“It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”
Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, Dissenting Opinion: New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann (1932)
The above quote from Justice Brandeis’ famous dissent is the origin of the idea of ‘the laboratory of democracy’. This is an idea with much merit but which we have, unfortunately, not seen utilized within The United States to any kind of a significant degree. Whether through fear of losing power, fear of interference from the federal government, lack of imagination, lack of interest or fear of the unknown, ‘experiments’ with democracy in this country take the shape of trying to impose different sets of laws and rules upon the citizens rather than on the process by which those laws and rules are determined. The idea in this nation is that differences in democracy are measured solely by the end result of the legislative process rather than the process itself.
A large problem with mankind, in general, and Americans, in particular, is our hubris. We think that, because we are as far along as mankind has ever been, we are the end of the road and have to have everything right. What we should keep in mind is that we are just another middle age. As we express shock, disgust, and amusement at the attitudes, beliefs and lack of knowledge of the world of a thousand years ago, so will mankind view us a thousand years hence. We will not fail the future if we don’t have everything right; we will fail them if we don’t try new things to give those who come after us additional data which they can use to get closer to being right than we ever can.
I try to occasionally write articles under the Laboratory of Democracy umbrella to look at different ideas which might be worth experimenting with (if not at a federal level then perhaps at a state or local level) to see how our idea of constitutional government can be improved based on lessons learned from our own 225 years of history conducting the American Experiment. Today’s topic is about how we can change how we conduct voting to better represent the views, needs and desires of ‘we the people.’
The reasons to change the way we vote are numerous. A fundamental reason to change it is that Americans tend to vote AGAINST candidates rather than FOR them. We have shaped the idea of democracy into an expression of our personal fears. We seem to feel stronger about candidate’s who we DON’T want in an office than we do about those we support. Usually this is perfectly understandable, as the candidates we have to choose from are often not that good, so it is often easier to identify candidates who are LEAST in line with what we want than it is to identity ones whom we can wholeheartedly support.
One obvious problem with this method is that when people are primarily voting AGAINST a candidate, they are afraid to ‘waste’ their vote by casting it for someone who they might approve of but who has no actual chance of winning. This fear of ‘wasting my vote’ was intensified after the 1992 Presidential election saw a significant number of votes cast for Ross Perot (who supporters of losing candidate George H. W. Bush blamed for costing him his bid for re-election) and after Al Gore’s narrow loss (or win, whichever you consider it to have been) to George W. Bush in 2000, which was partially blamed on those in Florida who had voted for Ralph Nader. Aside from the fact that no candidate is ever OWED any citizen’s vote (a candidate bears the burden of needing to EARN someone’s vote), those who support a candidate (or, more accurately, who OPPOSE a particular candidate) are afraid to ‘waste’ their vote by casting it for third party candidates who have no chance of winning.
Bill Clinton’s first nominee for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Lani Guinier, supported a change in how we cast votes for political candidates in this country. Termed ‘Cumulative Voting’, the method which she supported was that each voter would get one vote for each candidate for a particular office and that they could spread those votes among the candidates and give any candidates as many of their available votes as they wanted. For example, if there were four candidates running for President, then each voter would get four votes to cast for President, any one of those candidates getting any or all of those votes, and multiple candidates being able to be given votes by each voter. While she was on the right road, I believe, she was headed in the wrong direction.
Academic studies and theories on Alternative Voting Methods go back at least several hundred years. In 1770, Jean-Charles de Borda proposed the Borda Count as a method for selecting members of the French Academy of Science. The last 30 years has seen an increase in such studies and research, in large part through the various researches which have been done in Game Theory. There are also MANY historical examples of the effectiveness of quite a few different methods of conducting and totaling votes. The Republic of Venice, for example, thrived for over 1,000 and developed a VERY complex but very effective form of Approval Voting for selecting the Doge which survived almost unchanged for over 500 years, until the Republic was conquered by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797. Many articles with additional information about Alternative Voting Methods, including Approval Voting, are available on-line. Some of these include:
As with most of the alternative voting systems I have heard of (equal & even; weighted ballots; fractional ballots; instant run-off; etc.) none of them truly address the idea that most people, at least in America, seem to cast their votes, at least for higher offices, against candidates rather than for them. This means that they see ANY method of spreading their voting strength around as weakening their opposition to a candidate they oppose. For example, under cumulative voting, say you have four votes you can use to vote for a particular office and you do NOT want Candidate A to win. You know that everyone else who is voting for that office will also have four votes to allocate and you fear that those who support Candidate A (or who oppose Candidate B) will each cast ALL of their four votes for Candidate A. Will you then be willing to risk the election of Candidate B by only giving him three of your votes while you ‘waste’ your fourth vote on Candidate D?
So, when we explore the idea of alternative voting methods, we MUST consider realistic human nature (and human fears) when we think about the problem. To do otherwise, to pretend that man will make his choices based on the greater good rather than base self-interest, or that he will willingly and comfortably accept the idea of his candidate losing because it is ‘the will of the majority’ and put aside his personal animosities after an election is unrealistic, at best. Therefore, the question is, how can we change voting into a positive process where people vote FOR candidates because there is NO NEED to vote AGAINST any candidates.
One possible solution is simply to allow a voter to vote equally for EVERY candidate that they think would be worthwhile to support. This method of voting is termed ‘Approval Voting’. To use the Approval Voting method, as an example, say that there are five candidates (A, B, C, D, and E). You personally support candidate C; candidate A is a major party candidate who you do NOT want to see in office; candidate B is a major party candidate who you have no real objections to and see as a better alternative to candidate A; candidate D is an independent candidate who you think could be interesting but who has no realistic chance to win; and candidate E is the local homeless wino transvestite who somehow manages to get on the ballot for EVERY election.
Under this scenario, you can not only cast your vote for candidate B (to help oppose the candidate you don’t want to win) you can ALSO cast an equal vote for candidates C (your preferred candidate) and for candidate D (the one you think is interesting and have no objections to). In such a case, you have accomplished all of your positive voting goals, you have shown your opposition to the candidates you do NOT want to see in office (A and E) by not voting for them, you supported your preferred candidate (C) and you gave support to the other candidates that you had no objections to. In this scenario, none of the votes you cast weakened your personal voting power in any way while, at the same time, made it more likely that candidates other than those from the major parties could win because EVERYONE else who liked candidates C and D could also vote for them but, maybe instead of voting also for candidate B, they voted for candidate A. In a very real way, the candidate who had the most REAL support, who was APPROVED by the most voters, would win the election because all votes cast for any and all candidates would count equally to their totals. In this system you can vote for any one of the candidates, any possible combinations of the candidates, or all of the candidates for that office… you can vote FOR candidates rather than AGAINST them.
Now, are there potential problems with a system such as this? Of course there are. A primary one, obviously, is how to prevent ballots being stuffed because the total votes cast for an office can (and would) be greater than the voting population as a whole and not by a predictable percentage (as if every voter HAD to vote for three candidates, no more or less, which would result in a vote total that was three times the number of voters). Another obvious one is to ask if the winning candidate would have to get a majority of ALL votes cast, or just a higher total number of votes than any other candidate. The first of these two possibilities could lead to either a need for a run-off election or a ‘None of the Above’ result. THAT, however, is where the Laboratory of Democracy comes into play. Let’s encourage some cities and/or counties to experiment with it (or, in fact, with ANY of the other alternative voting methods) before any states try it, and then let some states experiment with it. The is the beauty of the Laboratory of Democracy idea, not every location has to use the same processes and, by allowing and encouraging them to experiment with different process, we can gather data about which process variations work well, work partially but need more tinkering with, and don’t work at all.
Too many people in this nation think that trying different ideas of government means having different laws (like using the Ten Commandments as the basis of their laws, for example). They miss the point that democracy is not the RESULTS of the democratic process but the PROCESS itself.
Thank you for reading this article. Please read my other articles and let me know what you think. I am writing them not to preach or to hear myself think but to try to create dialogs, debates and discussions on the nature of our constitutional government and how we can improve it by building upon what we have seen and learned over the course of the 225 years of The American Experiment.
Rhys M. Blavier
“Truth, Justice and Honor… but, above all Honor”
© copyright 2008 by Rhys M. Blavier