If they wanted to use it, concerned members of both parties in Congress
have the constitutional authority (see Justice Black in OR v Mitchell 1970)
to give the country better presidential choices without splitting votes and
engendering a spoiler role. A simple statutory act to institute approval
voting in our presidential election this year would accomplish this.
Under approval voting in multi-candidate elections voters are allowed to
give one vote each to that presidential candidate or candidates they support
with the candidate having the most votes winning in each state. This essentially
costless voting reform, which could be instituted this year, would eliminate
the wasted vote, the spoiler role, the necessity of vote splitting and give fairer
outcomes in a multi-candidate presidential election.
As part of such a statutory act, Congress could give ballot access to two
candidates nominated by each caucus in the Senate and one candidate
nominated by a group of eminent retired politicians such as former Senators
Boren, Lieberman, Nunn and Snowe and former governors Ridge and Whitman.
The latter could form the basis for establishing a centrist National Renewal
Party which could participate along with other political parties under a fairer
voting system in future elections. On this, see the latter part of Appendix 7
of the electronic book “Third Parties and Voting Reform: The American
Voters can assist on this by bringing this possibility to their representatives’
attention. And they can also help by making a commitment not to vote
for any congressional candidate who cannot support this.
Institutional Changes Can Make a Difference
It is surely obvious that the current US political mess is very much the result
of its dysfunctional two-party system that is dumbing down the American
people and harming the country. It is high time for US political leaders in
both parties to do something about this. Institutional changes in political
structures can have a significant impact on a country’s political system and
its behavior. De Gaulle’s 1958 French constitution was certainly a case in
point. It greatly changes the stability and effectiveness of the French
national government with the same French electorate.
If the most important change we can make in our political system is to open
it up to third parties at the federal level, and I believe it is, there is a simple
solution that could be achieved by a simple statutory act by Congress.
Opening up our politics to responsible third parties has three important
advantages. First, it would give us more, and likely better, choices especially
in presidential elections. Second, having more credible parties in our federal
elections would surely lead to more and better policy discussions. It would
allow us to move away from the type of binary choices our two-party system
seems to engender in a world in which most choices are rarely binary ones.
And finally, such a change would probably avoid majority control by any
single party in either house of Congress which would surely compel our
current major parties to change their behavior in those bodies for the better.
How Not to Change our Voting System
Given Duverger’s Law which points out that the system of plurality voting
engenders two-party dominance in a national political market, it is clear
that if we wish to move away from our dysfunctional two-party system we
need to change our voting system in federal elections. A number of politicians,
even prominent ones, have recognized this but frequently have proposed
very poor alternatives to our system of plurality voting.
Senator Charles Schumer, for instance, had an op-ed piece in the New
York Times on July 22, 2014 titled “End Partisan Primaries, Save America”
in which he advocated using the top-two voting system adopted in California
in 2010. In his piece Senator Schumer asserted that that system would “undo
tendencies towards default extremism.” That statement simply ignored both
theoretical and empirical evidence which suggests otherwise. The top-two
runoff system is notorious, as William Poundstone demonstrates in the
Prologue to his book “Gaming the Vote,” for voting splitting among centrist
(i.e., representative) candidates leading all too often to candidates on the
two extremes getting to the runoff. The 2012 Egyptian presidential election
with its bloody aftermath is the latest example of this.
Another example of a poor alternative to our current voting system supposedly
endorsed by a number of politicians including John McCain, Barack Obama
and Bernie Sanders is instant runoff voting (IRV) also known as ranked-choice
voting (RCV). Howard Dean, former Democratic National Committee Party
Chairman and presidential primary candidate had an op-ed in the October 7,
2016 New York Times titled “How to Move Beyond the Two-Party System” in
which he endorsed the Maine 2016 proposition to institute IRV in its state and
congressional elections.. The assertion that IRV will move us beyond the
two-party system is bizarre in the extreme. Australia has used IRV in its House
of Representatives elections since 1918. The introduction of IRV in Australian
House of Representative elections in 1918 has done nothing to change two-
party domination at the expense of third parties as the data on elections since
then clearly show. As far as I can determine that has been the experience of
other countries which use IRV as well.
Instant runoff voting which involves ranking candidates by order of preference,
is opaque, potentially complex and does a poor job of reflecting voters’
preferences in the outcome. It can exclude the candidate preferred to every
other candidate by a majority of voters early on in the runoff process.
Worse, a candidate who would have won could wind up losing if he or she
garners more first place support in the course of a campaign. This would
happen because the increased support the candidate receives in a campaign
can change the order in which candidates will be dropped and votes reallocated
in arriving at a result. In the technical literature, this is referred to as a violation
of the monotonicity condition–the idea that if a candidate wins more support
this should not adversely affect his or her prospects. Work done by Professor
Robert Norman and Joe Ornstein at Dartmouth College suggests that this
pathology can occur in up to a fifth of elections in close contests, precisely
those contests for which IRV is purported to be the most suitable.
The claim that IRV gets rid of the spoiler role is not substantiated by the
extensive study of that system by Sir Michael Dummett in his very fine
book “Principles of Electoral Reform” (Oxford University Press, 1997).
From real world date of ranked-choice elections that Dummett used in
his analysis, it is clear that in IRV elections with a large number of
candidates you could have a number of spoilers without that fact being
transparent. Worse yet as Dummett has shown in the case of ranked-
choice voting systems like IRV, small changes in preferences between
minor candidates, can, by changing the order in which candidates are
dropped and votes reallocated, lead to dramatic changes in the outcomes,
or as Dummett also put it in commenting on this:
[IRV] is erratic because, at later stages in the assessment
process, it gives the same weight to some voters’ second,
third, or (when there are more than four candidates) fourth
choices, while never giving any weight at all to some voters’
second or later choices, according to the accident of which
candidates are eliminated and in which order. Dummett, p. 105.
It goes without saying that the results in our system of plurality voting, in
Condorcet elections, in Borda elections or in approval voting elections are
not impacted by such shifts in preferences among minor candidates. Nor
are these systems, including approval voting, subject to monotonicity
Given the above considerations it ought to be clear, despite some
politicians’ beliefs, that the top-two system and IRV are not workable
alternatives to our current system of plurality voting, especially if we wish
to level the voting field for third-party and independent candidates and
have more representative results in our elections.
A Much Better Voting Alternative
If we want to move away from our increasingly dysfunctional political
system, changing our voting system is a necessary, though surely not
sufficient, condition for doing so. In thinking about voting systems there
are two important considerations to take into account. First, does a voting
system level the voting field for third-party and independent candidates?
And second, does it have a strong tendency to elect the most representative
candidate given voters’ preferences? It is my contention that there is a
simple solution for achieving this in our national elections.
A better alternative to our current voting system at the national level could
be enacted by a simple statutory act mandating approval voting in federal
elections. Under approval voting in multi-candidate elections, voters are
allowed to give one vote each to that candidate or candidates they support
with the candidate having the most votes winning. This essentially costless
voting reform would eliminate the wasted vote, the spoiler role, the necessity
of vote splitting and give fairer outcomes in multi-candidate elections for
third-party and independent candidates.
A Proposed Voting Act
Under the First Amendment to the Constitution Americans have the right to
petition Congress to pass laws. In the case of improving our political system
a national petition could be circulated to ask Congress to pass an Equitable
Voting Act along the following lines.
We the undersigned ask Congress to pass the Equitable Voting Act as
proposed by the American Coalition for Election Reform. We further
state that we intend to take into account our representatives’ actions
on this request in our voting in future elections for the House and
THE EQUITABLE VOTING ACT
GIVEN the need of the American people for a more equitable voting system
and given Article 1 Section 4 and the 14th Amendment of the Constitution
and the precedent in Oregon v. Mitchell, Congress hereby mandates the
following for all federal elections:
1. Henceforth, federal elections for president and vice-president and
for members of Congress shall be conducted by approval voting. Under
approval voting, voters can give one vote each to the candidate or
candidates they support with the candidate having the most votes
2. Henceforth, five political parties shall be present on the federal
ballot, four occupied by the top four in terms of the number of votes
cast for their candidates for president in the previous election for that
office or by the number of votes cast for party candidates in the previous
congressional mid-term election and the fifth position filled by a nation
wide competition open to other parties and groups. In addition, no
state shall deny the right of three write-in votes for each office on the
a. Following the passage of this act, the Democratic Party, the
Republican Party, the Green Party, the Modern Whig Party, and
the National Renewal Party shall initially appear on the federal
3. The Federal Election Commission shall be responsible for
administering the nation wide competition for fifth place according to
the number of legitimate signatures on petitions for ballot access.
a. To assure that access is for a party of national importance,
no signatures from a single state in excess of 20% of the total
collected shall be used in calculating the valid totals for each
petition effort. The party with the highest number of legitimate
signatures so calculated shall be on the federal ballot.
b. In carrying this out, the Federal Election Commission shall
set reasonable conditions and a reasonable time period and
deadline for the petition process which are fair to parties and
groups in terms of organizing their efforts and fairly allows the
winning party to effectively participate in the following federal
c. The Federal Election Commission shall be compensated by the US
Treasury for the costs entailed in carrying this out.
4. No nominee for president and vice-president of the five political
parties on the federal ballot shall be denied the right to
participate in the national debates held under the aegis of the
Commission on Presidential Debates or any other appropriate entity.
5. The procedures for nomination of party candidates for federal
office whether by primary elections, by caucuses, or by party
conventions or rules shall, consistent with the observation of
democratic norms, be determined by the political parties themselves.
But in the case of public primary elections for congressional
candidates, the voting shall be by approval voting on each party’s
a. All federal incumbents not on any of the official party ballot
lines but eligible for reelection shall be guaranteed their own
ballot line for reelection unless they inform the U.S. Secretary of
State of their intention not to run. In the latter case, no tallies
shall be made for them nor considered for them in the election results.
The rights of representatives in this matter shall not be prejudiced
due to redistricting following the decennial census.
GIVEN the desire of the American people to elect their president and
vice-president by popular vote and given Article 1 Section 10 of the
Constitution, Congress authorizes the creation of an interstate
compact to allow the allocation of state electors to those of the
candidate with the most popular votes nationwide as long as that
candidate has at least a 50% approval rate nationally.
Could such a petition effort give the American people the tools to get
a less partisan and more ethical political elite in our federal elected
offices? We won’t know without trying, something that has not been
tried but clearly is sorely needed as the 2016 election well illustrates.