Monday, October 20, 2008

Welcome to the Jungle Primary

Measure 65 is an odd duck. It is championed by a smattering of left and right organizations. It is opposed by every political party. The measure eliminates the "party only" primary system in Oregon and replaces it with one where everyone can vote for one candidate, regardless of party affiliation, and that the two with the most votes go on to the ballot in the fall. This is not the only option for open primaries, nor is it what is usually called an open primary. That's why I'm calling it a Jungle primary. In truth, it is not appropriate as a stand alone measure, even though that is what it is.

There are actually a long list of better options than this Jungle Primary. It may be a step in the right direction, but it will no doubt give rise to some serious abuses, just as the system that currently exists does. I've read enough about voting systems, which are a mathematical topic in political science, to know that there are a few relevant theorems. I'm going to highlight two of them that I'll be using in my argument.

The first theorem is that there are no voting systems that are completely fair. This means that no matter how the laws are written, no matter what procedures are used, there will always be ways to abuse the system and that it is possible (although it can be unlikely) for a less popular candidate to win while a more popular candidate is excluded or has his vote split. I don't take this as a dogma. There is a proof, and the proof makes use of definitions that can be disputed. The proof also deals only in theoretical situations, so it may very well be that a voting system is practically quite fair because the political climate doesn't present it with any challenges.

The second theorem is that it is possible for each voter to rank the candidates. By evaluating different aspects of what the candidates think, the voters can each come up with a list of candidates in order of support. This is important because voting systems that involve voters submitting such lists are generally seen as more fair. This "theorem" is not really provable because it requires a theory of the mind, which is not a matter of pure logic. Still, I think it makes sense just as much as democracy in general does, since both ask people to make a choice from among a pool of possibilities. In the case of making a list, we could assume it is populated by a repeated process of "pick, then exclude" so that the same "pick the best" process can be used over and over. From a programming standpoint, I don't like that because it is inefficient. Certainly the mind must make some kind of binary comparisons in the first place. If we are to pick someone as the best we are going to put the list of candidates more or less in order in the mental process of determining best. Nevertheless, the ranked list is a great tool for democracy and strikes me as a natural way to vote, just as much as picking one person is.

What goals should a good voting system in Oregon have?

First, we have to acknowledge that the date of our primary, and the existence of a primary, will have to meet the standards used by the national committees for the major parties or we will risk penalties or losing our delegations. That deals with the national races, but because creating more separate voting dates destroys voter turn out, the number of primaries should be limited to one.

Secondly, the system should strive to eliminate the "Nader Effect". By Nader effect I don't mean consumer safety standards. I mean the phenomenon where a third party candidate siphons votes from the candidate that they are closer to politically. I could also call this the "Perot Effect", or the "1860 Election Effect" or some other things because this is probably the single most common failure of our voting system (though there may be larger problems with the political system). The "Nader Effect" is a type of crippling gridlock that has left America spiraling down a slow path of corruption ever since the constitution itself was inked. If you think about it, every time a single party gets an overwhelming majority, that party begins to splinter. Right now there is a huge democratic shift. No doubt within the next 20 years, there will be a serious split election that brings a Republican into power. This Republican will either do well and swing the balance back to where it was, negating the potential for change in the political climate, or fail, paving the way for more serious corruption to manifest within the Democrats.

Third, the system should create a stronger association between candidates and their track record and parties and their history. What I mean by this is that the voting system should not allow voters to focus so much on promises and platforms because these generally do not contain much in the way of concrete policy suggestions. For example, in some parliamentary systems, one coalition is responsible for most of what happens during a given time period. At the voting booth, people select the party they are backing and use the recent track record of the party as their guide. I believe that voting systems can have an effect on the political discourse and that the system in the United States is generally one that promotes a rather lackluster debate.

Fourth, the rankings that voters mentally make should be honored by the results. If 18% of voters like candidate A, 23% like candidate B, 27% like candidate C, and 32% like candidate D, it is presumptive to assume that candidate D is the "choice of the people". The people may be 78% united in the view that candidate D is a douchebag, and that candidate A is awesome, B is bueno, and C is cool. As noted above, there is no easy way to determine how to settle this but one approach is to make a series of pairwise comparisons. In a race of n candidates, there are n! possible orderings. Start with C vs D. If more voters ranked C higher than D, we can say that C is preferred to D; D would be eliminated and now C would be compared to B, then the remaining of those two is compared to A. If the voters have ranked the candidates, it is possible to do this instantly. Ireland has such an Instant Runoff. For me, that system is "good enough".

Also note that the American party system is a bit silly. In effect it creates little, segmented pockets of various viewpoints that a candidate must be filtered through before reaching the general election. These pockets don't allow truly centrist candidates through and they also give a lot of weight and power to special interests which usually become embedded into the party structure. If we view the party as a private organization, we could adopt the attitude that the party is simply a freely formed organization of individuals who want to pick a candidate from amongst themselves. The candidate in turn pledges to represent their interests. There is no obvious reason why such a system should be regulated at all by the public. The problem arises not from this stage of association but from the way the system evolves. As soon as the elections start to happen, those parties begin to consolidate power within their own structures. Incumbents gain huge advantages in our system. Within the parties, structures emerge to filter which candidates reach the top. These structures are entry barriers created with or without government help, to block outsiders and generally people with vision from being able to rise to political office. This allows the parties to get away with promoting candidates that do more for the party and less for the public. Regulating the parties themselves tends to disassociate the parties from the candidates and thus the history of the party and candidate becomes less important, creating an illusion that the candidate is not a party insider. The voters then focus on talking points and platforms rather than results, so regulating parties seems to more or less imply that democracy will be watered down. It is probably better to regulate the election and leave party formation and association a matter of private control.

Instead of a "Jungle" primary or a "Party Only" primary, Oregon could have a system where parties themselves pick their candidates with little government interference. Candidates are on their own to appeal to a party, or start their own. Candidates can't run independently because registration numbers determine who appears on the ballot: something like 0.5% is fair. In the general election, the voters would do a ranking of the candidates for each office, and a trusty fleet of PS3s could do the Instant Runoff tabulation.

After careful reflection, I want to say that what I initially said about Measure 65 may be wrong. We have a culture that vilifies political parties but in my opinion they are essential. Democracy cannot exist without them. The measure takes power away from these parties and that only means that this power is going to be in the hands of incumbent politicians and the now consolidated media.

Measure 65 may also exacerbate the "Nader effect". There could be four or more candidates on a primary ballot that get 10% or more of the vote, creating many more scenarios for eliminating more popular candidates in favor of less popular ones. Just as with the history of Presidential elections, the system created could be crushing to Oregon Democrats precisely because they are more popular. In order to prevent splits, the parties will be required to consolidate their own power. They will need to prevent rivals within the party from ever seeing the light of day, mercilessly squelching dissent.

So, hmm, maybe measure 65 isn't a good idea. It certainly isn't a meaningful election reform.

No comments: