The Democratic primary is a crapfest by design. Time for some intelligent design.

Joe Biden has been the Democratic frontrunner for the entire 2020 primary until last when Elizabeth Warren surged in the polls and briefly became the frontrunner. Her momentum made it look like she was going to demolish all the other campaigns, so naturally, all the other campaigns started dumping on Warren and she became the victim of the circular firing squad that focuses on whoever looks like the most probably next leader of the party. That backlash predictably caused her polls to fall again and next week all the Democrats will probably rejoin President Trump in their focus on hurting Biden as frontrunner again.


Research shows that in our political system, the most effective way to win is to go negative and bash whoever your biggest rival is. It is less effective to campaign on positive ideas for improving the country. Unfortunately, these perverse incentives mean that voters get less information about whether anyone has any good ideas for solving problems and instead we just hear a lot about how crappy all the other candidates are even though most candidates are broadly similar in a primary.  In particular, all the candidates tend to gang up on whoever is in the lead.  They try to make the frontrunner look bad and it often works. The 2012 Republican primary was particularly striking in how each candidate briefly rose to take his turn as the frontrunner in the polls only to be torn down by the rest of the pack and then to be replaced by another top dog who had seemed pure by comparison only because he had yet to be assaulted with mud from the rest of the pack yet.


First it was Romney, then Perry shot up, followed by Cain whose meteoric rise and fall was echoed by Gingrich and then Santorum until finally Romney finally rose above the fray as some of the failed candidates started dropping out and gave him their endorsements perhaps in hopes of gaining a cabinet nomination. This kind of campaign structure benefits the kind of candidate who is really good at schoolyard taunts, dirty campaigning, and those who can whip up a base of support that likes mudslinging more than policy because in a crowded primary, you can win the election with only a third of the vote and it doesn’t matter if 2/3 of voters hate you. If your opponents divide up the rest of the votes among six other candidates, then they will each average 11% of the vote, and 1/3 of the vote is a landslide of popularity by comparison. 

That is basically what happened in the 2016 Republican primary as shown in this final Real Clear Politics poll

Trump only needed about 1/3 of the votes to dominate the primary even though more Republicans disapproved of him than any other candidate during the primaries. Trump was a master of mudslinging and his core base of early supporters were so excited about Trump that they didn’t care about his scandals. Trump once said of the fanaticism of his supporters in the early part of the primary, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s, like, incredible.” 

But most Republicans initially disliked the philandering, elite big-city candidate who dodged the Vietnam draft and has never had a habit of attending church.  People don’t remember how much the median Republican disliked him because that changed after he got the nomination and Republicans didn’t have any other viable choice. Republicans are much more loyal to their party than Democrats and so most Republicans came around and warmed up to him. But most partisan voters always warm up to any candidate their party chooses and most Republicans during the primary would have preferred a more mainstream Republican like Bush or Rubio. Trump should not have gotten elected to be the Republican nominee because the majority of Republicans would have preferred one of the other candidates. But our electoral system does not elect the person the majority wants, we elect the person who gets the plurality of votes.

In a plurality voting system like ours, voters can only express their preferences about one and only one of the candidates and the candidate with the most votes (the plurality) wins. This works fine when there are only two candidates because then the majority of the people get their way. It is often criticized as being a dictatorship of the majority who can dominate the minority that loses, but the reverse would be worse: Nobody thinks a dictatorship of a minority is better, but that is what a plurality electoral system usually produces when there are multiple candidates. When the vote is split among three or more candidates, the winning plurality is usually a minority of the voters and so we end up with a dictatorship of a minority. Not good.

Fortunately there are lots of other electoral systems that allow voters to express their preferences for more than one candidate so that we can collectively select the most popular candidate: approval voting, range voting, instant runoff voting (IRV), a Condorcet method, etc. Whereas voting reform theorists disagree about what the best system is because they all have different advantages, everyone universally agrees that any of these methods is better than our plurality system, and both Australia and Ireland have used a form of ranked-choice voting for about a century, so we can see that it works well.

So if there are lots of alternatives that everyone agrees are vastly superior to the one we have, then why don’t we change our system?

  1. Most people are simply ignorant and don’t realize there is any other way to run elections. That is a failure of our education system that might be explained by the fact that powerful people don’t want Americans to know about alternatives because they don’t want change.
  2. Any political change creates winners and losers and changing our electoral system would redistribute political power away from some very powerful people in our duopoly party system. Although America’s founding fathers despised political parties and hoped our new nation would avoid them, they accidentally designed an electoral system that concentrates political power into a two-party duopoly. Our current system gives tremendous power to behind-the-scenes power brokers to decide who gets to be on the ballot and who gets to appear in political debates. These unelected party bureaucracies also control the vast majority of political resources (political donations and volunteers) that help determine who wins and who loses. These insiders would lose power if we moved beyond our plurality system because that would break up our party system into numerous less-powerful parties. In most of the world’s best democracies, there are more than two party which typically include a party for Christian Democrats (a common name for social conservatives in other countries), Libertarians (or some other party for business priorities), Greens (for environmentalists), Labor (for people whose identity prioritizes unions), and many others. That splintering of resources would reduce the power of our two generic parties for liberals (Democrats) and conservatives (Republicans).
  3. Even if the majority of Americans realized that we could easily improve the machinery of our elections, our entire political system is designed for gridlock so it would still be hard to get anything done. The constitution is hard to change. Any change can be vetoed by the checks and balances of four centers of federal power: the House, Senate, Executive, and Supreme Court, and it only takes 40% of Senators to block everyone else. Our decentralized federal system makes change difficult since power is divided between federal, state and local jurisdictions. And finally, America’s large geographic size and diverse population makes it harder to come together on decision-making than in smaller, more homogenous nations.
  4. Although there is broad agreement that our plurality voting system is the worst possible method of voting, the very fact that there are dozens of good alternatives for replacing it makes it hard to pick which one. It is like a van full of bored people driving through prairie on a winter night who all agree that it would be more fun to watch any move together on the van’s movie system, but there are 100 great options and every person in the van has a different favorite. It can take a long time of driving along bored in the darkness (the worst option) to come to an agreement about which movie to select. The choice of multiple possible improvements creates a status-quo bias due to gridlock. If only one of the hundred movies had been available, everyone would immediately agree that it is better than driving in darkness because any movie is much better than that, but because there are many possibilities which all have different advantages and disadvantages, it is harder to come to agreement about which one to select and darkness rules. Similarly, the small community of people who is aware that our system sucks is divided into competing camps that each propose a different system because there isn’t one voting system that is clearly the one best of them all.

Ironically, the voting reform advocates are stuck because they cannot agree upon which system to choose. You would think that voting experts could just take a vote and all commit to throw their unified support behind the winner, but because they can’t agree upon what voting system to use, they can’t even take a vote to decide which system should replace plurality voting. Pathetic.

Donald Trump won the Republican primary because he was a master at negative campaigning and he had the enthusiastic support from a plurality (minority) of supporters who didn’t care about Trump’s scandals that would sink most candidates. In a plurality system you win by tearing down everyone else and you don’t need to appeal to the majority of voters. Whereas plurality voting creates divisiveness between multiple candidates as demonstrated in our nasty presidential primaries, any of the other voting systems encourage focusing more on commonalities because candidates must get the approval of a majority, not just the biggest plurality. That means they need to avoid pissing off all the supporters of their rivals. This is exactly what happened in the 2018 San Francisco mayoral election which uses instant-runoff voting. There was a frontrunner who had a large plurality versus the second and third-place candidates who were distant underdogs, but instead of merely attacking everyone else, the two underdogs banded together because they were both more liberal than the frontrunner. They campaigned together and asked their supporters to rank the two of them together ahead of the frontrunner and one of them won because a majority of voters wanted one of these two more liberal candidates who were only behind the more conservative frontrunner in the polls because the polls were asking voters the plurality question of which one candidate they liked best.

Whenever there are three or more candidates, the plurality system fails and it becomes increasingly important to avoid plurality voting as the number of choices increases because the size of the plurality needed for victory shrinks with more candidates. In an election with ten candidates, in theory one can win with only eleven percent of the vote. Minneapolis had an election with eight candidates and if they had used a plurality system, it would encourage a crapfest like we have in our presidential primaries. Fortunately Minneapolis also uses instant-runoff voting for mayor and that helped their mayoral candidates become extremely civil with each other. It gives candidates the incentive to be kind and gentle to most of their rivals for the reason that you need their supporters to like you as well because you want everyone to vote for you as well as for your rivals and if you piss off the all the other candidates and their supporters, you won’t get elected. In 2013, the candidates literally put their arms around each other and all sang Kumbaya together at the end of their final debate. You gotta listen to Radiolab to hear what it was like. It is a great story that shows how much of a difference a better voting system can make.

Fortunately, more nations and cities are coming around as Lee Drutman  explains below.   (Drutman also wrote a book on the topic entitled, Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America.)

Twenty cities in the United States have already adopted ranked-choice voting. In 2018, Maine became the first state to adopt it for federal elections. That catapulted the reform to a national spotlight… Studies have shown that in places that have adopted it, ranked-choice voting has made politics a little less nasty. Candidates spent less time attacking each other, as compared to similar cities that didn’t adopt ranked-choice voting. Voters in cities with the system reported being more satisfied with local campaigns as a result (again, as compared to similar cities).

Ranked-choice voting has also increased the share of racial minority, female, and female minority candidates running compared to similar cities. The scholars who have studied this most closely believe more minority candidates ran because under ranked-choice voting, such candidates could reach out to other communities where they might not be the natural first choice and ask for second-choice votes.

The researchers believe women were more likely to run because under traditional winner-take-all elections, “women were deterred from running for office by … negative campaigning.” But with less negative campaigning and more cooperative campaigning, women are more likely to run…

Under ranked-choice systems, voters don’t have to try to figure out whether to support the candidate with the best chance of winning or the candidate they like best but fear can’t win. They can vote sincerely for their favorite candidate on their first choice, and then select back-up choices if their preferred candidates don’t do well. This also allows voters to express their full range of preferences, sending clearer signals than the traditional approach to voting. And in the end, more voters are likely to wind up voting for a winner. Voters prefer this kind of “preferential” voting because they consider it fairer

According to one analysis, in the last three election cycles, almost two-thirds of multi-candidate city primary contests (64 percent) did not generate a majority winner. And in almost a third of those elections (30 percent), the winning candidate got less than 40 percent of the vote. In other words, under the current rules, candidates preferred by far less than half of their constituents get to represent allof their constituents.

Under ranked-choice voting, outcomes like this can’t happen. The winning candidate needs to earn true majority support — a plurality does not make a victory. And if no candidate gets a majority of first-preference votes, that’s when the rankings kick in, and candidates are eliminated and their preferences redistributed until one candidate has a winning majority. This ensures that candidates need to build broad appeal. A candidate who doubles down on an intense but ultimately narrow group of supporters cannot win…

There’s more to come. 2020 is shaping up to be a big year for ranked-choice voting. Four states will use it in the Democratic primary — AlaskaHawaii, Kansas, and Wyoming. And Maine voters will use it for the first time in the general election for president. And both Alaska and Massachusetts will likely vote on ballot measures in 2020 to adopt ranked-choice voting statewide.So ranked-choice voting is catching on.

Posted in Pence2018, Public Finance

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