Breaking the 2-Party Two-step (2012 edition)

The Following is from the book No Safe Harbor, and is an updated version of the piece that was published here two years ago, on election day 2010.

The first Tuesday in November is election day. It is a day when people all over the country go out, and exercise democracy. In some countries, the very act of voting is seen as a triumph, something worthwhile to be attained. The US sees it as so important, that several countries have been invaded in the past century for the purposes of restoring democracy, yet the US does not have a functioning democracy itself, instead there is a pseudo-democracy, where only two parties are allowed to participate, much like in the most restrictive countries; China, Algeria, North Korea.

There are several myths about elections and voting, and I’m going to try and dispel them, or at least explain why what seems like such a good theory, doesn’t work out in practice. I’m going to focus on US politics, but much of this holds true for other countries using a first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, such as the UK. In addition, I’ll use the term “Major Parties” or “Major Party” to collectively describe the Republicans and Democrats. It’s not an ideal choice of term, but it is one in common use in state laws across the country when talking about ballot access, to refer to those parties.

“If you vote for a third party, you’re wasting your vote.”

There is a never ending stream of partisan rhetoric when it comes to third parties. One of the most common claims is that voting for a 3rd party candidate is ‘a wasted vote’. It has led to the rise of tactical voting in the US, where instead of voting for the person they want (if they are not one of the big two parties) we have people voting for the ‘big 2’ representative they dislike least. This was best exemplified in the 2004 US Presidential elections, when people who hated Bush voted for Kerry, and those that hated Kerry voted for Bush. What went completely unnoticed was the third choice in almost every state – that of the Libertarian Party and Michael Badnarik (he was not on the ballot in New Hampshire, or Oklahoma), or for that matter, the Green Party, who were on the ballot in about half the states.

This ‘tactical voting’ is the waste of a vote. Instead of voting for the person you wish to represent you, you are voting to try and deny someone else from doing so, by supporting the opponent who is believed to be the greatest challenge. This then leads to the two major parties producing candidates who are at odds with each other, to get this dichotomy, and play people into an ‘us or them’ situation.

There is another cost. The elected representatives in Congress are universally distrusted, and often thought of as corrupt.Why?

Well, they don’t actually represent the views of their constituents. What they represent is the views of the political party of the candidate that was not as disliked as the other. The other result is the rise in negative campaign adverts. Why spend money saying “vote for me, I’m better,” when you can spend the money pointing out how bad your major opponent is, and get the tactical vote as a response. The additional bonus from this method is if you lose, you’ve got your adverts to say “I told you so,” and if you win you’ve got very few promises to be held accountable for.All this from tactical voting. What a sham!

“Third parties are a waste of time. They will never win.”

There is no reason why they are a waste of time. The main reason they won’t win is not because people don’t support them, but due to tactical voting (see above) people are too afraid to be on the losing side. In addition, there are other elements to supporting the party that matches your views most closely, even if it’s a 3rd party. Aside from winning the election, there are other goals that can be achieved, such as federal funding if the party reached 5% in the previous election. This can be a substantial benefit to many candidates.

Major parties are also scared of third parties. In 2004, when the Libertarian party sued the Commission for Presidential Debates (the organization that runs the presidential campaign debates), the Republican party, and the Democratic Party, over being unfairly excluded from the debates (they had a nationally available candidate, and the debate was paid for using state funds, and held in a state venue (Arizona State university for the 3rd debate), the debate could have gone ahead if the two candidates had agreed to allow Badnarik to participate. Both refused. The Presidential Debates are a substantial piece of advertising, rather than actual debate when it excludes significant candidates. Ninety minutes of prime time television and radio is expensive, and when you add in the news coverage and analysis of it, it’s a major chunk.

One estimate is that the debates work out to be worth at least $40 million in advertising. That’s a substantial sum, and would be more than the total campaign budgets of the minor parties, much less the independents. Of course, $40 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the spending nationally on Major Party candidates, but the desire to control is one that tends to override any mere cost. And costs aresomething the 2010 election has in spades. In 2008, $2.5 billion was spent. For 2010, a mid-term election (which is traditionally less costly than a presidential election year), it’s estimated that between $3 billion and $4 billion was spent on campaign advertising, almost certainly focused on the two main parties. On the other side of the fence, minor party candidates are often asked why they even bother. Again, in 2004, at the Libertarian Party Conference, Michael Badnarik addressed this very issue, saying

“As a Libertarian candidate, I frequently face the ‘wasted vote’ syndrome. People tell me that I’m a good candidate. They believe in what I stand for, but they can’t bring themselves to vote for me because they don’t want to waste their vote. If you were in prison, and you had a 50% chance of lethal injection, a 45% chance of going to the electric chair, and only a 5% chance of escape, are you likely to vote for lethal injection because that is your most likely outcome? Your survival depends on voting for escape even if that’s only a 5% chance.”

Escape is, of course, voting for what you believe in, rather than the death of voting against yourself, voting “tactically.”

Again, it’s down to tactical voting. The perception that 3rd parties won’t win, because voting for them is a wasted vote. Because it’s a wasted vote, people don’t vote for them. Thus they don’t win. This validates people’s view that they were right not to vote for them. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s one that must be broken, in order to bring some actual democracy to the government.

“Voting the party ticket”

A lot of times, people will vote a straight ticket. That means that people will vote for every Democrat, or every Republican on the ballot. The theory is that the party represents the voters point of view, and so voting a straight ticket is the best, easiest way to vote their view. It’s not that simple though. If it were simply a measure of the party position, then why do we need candidates? Just assign a block vote to the party’s national committee chairman. It also completely negates the need for primaries. If the party affiliation is all that’s needed, why is a publicly funded primary needed? All the candidates on the primary ballot represent the party, so they should all stand for the same thing.

We all know that candidates differ widely on what they represent, which is why the whole concept of a “straight ticket vote” is so horrific. That people vote for a candidate, for their representation, without looking at the candidates and what they stand for relying instead on a small letter placed next to their name, is insulting to the concepts of democracy, and insulting to the candidates. It trivializes them and means they’re nothing more than a mouthpiece. Of course, if candidates wish to just be a mouthpiece for a national chairman, then they’re not a good choice as a candidate anyway. The idea of a candidate is to represent their constituents in the government, with a party providing support and guidance and a basic direction. These days, candidates are representing the major parties to the constituents.

There is nothing wrong with voting for candidates of different parties. If the candidate’s position matches your views, then you should vote for them irrespective of their party affiliation. The 1992 Eddie Murphy film The Distinguished Gentleman played on this premise, the “dumb voter” syndrome. Instead of a party though, he went for a name, but it’s the same principle. Voters went in without knowledge (or care) and just looked for something vaguely familiar, beit a surname, or a party affiliation.

*sigh*

Taken altogether, it’s a sad situation, producing terrible results. It’s why we need electoral reform, in order to restore a government that focuses on policies, rather than attacking others because of party identification, and trying to prevent new parties entering and participating on an even keel – that would be too democratic, and upset the status quo.

Before you vote, do your homework, check who your candidates are, and what they stand for, and above all else, please, VOTE BASED ON THE CANDIDATES AND WHAT YOU STAND FOR. This is your government you are electing, it’s not American Idol, or some other pointless, inconsequential TV show. It’s as real, and as serious as it gets. For all that people go on about illegal immigrants, those who were lucky enough to be born citizens, act as a complete disgrace when they abuse the privilege of citizenship.

The real solution would be to adopt proportional representation in some form. It’s considered “too complex” for Americans to understand, yet countries like France and Mexico seem to have no problem with it.

And above all else, don’t complain about the government you get, if you voted tactically, dismissed candidates because of their party, chose not to vote, or just voted a straight ticket. It’s your fault, and the fault of those that acted like you, and has been since this country was founded. Next time, use your brain instead – your country will thank you.

It’s your vote, make it count!

No Safe Harbor is available in paperback from Amazon, or as a free eBook from Nosafeharbor.com