the one with the most votes wins. But ease of understanding is about the only thing in its favor, and all the experts agree it is just about the worst possible system.” Keith Devlin, Stanford mathematician

Trump won the whole state with less than 1 in 3 people voting for him. It is plausible that, given the choice between Trump (32.5%) and *either* Rubio (22.5%) or Cruz (22.3%), that Trump would not have risen above 40% of the vote, and likely not above 50%. The other three candidates (Bush, Kasich, Carson) collectively had 22.6% of the vote. Overall, Trump was not the first choice of over 2/3 of voters.

Now, some might say that we should assume that votes would be distributed evenly among the remaining candidates, so a first past the post system still reflects the will of the voters. I disagree. Given that there are more similarities between Rubio and Cruz than between Trump and anyone else, it is plausible to assume that many (if not most) supporters of Rubio or Cruz would have shifted their support to Cruz or Rubio (respectively) had their preferred choice been eliminated.

The biggest issue is that we don’t know. We simply don’t know which way the supporters of all of the losing candidates would have gone if they had another option to express their preference. We could very well have a candidate that is the first choice of 33% of voters, but the last choice of over 50% of voters.

With our current system, voters are often faced with the Faustian bargain of abandoning who they truly support in the hopes that their “more electable” second, or even third choice, will garner enough votes to beat their last choice.

An ideal system would elect the person who has the most support from all of the people. This can be achieved through the multiple round voting systems often seen in conventions. However, that system is not practical for broad elections. The closest we come is in a runoff election, which is still costly, time consuming, and not ideal.

Instead, we have a “plurality” or “first past the post” system where the candidate who is (we assume) the first choice of the most people is the one elected, even if that person is the last choice of the majority.

This conundrum could be solved by giving voters more flexibility in elections, such as a preferential, or ranked choice, voting option. There are three primary objections to this type of system. None of them are insurmountable.

Technology Hurdles
Processing ranked choice voting would be time-consuming and tedious if done by hand. Fortunately, we live in the 21st century. Even though we still don’t have flying cars, we do have the technology to process and tabulate a ranked choice voting system quickly and reliably. This problem is a simple one, and the technology already exists to solve it.

Voter Education
“It’s too confusing” is another way of saying that voters are smart enough to pick a good candidate, but too dumb to understand that they can also select a second and/or third choice in case their preferred candidate doesn’t come out on top. Hopefully this argument will die the quick death it deserves.

“One Person, One Vote”
One persistent argument is that preferential voting gives someone “more than one vote.” The logic is that, if a person’s first choice is eliminated, they get to “vote again” for a second choice. Whereas, if a person’s first choice is still in the running, they still only have their first vote for their original candidate.

I suppose you could look at it that way if you compare it directly to a first past the post system. However, we don’t seem to have that complaint in a multiple round voting system. With multiple rounds, everyone votes every round, and someone can keep voting for the same candidate over and over again until that person either wins or is eliminated.

Since a preferential voting system is more akin to multiple round voting than first past the post, if the idea of “one person, one vote” sticks in your craw, think of it as everyone getting to vote in every round. It’s just that, if your first choice is still in the race, your vote goes to that person every round, just like it would in a multiple round voting.

Winner Take All Is For Losers

My second issue is the “winner take all” approach to delegate assignment. Less than 1 in 3 voters chose Donald Trump, but his first past the post victory means that he “gets the support” of the entire state worth of 50 delegates. If he received delegates according to his actual support, as shown by votes, then he should only receive 17 delegates (rounded up).

Look, I understand why states do this. Candidates give them more attention because the stakes are higher. It means more publicity and (theoretically) more revenue to the state, and more clout to its political leaders.

But, really, what are elections for, if not to determine the will of the people?

A winner take all approach does not reflect the will of the people by throwing 100% of the support behind someone who received less than 100% of the vote. It skews the results and messes up the entire system nationwide.

Now, I know that not every state does winner take all. But some do. For a long and convoluted explanation of the whole process, see this Washington Post article: Everything you need to know about delegate math in the presidential primary.

Change the System

So, what would it take to change the system?

Your support.

Understand the pros and cons of the various systems (it’s really not that complicated.) Talk with people about other options. Raise awareness about what we can do, and start conversations about making some changes. Express support for a change to your leaders who write the rules.

The election system really belongs to us as citizens. If enough of us decide it’s time to update our system to a better way, we can make it happen. It won’t be quick, and it won’t be easy, but it needs to happen.

And, who knows? It might even help solve this polarization problem that seems to get worse every election cycle.

“So voting is not like physics or engineering, where we have to do what the math tells us. Rather, it is one of those cases where we can make the math work for us – to use it to achieve our own ends as a society. The voters will make the selection, but the math we choose can shape the kind of government we get. Do we want politics to be about partisanship and fighting, where half the electorate will always end up as losers and we just keep seesawing between the two, or do we encourage cooperation and compromise, where no one gets everything but everyone gets something?” Devlin asked.


Devlin said that ranked choice voting… almost certainly encourages coalition building and reduces negative campaigning. “The question is, do you think that is a good thing? I have my opinion, but there I am being a citizen, not a mathematician.”

Call it a bonus.

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