California is a kind of a cool state when it comes to Democracy. Unlike every other state, the voters there have the ability to propose referendums and then vote them into law – totally skipping their representatives. In 2010 they made two very significant changes to the electoral system.
The first was that all districts were drawn up based on geography and they were made by unaffiliated professionals. This contrasts almost everywhere else in America where the politicians get to draw the lines of their districts which has led to districts where the politicians almost cannot be removed from office. See this from 2010 as an example of the gerrymandering I’m talking about.
The second change was that the state primaries were to become non-partisan where everyone regardless of party could vote for anyone running in the primary and the two top vote getters (regardless of party affiliation) would face off in the general election.
These two changes are HUGE and will go a log way to making elections more fair in California. This year there are a number of candidates running for congress there that would never have had a shot otherwise. I urge you to read this short article from Time magazine explaining the current election cycle there.
Before I tell you what else needs to happen I want to take a second to applaud the voters of California for these changes. They are game changers and they need to be implemented universally across the country and I urge all of you to publicize these changes and write to your representatives to beg them to make these changes. Sadly we won’t see this happen almost anywhere else because the people able to change things are the ones who benefit the most from keeping them the same. There’s always revolution…
Anyway, California needs to go further and I’m going to take a second to tell you why. For years now, mathematicians and others have studied voting and have pretty much unanimously decided that plurality voting for more than 2 candidates in a field is the worst system one could possibly use . The reasons are many. But they mostly boil down to the fact that not all of your wishes as a voter are being counted in the math deciding the winner. If you simply choose who gets the most votes, that candidate may very well not be the one most people would choose.
For example, lets take an election with 3 candidates. One (candidate R) is a hard core Right Wing candidate, another (candidate D) is a hard core Left leaning candidate and one (candidate M) is right in the middle. Say that many of your voters are strongly biased towards candidates R and D and that all of those strongly biased voters would gladly vote for M if they knew that R or D would win.
Say that after the results are in the voting comes out to something like : 40% R, 30% D, and 30% M. Is this a fair result? Is it the right one? The only happy voters are the R voters. The D voters are thinking “we would totally have taken M, we hate R”, the M voters could be thinking the converse “if we had chosen D instead of M we’d be in great shape” (remember the Nader voters who swung Gore out of the presidency?).
A system like this leads people to strategically vote : They vote for a candidate they don’t really like much because they think they have the best shot at beating a candidate they hate. This is called Tactical Voting and it pretty much kills third party candidates that would have a legitimate shot if people had a way to say “I want D but I’d also accept M.. just not R!”
Here’s another example that’s illustrative. Imagine if there are 10 candidates and they get 11%, 10%, 10%, 10%, 10%, 10%, 10%, 10%, 10%, and 9% of the vote. Who should be the winner then? Would that be fair?
There are many other problems with plurality voting, just do a tiny bit of research and you will see what I’m talking about. This is the problem in California that they need to fix and there are many ways to do it.
The way I propose is called Approval Voting and it’s so fair that the American Society of Mathematicians use it for their elections (at least they did last time I checked). The way it works is simple. You vote for all the candidates you like and you don’t vote for the ones you don’t and the one with the most votes wins. It’s not perfect, but it’s 100 times better than what we do now.
There are other systems like the Borda Count and other Ranking systems, but in terms of simplicity and ease of implementation Approval is by far the clear winner. So California, you are almost there, just change your primary voting system and I will move there!