EAB: The two-party system
That question was posed this week to the Camera's editorial advisory board and virtual editorial board.
Our two-party system can frustrate voters. If three candidates are running, voters may have to make difficult choices. If they prefer the candidate who they think has the least chance of winning, they can risk voting for that person, knowing that they are probably throwing away their vote simply to express their views. Or they can vote for their second choice, knowing that this candidate has a better chance.
Preference voting (or variations, like instant runoff) could change all that. It allows citizens to prioritize the candidates, so that if their favorite receives the fewest votes in the initial count, their votes are shifted to their next choice and the votes recounted. This way, their votes still affect the outcome.
The recent three-way 2nd CD primary race between Shafroth, Polis and Fitzgerald could have turned out differently if preference voting had been in place. And more importantly, if preference voting had been used in 2000, many Nader voters would have selected Al Gore as their second choice, and the last eight years would likely have been very, very different.
A multi-political party system would certainly expand political discourse in this country. One way to make that happen would be to institute instant runoff voting (IRV), which is how hiring committees work. It keeps voters from feeling they're throwing their votes away on their first choice instead of supporting a more realistic frontrunner, who would be the lesser of two evils. Several countries already use it.
Unfortunately, it deprives voters from seeing runoff results before choosing their final pick. Thus many countries such as France, Finland, and Argentina have chosen the more traditional "non-instant" solution: The two-round voting system, where everyone gets to vote their heart the first round. Then the two candidates with the most votes make it to the second round.
A flaw with this system was recently exemplified when France saw its presumed first-round winner and Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin (France has an appointed Prime Minister and an elected President) defeated by a leftist vote splintered into myriad smaller parties. France was so shocked that 80 percent of voters turned out the second round to deny radical rightist LePen victory -- or even near victory.
Since then, voter participation in France has been high at both first and second round.
Voting is a civic duty -- part of the social contract. So regardless of whether the United States ever gains the political will to adopt either IRV or a two-round-system, we might simply oblige citizens to vote, as they do in Belgium. And if you don't show up, you get a ticket in the mail -- like with speeding.
Although not likely to happen anytime soon, a viable third-party candidate in national elections would be ideal. Too often, though, neither of the candidates offered by our two-party system seems like the best or right choice to lead. We could be in the midst of one such election.
Historically, third-party candidates have mainly served as spoilers. Recall Ross Perot who in 1992 captured the nation's attention, but only 19 percent of our votes. In the end, he denied George H. W. Bush a second term. Similarly, Ralph Nader and his Green Party robbed Gore of the keys to the White House in 2000.
When it comes to electing a president of the United States, the Electoral College is at the heart of the American electoral system. Yet, many Americans lack an understanding of how it works.
The number of electors depends on a state's population and that governs its representation in the U.S. House of Representatives. There are 435 representatives, to which one adds the 100 U.S. senators - two per state - plus three for the District of Columbia. For this purpose, D.C. is considered the 51st state. Total: 538 electors.
The candidate who receives 270 electoral votes (269 plus 1) becomes the elected president.
Should Obama and McCain tie with 269 electoral votes each, it will be up to the House of Representatives to choose the winner. Under these circumstances, each state delegation is entitled to one vote.
Forty-eight states have adopted a "winner-take-all" approach to nominating electors. This distorts the popular vote.
Those who favor the Electoral College system argue that if the election was by direct popular vote, candidates would not bother to campaign in states like Colorado (9 Electoral Votes) or Wyoming (3 Electoral votes), but would spend all their time in the larger states.
With this system, third parties haven't fared well in the Electoral College. Perot in 1992 gained 19 percent of the vote but no Electoral College vote.
I fault the media for the public not knowing much, if anything, about third-party candidates. I also fault the candidates for not using TV and print media to get their messages out to enrich the public discussions.
Nevertheless, I like the current two-party system. It gets legislation passed by a simple or two-thirds majority, though that is no small feat. When legislation doesn't get produced or passed, leadership on a course of action is lacking, not the number of parties involved. Third parties have to build coalitions with one or both major parties anyway.
To clarify this point, consider a simple scenario of two children sharing a bedroom. At bedtime, one wants the door open. The other wants it closed. They work out an agreement that will work for them. Now, add one or more children to the bedroom with their choices. Coalitions and lobbying ensues. Coming to one of two conclusions simply takes more time and effort.
Obviously, many issues addressed by Congress or the President aren't either-or questions. However, after discussions and debates, the choices come down to two -- for or against.
Having been in Boulder County for 14 years, I know what it means to be a disenfranchised voter. The only candidates that ever get elected are from the Democratic Party. The only issues that get approved are the ones that rely on more government intervention and strip away individual responsibility. The only tolerable discussions are the ones that align themselves with the Democratic Party platform.
It would be nice if there were more openness in Boulder County about who we elect to represent us and solutions to the problems we face. I hope for a day when the electorate are more deliberate, the dialogue more reasoned, and we find the best to represent us regardless of which party they come from. Maybe then, we can take a baby step towards a two-party system and then a giant step toward a multi-party system here in this county and be a model for the rest of the nation.
Brian C. Lewis
(The Camera's editorial advisory board members are: Rick Beaufait, Anne B. Butterfield, Adam Bliwas, Jimmy Calano, Ed Byrne, Clay Evans, Julian Friedland, Brian Lewis, Steve Pomerance, Marc Raizman, Brian T. Schwartz and Shirley Scoville.)