Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Democracy at Work?

Well, it's all over but the counting (at least in some areas). After sitting through weeks (if not months) of campaign ads and petitions, the 2006 election cycle is finally over. Most of us can now take a rest from the relentless phone calls, junk mail, and door-to-door canvassers that mark each new election.... At least until the next election comes along.

I voted shortly after the polls opened yesterday. This is important to me, not because I want to be first in line, but because it works best with my work schedule. Voting at 7:00 am allows me to get to work on time (actually, a bit earlier than usual, also granting me the rare privilege of a stop at McDonald's for a McGriddle for breakfast!), whereas voting after work means that I'm more likely to have to stand in a long line when I'm feeling my most tired.

I do have to confess, though, that I grow increasingly discouraged at the whole process. I'm pleased enough that yesterday's results indicate that there will likely be some measure of change in Washington, but there are a lot of propositions that I supported here in California that failed to pass. Of course, the positions and candidates I support are generally not the "popular" ones, and even though the Democrats won a number of elections in this particular campaign, it doesn't really address the real problem, which I consider the Democrats as much a part of as I do the Republicans. Here's the issue: if I wanted to support a "third-party" candidate, I have virtually no chance of ever seeing such a candidate win under the current system, which allows a candidate to win with a mere plurality of the vote, rather than a majority.

If that sounds confusing, perhaps I can explain with an illustration. Suppose that there are only 10 voters in a small rural jurisdiction, but 3 candidates. We'll call these candidates "Liberal 1, Liberal 2, and Conservative 1" Now let's further suppose that 6 of the 10 voters consider themselves "liberal," who would never ever vote for a conservative. The other 4 voters consider themselves "conservative," and would never ever vote for a liberal. It is likely in this scenario that the 6 "liberal voters" split their votes so that "Liberal 1" got 3 votes, and "Liberal 2" got 3 votes. But since the 4 "conservative voters" only had one viable candidate, "Conservative 1" gets 4 votes. Under the electoral system in place in most of the country, "Conservative 1" wins the election, since "Conservative 1" had more votes than any other candidate, even though, if most of the 10 voters had a choice, "Conservative 1" would have been the least favorite candidate for the 60% that voted for someone else. The majority of people now have a leader that they don't want.

One might respond that this is why we have primaries: to ensure that we don't have this kind of situation. But the way we do primaries doesn't help either, because only voters registered for a given party can vote in most primaries. In a Democratic primary, only registered Democrats can vote. Likewise for Republicans. So, in the Democratic party, there may be two candidates: one who is "liberal" and appeals well to the Democratic core, and one who is "moderate" (or maybe even conservative) who would appeal well to "swing voters" and to Republicans, but since only registered Democrats are allowed to vote in the Democratic primary, the "liberal" candidate, who appeals well to registered Democrats but not to "swing voters" (much less to Republicans) wins the primary. And since the Republicans have exactly the same situation in their primary, the two candidates that make it to the "general" election represent the opposite poles of the electorate, rather than any more moderate position. This virtually guarantees that the result, whatever it is, will alienate a large number of the voters, rather than getting someone in office who can unite people with divergent views.

The results of yesterday's election may have thrilled you, or they may have angered you, depending on where you stand on the political spectrum. Unfortunately, unless you simply don't care about who our politicians are, it's likely to be one extreme or the other. Until we can re-design our election system to allow more moderate candidates, who more accurately represent the will of the majority of the American people, to have a viable chance of winning elections, I fear that we will continue this kind of bi-polar disorder as the electoral pendulum swings back and forth.

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