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Thursday, March 25, 2010 06:05 am

Is this any way to run an election?

The need for new ways to select public officials

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PHOTO BY OLIVIER DOULLIERY/MCT

The only suspense come election time in places such as Russia and Belarus and almost any of the Central Asian republics is not who wins but by how much. Government leaders bully, they bribe, they ban opponents from the ballot to produce vote margins for the winners so flagrantly false that they would embarrass the worst of the old Chicago 1st Ward bosses. How, cry democrats around the world, can a government call itself legitimate that installs in public office candidates endorsed by only a fraction of its citizens?

How indeed? The center-right Freedom House (“Dedicated to promoting free institutions worldwide”) rates all nations by their “free” and “democratic” qualities. The U.S. naturally ranks high in a competition that includes Myanmar and Iran and Venezuela, in large part because it has chosen to elect rather than appoint public servants such as sheriffs and judges. However, if one looks at the U.S. in terms not of how many elections we hold but the quality of their process, we do less well — tied for 30th place in fact. (We focus here on the public realm, and ignore the fact that U.S. workplaces are among the least democratic in the West.)

Illinois elections are fair enough, but they cannot be called democratic except out of courtesy, even if we somehow eliminated the gerrymandering of congressional districts and the pervasive influence of campaign money. That’s because we routinely elect the least popular of the candidates among those running for public office, especially during our primary elections. In a seven-man race, this year’s Republican gubernatorial nominee won that dubious honor with 20.6 percent of the votes cast by those calling themselves Republicans on Election Day. The important number, however, is 79.4 – the percentage of Republican voters who did not prefer Mr. Brady as their party’s candidate.

Even when a candidate wins the endorsement of most of those voting in an election, it cannot be said that the majority rules. Registered voters include only about two-thirds of the adults who are eligible to vote in most years, and few even of the registered actually vote in primaries. In February the turnout in Chicago was less than 30 percent and in some Downstate counties it reportedly was around 15 percent. Some years there are fewer primary voters crammed into all the voting booths in the state than used to cram themselves into the proverbial smoke-filled rooms a generation or two ago.

If the legitimacy of governments chosen this way is not in question, their credibility is. To enhance it, two problems need fixing. One is the low numbers of people who wish to vote. The other is the fact that the winner so often does not reflect the choices of those who do vote. Solving one will actually goes some way toward solving the other, I believe, since one of the reasons for low turnouts is the well-founded conviction that one person’s vote doesn’t count. Make individual votes count for more, and more people will bother to cast them.

That means ridding Illinois of the first-past-the-post system now used for state elections, which anoints as winner the candidate who get the most votes, even if that number is short of a majority of those cast. Many clever people have devoted their years between college and the grave thinking up fairer methods of casting and counting votes. Probably the most common option is to hold runoff elections between the two top vote-getters if no one candidate gets a majority. That, in a state like Illinois that holds too many elections already, is an unappetizing prospect for all but campaign professionals.

Voters are spared returning to the polls in such cases by use of instant runoff voting. This method (also known as preference voting or ranked choice voting) asks voters to rank their preferences, usually 1-2-3. If no candidate gets an outright majority of first-choice votes, the last-place finisher is eliminated from the running and his or her voters’ second choices are distributed among the candidates still in the running. And so it goes until one achieves a majority.

A version of preference voting is the single transferable vote, or STV, used in races to fill multiple seats, as in the three-member House districts that Illinois used to have. In such cases voters mark their most preferred candidate “1,” their second-favorite “2” and so on. Under most STV systems, a formula is used to determine how many votes is enough to win. (In a three-winner race it is usually 25 percent plus 1.) Any candidate who has that number of first-choice votes wins and her second- and third-choice votes are given to the remaining candidates and so on until all seats are filled.  

STV ensures that parties win seats in legislative bodies in proportion to their share of the electorate, a system in general use in Europe. The preferences of even those voters whose first choice does not win influence the outcome. In theory that means that minority interests must be given heed by the pols, resulting in a poll that more accurately reflects public opinion, fewer disaffected voters and a healthier polity.

There are other systems. Using the Borda count, voters rank-order candidates by assigning points; the most points wins. Under approval voting, voters are allowed to vote for as many candidates as they approve of, and the one with the greatest number of votes wins. All such schemes vary in practicality and the accuracy with which the supposed preferences of those polled is reflected in the results. But while none is perfect, all are less imperfect than the first-past-the-post.

That system does have one powerfully appealing feature – its simplicity. Would the people casting ballots be able to understand the more complex systems? Would the people counting the ballots be able to? And would not a more complex procedure afford more opportunities to manipulate it? All valid points of arguments, but not the real reason why Illinois persists in using it. The winner-takes-all election is tantamount to religious conviction, and believers look at voting as a ritual which, like prayer, is reassuring in the doing regardless of the outcome. Mr. Quinn’s idea of electoral reform is to make campaigns shorter rather than make outcomes fairer – proving that while he may be a good Democrat, he is no democrat.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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