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.


Jim Rongstad said...

The current primary system in Minnesota is a sick joke. Political parties are private organizations, the government should not be involved in nor finance how a party's candidates are chosen.

Casey Bowman said...

Yes, government should not control parties. By the same token, parties should not control the form of election by giving themselves privileged positions. The people, in a period of constitutional enlightenment, are best suited to try to keep elections party-neutral, observing what works. This form of election, I believe, is compatible with both ideals.