Tyranny of the Minority

I write as we are in the midst of a long and contentious midterm primary season. Perhaps it is a good time to reflect on the way we choose candidates for the November election. Let’s begin with presidential primaries, which are run by the two major parties,. with the collaboration of state governments. Democratic presidential primaries generally allocate delegates proportionally among c candidates, which is why it takes so long for Democrats to settle on a candidate–but does make voters feel that their votes are reflected. Republican presidential primaries are winner take all, even if the winner only gets 25 percent of the vote in a crowded field. This system tends to favor more extreme candidates. The Democrats are not without flaws. They still have too many superdelegates that have too much say in a close contest. But the idea that a candidate could never win majority support of his or her own party’s voters and still get the nomination seems undemocratic with a small d.

State primaries are more diverse. Some have closed primaries, only for voters registered with that party. Others have open primaries that allow independents to vote,or sometimes do not rquire require party registration at all. In states that lean heavily towrd one party, that open primary gives everyone a say in the choice of the canddiates most likely to win in the general election. Open primaries tend to favor more centrist and less extreme candidates.

Many states also required a majority of 50 percent to be nominated, requiring a runoff vote between the two top contenders. if no one succeeds in topping 50 percent. Other; states give the nomination to the highest vote getter–even if, Like Dr. Oz in Pennsylvania this year, that is only one-third of Republican voters. Again, this practice favors less moderate and more extreme candidates. My home state of South Carolina and Georgia both have open primaries and runoffs. The chief drawback to runoffs is the low turnout in primaries generally, which is even lower in a runoff. This year in South Carolina the only statewide race to generate a runoff was the Republican primary for Superintendent of Education. Far fewer voters are likely to participate in the runoff.

There are two recent innovations which may address all of these challenges while increasing participation while lowering the cost of running elections. One is the jungle primary. The other is ranked voting. California was a pioneer in the jungle primary, in which all candidates–Republican, Democratic, Independent, minor party–for a particular office (say, Secretary of State) are on the ballot in a primary open to all registered voters. The top two vote getters advance to the November general election. The two finalists could be from the same parity, different parties, or even independents. The general election replaces the runoff. Variants of this system are in use in Louisiana, Wyoming, and Alaska. This system also favors less extreme candidates, making the possibility of compromise and collaboration in legislative bodies more likely.

Ranked voting is used in many contexts, including some municipal elections and nongovernmental organizations. Its main advantage is to eliminate the need for a runoff if no candidate receives a majority, while still ensuring that the winner is the preferred choice of a majority of voters. Confronted with a ballot with candidates A, B, C , and D, each voter assigns each candidate number from 1 (first choice) to 4 (fourth choice). All the first choice votes are tallied. If candidate B is the first choice of 50 percent or more, she wins. If no one gets 50 percent the second choices are added in, The vote count ends when someone receives a majority.

Many features of our present electoral process, intentionally or otherwise, favor candidates with minority support and perhaps more extreme positions than the mainstream of American voters. I’m pretty happy with the way my state runs elections, even though I seldom get what I want–because I am in a minority. I don’t whine. I don’t’ try to change the rules in order to get the outcome I want. Instead, I work within the system to encourage people to vote and try to persuade them to consider the candidates I support. Isn’t that the kind of playing nicely with others we were supposed to have learned in kindergarten?