Friday, August 6, 2010

Getting Your Voter Choice Fix

Bernstein: "this entire round (that is, primary elections open to mass electorates) is rare by world standards. Only a few nations that have adopted the American direct primary for any office, and as far as I know no other country combines a long ballot with the direct primary."

Whenever I talk to people who wish our system allowed for more parties, and thus more options in a general election, I tell them that they've got plenty of options -- they just have to get involved in primaries. If you don't like the positions of either party, you should support a primary candidate who can co-opt the party machinery and turn it in the direction that you want. For reasons I don't understand, they're usually not satisfied with that. So then I tell them that I like IRV as much as the next guy who's willing to give up monotonicity, and we talk about something else.

Often, my interlocutors were expressing a wish for a multiparty system where there are a whole bunch of parties on the ballot, and everything gets hashed out in parliamentary coalitions. I guess there are different ways of fulfilling voters' desires for more than two choices -- primaries and multiparty systems. Maybe part of the reason why so few countries have direct primaries is that when you already have a multiparty system, you've given enough scope for voter choice that you don't need primaries.


Hope said...

Neil, the problem with the primaries is that even if you vote for a candidate who is not part of the general system, chances are they will not make it to the final election. E.G. Bill Halter vs. Blanche Lincoln here in Arkansas. In primaries, there is often one candidate who is going to win, no matter what, because of name recognition, money or some other factor. And if by some chance they make it to the final election, that non-conformist will probably get shut down by the opposite (and far less desirable) candidate.

What I would like is a truly viable set of alternate parties, who could field candidates that might actually win something, not just candidates on a Democrat or Republican spectrum. But that doesn't seem likely any time soon. And yes, both Benjamin and I voted in the primary, and the run-off.

Neil Sinhababu said...

I'd take Halter to be a pretty good case for the effectiveness of primaries. He came pretty close to winning, and Lincoln eventually had to be a lot more progressive on financial reform than expected in order to survive.

To get a truly viable set of alternative parties, I think you'd need to change the minds of the American people in some deep way. Creating that is where radical efforts at political change have to start. It's difficult and takes a long time.

chris said...

Hope: You don't want a different electoral system, you want a different electorate.

Hope said...

Well, yes, a different electorate would be good. Neil, the problem with Halter is that he would probably have not survived the final voting. Heck, even Blanche is facing a steep uphill battle. So, how does this give us more choice?

Neil Sinhababu said...

The voters of Arkansas get their choice of Halter/Lincoln/Boozman, rather than just Lincoln/Boozman. As you say, in this electoral climate they're going to choose Republican. But that's not a problem of 'not enough choices', it's a problem of 'people make bad choices'.

Any plausible electoral system you want to set up in Arkansas is going to give you a huge Republican win this time around. The fact that no Democrat has a chance isn't the electoral system's fault, it's the people's fault.

low-tech cyclist said...

The problem with claiming that party primaries suffice to fill the gap left with respect to voter choice by the absence of a wider array of viable parties is that, at least on the Dem side, viable primary challenges are really quite sparse. (And I'm loosely defining 'viable' as anything that gets the incumbent or party-anointed candidate to actually have to publicly notice that s/he's got a primary challenger.) Have there been enough of these on the Dem side in the 2006-08-10 cycles that you'd run out of fingers trying to count them?

There's a big gap between the existence of the possibility of choice, and actual choice.

Neil Sinhababu said...

That's true, ltc, but it's hard to set up a non-spoiler third party and get people to vote for it as well.

If you count open seat races, there's always a bunch of contested primaries, especially in very blue states where you're sort of having a multiparty election through the primary. Certainly going after established incumbents will be harder, but it would be under any system.