Friday, March 28, 2008

For a Truly General Form of Election

The alternative domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissention, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an Individual: and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty... A fire not to be quenched, [the spirit of party] demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.
Washington's Farewell Address (1796)

Synopsis (Jun 20, 2008): The basic idea here is to hold a primary which is party-neutral. After the primary, losing candidates can throw their support behind leading candidates. This avoids the problem of spoilers. The two leading candidates then have a run-off.

Preface (2008): An earlier version of this article was originally published in the August 1994 Minnesota State Fair issue of the Minnesota Libertarian. The idea arose during my experience witnessing the ballot access process in Minnesota and the partisanship suffusing it.

In the decade since I have noticed a most pernicious effect of the privileged station enjoyed by the two major parties. If barriers to electoral competition are sufficiently high, then only the irrational tend to stay in "third-party" parties.

It behooves us to find a way for other political associations, large and small, to grow in a natural way on the basis of their merits, open to ready electoral challenge. Indeed I see a future where the separation of power in government is reflected in the array of parties. Eventually I see a future of micro-parties such as the Pirate Party of Sweden, selecting an agenda limited by their expertise. Individual candidates may then assemble their platform from party components without kowtowing to mindless party discipline.

In the short term I only desire a way for an alternative liberal party to smoothly, civilly replace one of the two major parties if its candidates are of character and merit our trust.

The recent ruling by the United States Supreme Court on Washington's party-neutral top-two primary is promising. The form of election there is close to what I have in mind, but it falls short by dissuading voters from expressing their preference for less well-financed candidates.

[Note (May 10, 2010): To be clear—let me underline this—, I do not support top-two primary as proposed currently in California by Proposition 14, only the power of the state to experiment with general forms of election, subject to the regulation of Congress per Article 1, Section 4. Such regulation must be in the spirit of protecting a republican form of government. Some day a generation of Americans will see that forms of election which gamefully favor parties in power are not of such a spirit thanks to experiments at the state and local levels.]

Blanket primaries are essential, by the way. Voters must not be pigeon-holed religiously into one party or even another by the form of election we choose. Parties may have their own preliminary elections if they wish, but our constitutions must not engender crusty partisanship.

For a Truly General Form of Election

E pluribus duo, tum deinde unum

In Minnesota, there is much lamenting about the low participation in primaries and the even lower participation in caucuses.[1] A report on Minnesota's caucus system published in 1991 by the Citizens League expressed the following concern which should attract the attention of people from all parties: "Over time, low levels of participation leave the party organization without new blood. For the health and vitality of the parties, incoming members who bring fresh ideas and new resources to the party organization are needed." (The Party Caucus: An Inquiry, Citizens League Report, p. 9)

Later in this same report, the Minnesota Party Caucus Committee offers a suggestion that would open up state elections to all voters so that they can vote anonymously and without party affiliation both in the primary and final elections: "Under this [proposed] system, the primary election would select two candidates, regardless of party, to compete in the general election. One ballot would list candidates from all parties at the primary election; the top two vote-getters would go on to the general election." (p. 26)

Currently, each voter loses the privacy of his or her political inclinations when voting in the primary as everyone must declare a party affiliation. Every vote funded by the state should be completely secret, especially to party officials. If a Minnesota voter insists on his or her privacy, that voter cannot vote in the primary and so can have no effect on the choice of the final major candidates. Now parties can always hold their own caucuses or primaries, but state-funded elections ought to be general and by completely secret ballot.

Moreover, in the present primary system the choice of candidates for different branches of government are tied together by party affiliation. The candidates for various branches (Governor, Senate, and House of Representatives), according to the separate nature of each office, ought to be evaluated by voters in different ways, using three separate gauges that may not fit the DFL-IR[2] political spectrum. By segregating the voters in primaries by major party, the separation of powers between branches is blurred. The strong cooperation across the branches fostered by the major party organizations adds further to party polarization and the weakening of the system of checks and balances in our Constitution.

Finally, the two major parties are granted special status by the state in the primaries. On the wall of the chamber for the Minnesota House of Representatives "a frequent recurrence to fundamental principle" is yet advocated by Patrick Henry. To the first Minnesota Constitution of 1857, let's now recur: "In all cases when a general law can be made applicable, no special law shall be enacted." Now how can the primary system be run according to a general law in an effective way, with proportionate influence of the serious voters and without undue influence of the true fringe?

My proposal is that we adopt a primary as described above by the Minnesota Party Caucus Committee with one change: candidates with lower vote tallies may act as electors and contribute their votes to candidates with higher vote tallies.[3] The two candidates with the highest tally go on to a final election.

The effect would be that some 2/3 of the electorate would influence the selection of the two final candidates (1/3 or so going to each in a tight race), confirming as individual voters that support in the final election. The remainder of the voters, whose candidates end up in fringe limbo, without influence in the primary this time around, would still help decide which of the two is to receive a majority in the final election.

Minnesota voters could then risk having fresh and quick-thinking candidates, devoid of party stagnation and incrustation, without the fear of their votes being lost, without the risk of fringe candidates affecting the major candidates, and without slavishness to the slow wit of party oligarchs.

This article was originally published in The Minnesota Libertarian August 1994 excepting: the Patrick Henry quote, the revision of the sentence following, grammatical corrections, and the footnotes, most of which were added December 1995 for publication in an earlier incarnation of the Solonian Journal. The author and both earlier publications are due attribution.

  1. This was written in 1994. In 2008, by contrast, the DFL caucuses were flooded with participants to such an unusual extent that disorder reigned, from what I understand, due to a lack of preparation.
  2. For those outside Minnesota, DFL stands for Democratic Farmer Labor, the name of the state party affiliated with the Democratic Party, and IR for Independent Republican, the name until 1995 of the state party affiliated with the Republican Party.
  3. A minimum number of votes, say 50, to qualify as an elector would be prudent (added 2008).

Update (Apr 5, 2008, 3:25 pm Central):
I found a good example of the electoral problem we Americans face now. Listen to the recent interview of Bob Barr by Sean Hannity. Hannity criticizes Barr for potentially "splitting the vote". He points with fear to the Democrats. The Democrats point with fear to the Republicans. How are we to move forward in the ongoing promise of the American Revolution and the promise of the Declaration of Independence with all this dysfunction on both sides and no rational way to build a political path out of the muck. I suggest that the form of election I have described is a means towards that end. Specifically, it counters the argument against "splitting the vote".

Update (Apr 10, 2008): Here's another Bob-Barr interview where the interviewer, Neil Cavuto, tries to dissuade Barr from running, using the current form of election as a bludgeon, making my case on how this proposal is germane now. We Americans are caught up in a dysfunctional pattern.

Moreover, this proposal for a general form of election is designed to prevent the tail from wagging the dog, as happens in Europe.

Update (May 10, 2010): I oppose Proposition 14 in my home state of California. I now live in New York and am sad I cannot vote against it.

During a visit to California last year I had an idea while reading Alexis de Toqueville's "De la démocratie en Amérique" at Cafe de la Presse in San Francisco. Taking in some lessons from the experience of IRV in Minneapolis, both good and bad, it combines the two forms to produce a better form. I learned from talking with the key people in Minneapolis responsible for implementing IRV in 2009, including a dear friend, who is Assistant City Attorney there.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A mugwump awakes - Part 1

Imagine you're a mugwump, placed in a deep slumber for a century, awakening to the horrors of our government run amok. What would strike you? What would you do now, with the added benefit of experience and a few more tools in the economic-theory toolbox?

In the tale of Rip van Winkle, Rip wakes only to find himself adrift in a new land, having fallen asleep for twenty years. He missed the American Revolution.

[Rip van Winkle] now hurried forth, and hastened to his old resort, the village inn, but it too was gone. A large rickety wooden building stood in its place, with great gaping windows, some of them broken and mended with old hats and petticoats, and over the door was painted, "The Union Hotel, by Jonathan Doolittle." Instead of the great tree that used to shelter the quiet little Dutch inn of yore, there now was reared a tall, naked pole, with something on the top that looked like a red night-cap, and from it was fluttering a flag, on which was a singular assemblage of stars and stripes. All this was strange and incomprehensible. He recognized on the sign, however, the ruby face of King George, under which he had smoked so many a peaceful pipe; but even this was singular metamorphosed. The red coat was changed for one of blue and buff, a sword was held in the hand instead of a sceptre, the head was decorated with a cocked hat, and underneath was painted in large characters, General Washington.

There was, as usual, a crowd of folk about the door, but none that Rip recollected. The very character of the people seemed changed. There was a busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquility. He looked in vain for the sage Nicholas Vedder, with his broad face, double chin, and fair long pipe, uttering clouds of tobacco-smoke instead of idle speeches; or Van Bummel, the schoolmaster, doling forth the contents of an ancient newspaper. In place of these, a lean, bilious-looking fellow, with his pockets full of handbills, was haranguing vehemently about rights of citizens—elections—members of Congress—liberty—Bunker's Hill—heroes of Seventy-six—and other words, which were a perfect Babylonish jargon to the bewildered Van Winkle.

Our mugwump then is like Rip, except everything is reversed. The liberty poles are gone, where they once abounded. All but our mugwump have forgotten who Columbia is, with her liberty pole, topped with a red cap. When he fell asleep, Americans still sang their anthem to her. Hers was the poetic name for America. As late as the Columbian Exposition in 1893 her statue stood center-stage, her liberty cap perched higher than the symbols of Congress's mace. Where has her liberty pole gone?

Here are two examples of America personified by Columbia with her liberty pole, from the 1780s.

And another from the Seated Liberty dollar, which circulated from 1840 to 1873.

Will we ever top our flagpoles with the liberty cap again and raise our liberty poles from their slumber?

Here's our mugwump in younger days.


Dream City by Halsey Ives (1893) via Illinois Institute of Technology

Library of Congress - here and there

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Bob Barr is looking at running

According to an interview yesterday with Scott Horton,
Scott Horton: Are you going to run for President of the United States?

Bob Barr:
... It is something to be honest with you that I'm looking very seriously at. [0:56-1:26]

Liberty can bring Americans back together again. Bob Barr agrees.
Bob Barr: There is a tremendous amount at stake in this upcoming election. It may very well be that if we don't get a handle on these fundamental liberties that are at stake in this election we will not be able to again. It is the growth of government; the limitations on individual liberty and freedom are accelerating so rapidly these days that this may be our really last opportunity to do so. Ron Paul tapped into a great deal of that dissatisfaction and that awareness. Unfortunately working through the Republican Party structure, it became impossible for him to really move forward with his movement but we have to have, as you say, a rallying point out there to harness that energy, that freedom, in this election cycle.

Scott Horton: I can also tell by your actions that you really understand this realignment, that we have to take the best parts of the left and the best parts of the right and make an alliance, like you said, a last ditch effort for the rule of law here. Either we have an emperor or we have a bill of rights. It's one or the other. And in your work with the Marijuana Policy Project, the ACLU, and other groups like that, I see you reaching out to the left. That's the kind of leadership we need, Bob.

Bob Barr: Well, what we need to do, Scott,—and again you've put it more eloquently than I could—what we need to do is recognize that among these different groups and organizations, the ACU, the NRA, the ACLU, the Marijuana Policy Project, all these other groups out there, we may have very serious disagreements on particular policy matters or particular programs or issues, but we can no longer allow that or afford to allow those differences to get in the way of reaching out to all of these different groups and doing whatever we can to protect our fundamental liberties which all of those groups that you enumerated believe in. If we continue to allow the status-quo, two-party system to divide and conquer and keep these groups apart, then they will continue to succeed in diminishing individual liberty. [2:22-4:36]

Barr goes on to lay out the basics of an intelligent foreign policy, an American foreign policy.

Hat tip: Freedom Democrats

Update (Apr 7, 2008): I was pleased to see this in the issues section of BobBarr2008 under "National Defense", as if he had read the last sentence above, regarding a return to an American foreign policy, emphasis on "American". As if! :-)
However, invading or initiating force against another nation based upon perceived threats and speculative intelligence is simply un-American. We are better than the policy of pre-emptive warfare. [emphasis added]

Friday, March 21, 2008

What's a mugwump?

A mugwump is an independent, classical-liberal voter, who strives to stand together for the general interest, for rights, for the presumption of liberty.

An excellent book on the history of mugwumps is Mugwumps by David M. Tucker.

Letters on Ron Paul's defining moment - No. 3

From a letter to a Ron Paul supporter and friend (Feb 6, 2008):
Even though I have serious doubts about Paul himself and oppose strongly the long-standing agenda of those he surrounds himself with, I'm glad to see the resonance of the basic message he has communicated to attract support, a message of liberty and constitutional government. I support this basic message, which is why I supported Paul's campaign in 1988 and for a time his present campaign.

When I decided to begin my verbal support in mid-2007 (followed later with my active support in December), I did however write an email saying that I might change my mind. I wrote on July 30,
Another reservation I have is Paul's association with members of what one fellow from Cato calls the "Fever Swamp".

My own definition of libertarian liberalism is close to the definition put forth by Dean Russell in 1955, Who is a Libertarian?, where Russell coins the word to replace the word liberalism, the meaning of which was being obscured. Unfortunately there have been two camps who have laid claim to the word over the past few decades in the U.S. One is the liberal camp, as understood in the U.S. before the "new liberals" or "social liberals" morphed into socialists and started attacking people's rights (There's a great history that discusses some of this in Alain Laurent's Le libéralisme américain : Histoire d'un détournement.) Then there are the anarchists, whom I view as feudalists. Here be beasts. I could write much more on this, but I'll leave it at that for now. I view the Cato Institute as being part of the liberal camp, and the "Fever Swamp" as being part of the anarchist camp. Ron Paul speaks and acts like he is in the liberal camp for the most part, which is why I have decided to support him. I may change my mind.
Not only was Ron Paul at a defining moment when he responded to what was written in his newsletters. We are at a defining moment. There are two camps. One is for liberty; the other is for anarchy. They are opposed. One talks of constitutionally limited taxation, the other of no taxation at all. One talks in favor of the 14th Amendment, protecting individuals from state laws that violate the rights of our Declaration; the other talks of states being left to any manner of legislation, even when such legislation ignores our rights. The one talks of free labor; the other talks of utter slavery again (Walter Block, for example, whom Paul mentions prominently in his response to the disclosure of his newsletters). The one talks of rule of law and juries; the other vigilantism, the rule of men. I reread Lew Rockwell's article in Liberty magazine (Jan 1990) recently. It absolutely horrified me nearly 20 years ago, and it still horrifies me. The overtones of racism combined with vigilantism are there for all to see. These men have no business being anywhere near the levers of power.

Again, I've met a lot of great people in the campaign. The message is greater than the messenger. I hope we can all figure out a way to keep the networking going for future candidates. Do you have any ideas? ...

I'm just sad that Ron Paul did not make the transition he needed to when he had the chance. And I think he did have a chance.

How the world sees Ron Paul supporters

Here's a video made by the same people who produced the "Ron Paul Girl" videos. In it, you'll see a characterization of Ron Paul supporters that's hilarious, particularly for an apostate like me. "Blasphemy!"

Liv's Last Video? - video powered by Metacafe

See also: Free Pirate - New York, New Hampshire, and Williamsburg - deadline October 12 for douche-free election