Shifting Power Back to the People
by Alan F. Zundel
U.S. politics has always been a tug-of-war between the power of organized money and the power of organized people. Clearly money is now winning. I am imagining a scene from that old movie, “Mighty Joe Young,” where the big gorilla is easily winning a rope-pulling contest against a bunch of strongmen and dunking them in a moat of water just for the fun of it.
The big gorilla of organized money now dominates government policy via campaign financing and lobbyists, allowing devastating environmental degradation and contributing to widening economic inequality, endless billions being funneled into armaments, and a host of other problems, all for the sake of private profit. In other words, we’re being dunked.
Most reform proposals have focused on regulating the power of money in elections, to little avail. That’s like trying to chain up the gorilla, which never works for long. Instead, focus on the other side of the equation: empowering the organization of people. Rather than trying to chain up the gorilla, get millions more people working together on the other side of the rope.
The key to getting those millions working together is ranked choice voting.
Money vs. People
U.S. electoral laws favor the two-party system. With just two viable parties organized money has an easier time gaining influence, as both of the two parties have to chase money to avoid giving the advantage to their one real competitor.
To offset money’s influence reformers down through U.S. history have worked to extend the right to vote. These efforts have continually enhanced the power of the people, for example by eliminating property requirements for being a voter, making the election of the President and senators subject to voters, allowing voters to vote directly on laws, giving women the right to vote, and reducing barriers to minorities’ voting.
As the power of the people expanded with these reforms, the parties had to shift toward addressing the public’s concerns and not just representing organized money. This happened especially when an independent candidate or some alternative party began to gain a significant share of the votes, such as the Populist Party in the late 19th century, the Progressive and Socialist parties in the early 20th century, and Senator Huey Long’s threat to form a third party during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
But the advent of modern methods of campaigning in the 1960s and 1970s changed the electoral playing field dramatically. Television ads, polling, and reliance on professional consultants made campaigning more expensive, and thus money even more important.
Rather than attracting people into affiliating with their party, most candidates now buy television ads which attempt to manipulate voters through fear, misinformation, and avoiding clear positions. Creating and airing these ads takes a lot of money.
Over the last forty years or so I have witnessed the Democratic Party shift more and more to chasing big campaign donations to the neglect of organizing people. The Republican Party, long more friendly to organized money, has become yet more friendly even as organized money has demanded more from them.
In response, people have become disillusioned with voting and left the two parties in droves. Those who have given up on the two parties but stay active in politics tend to rely on tactics such as protests and grassroots lobbying campaigns to try to influence policy. But these tactics require a tremendous amount of effort to build and sustain as compared to just getting people to affiliate with a party and vote, thus draining the potential power of the people.
Changing the Two-Party System
The next historic step in empowering the people should be one which addresses the two-party system itself.
In recent years, as in other times when the government seemed unresponsive to the people, there has been a rising interest in alternative parties. The voters who might consider independent and third party candidates are the millions that could be added to the other side of the rope.
Unfortunately this interest inevitably bumps up against the constraints of the two-party system. A vote for an alternative candidate is considered a “wasted vote” because it is hard for such a candidate to win, and the candidate is accused of being a “spoiler” for “taking away” votes from the major party closer to their positions and potentially helping the other major party win.
These arguments discourage people from voting for independent and third party candidates even when they would prefer to, and thus suppress the ability of these parties to organize voters around issues neglected by the major parties.
But there are alternative ways to organize voting and elections which would eliminate the “wasted vote” and “spoiler” problems, the simplest of which to institute in the U.S. being ranked choice voting (sometimes called instant runoff voting).
RCV Compared to the Current Voting System
The “wasted vote” and “spoiler” problems are side-effects of an electoral system based on the plurality rule. Plurality means whoever gets the most votes wins, even if that candidate gets less than half the votes. If a Democrat got 42% of the vote, a Republican got 43%, and an alternative candidate got 15%, the Republican wins. All it would have taken is a shift of a little over 1% of the votes from the alternative candidate to the Democrat to change the outcome. Assuming those voters would have voted for the Democrat if the alternative candidate had not run, the alternative candidate can be said to have “spoiled” the election for the Democrat.
Under ranked choice voting (RCV) a candidate must get a majority of the votes (more than half), not just a plurality of the votes, in order to win. This means that even if a vote for a third party candidate “takes away” that vote from a major party candidate, the other major party candidate cannot win unless he or she has more than half of all the votes. Thus no spoiler problem, as any shift of votes from the third party to the losing major party would not have been enough to change the outcome.
To insure a majority outcome RCV allows each voter to rank candidates in order of preference—for example Candidate X as first choice, Candidate Q as second choice, and Candidate J as third choice—and mandates multiple rounds of counting if necessary to produce a majority.
The top-ranked candidates on all the ballots are counted and if any of them has a majority, that candidate wins. If no candidate receives a majority, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated and the ballots are again counted using the top-ranked of the remaining candidates. For example, if your first choice was eliminated then your second choice becomes your top-ranked candidate in that round of counting.
The “wasted vote” and “spoiler” problems are eliminated, allowing a voter to choose an independent or third party candidate as first choice and a major party candidate as second choice if there is no majority winner on the first count.
Effects of Instituting RCV
There are multiple benefits of RCV compared to our current system, but the one I am focusing on now is that RCV allows voters to express their true preferences while allowing alternative candidates to build support around issues neglected by the major parties.
By doing this, pressure is put on the major parties to address those issues or risk losing elections to alternative candidates. Organized money will have a much harder time co-opting elections, as there will always be an opportunity for a party to seize on neglected issues by organizing voters around those issues.
The big gorilla of organized money can then be overcome by pulling together all those voters who now feel disenfranchised during elections and tugging on the rope of elections, shifting power back to the people.
To learn about instituting RCV in Oregon elections, go to rcvoregon.org
For information on RCV efforts in other states, go to FairVote.org