Our voting system creates extremism

Modern politics is a hellscape. There is diminishing room for nuance and discussion. “You’re either with me or against me!” Moderates need not apply.

What if I told you that by redesigning our ballots, we can make extremism uncommon again?

Let me explain.

The two-party system has poisoned us. Nuance is seen as weakness or even capitulation to the “other side.” Either you’re all-in on the most extreme platform positions of one party, or you’re a full-on supporter of the other. Thinking about a third party? Both sides will tell you you’re throwing away your vote, and simultaneously voting for the other candidate.

We’re stuck in a false binary, and both options suck.

How did we get here?

It starts out pretty simply. We are a democratic republic. So we vote in our leaders.

Political parties form. People quickly learned how arguing for your side in a group was a lot easier than arguing by yourself. Even before we signed the Constitution, the Constitutional Convention broke down into a two-party conflict between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists.

Parties realize they only need 51%* of the votes and not a drop more. It’s expensive and difficult to rally support beyond that, so why bother? Just focus on the 51% you need.

Voting blocs solidify. If you grow up in a voting bloc (that means most people you know all vote the same way) your friends, family, church, and education all confirm your beliefs. Most of us live within these blocs and don’t actually have real friendships with people who have different politics. It’s difficult to break the mold.

Over time, bloc beliefs move from “This is how I believe we can best improve our lives” to “You don’t just disagree, but are intentionally ignorant, and therefore malicious.” It may go so far as to accuse one side of promoting violence simply for disagreeing. Although this history is quite abbreviated, if you think it’s an exaggeration then you haven’t been watching the news or your social media feeds in recent weeks, months, and years.

Measured, thoughtful dialogue doesn’t often make headlines (or retweets). Catchy one-liners do. Online conversation has devolved into who can dunk on their opponents rather than demonstrate rationality.

“Disagreement = enemy” has been our collective diet for decades now. That sentiment isn’t new — but the volume just turned way up.

Extremism is a design flaw in our republic. The flaw exists because of two separate but related aspects of our culture: the technicalities of our voting system, and our culture of moral imperatives. AKA winner-take-all elections and a lot of people who want to tell others how to live their lives.

Fight extremism by redesigning the ballot

Democracy matters because it gives the individual the ability to choose. One simple change to our ballots will expand our ability to choose.

Currently, we have a first-past-the-post voting system. Victory is measured as 51% of the votes. Parties are incentivized (to seem) to act in the interest of 51% of the population, and no more. Goodhart’s law is an adage saying “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” The target is 51%. This incentivizes tactics like gerrymandering and trading special privileges for support, which are deeply undemocratic practices, and which do not promote the interests of the constituency.

This system inevitably leads to a political duopoly. Two small and equally-sized parties trying to push back against a single, dominant party will de facto become one. During the Jackson era, several opposition parties like the Anti-Masonic party and the one of predecessors to the modern Republican party realized they couldn’t oppose Jackson when they split their votes, so they formed the Whig Party.

Eventually, the two dominant parties become identical on some issues (corporate bailouts, a tidal wave of unpayable debt, repeated foreign wars) and polar opposites on others. This both kills debates (“no one cares about the national debt, bro”) and creates extreme stances on others. Meanwhile the quiet majority of moderates and un-categorizables are lost in the shuffle, a handful of whose votes are traded across party lines each election.

Party platforms are ultimately about finding the 51% balance, not earnestly representing the will of the majority. Whatever the hot button issue, each party will move its center-of-balance to the point where it feels it can tip the voter scale 51%, and follow-up be damned. You can see this tipping in action during every primary and general election season.

During the primaries, candidates generally try to cast themselves as the true believer, edging towards policy extremes to rally partisan support. Assuming they don’t renege on their primary promises (which is certainly possible), this leads to greater polarization over time.

Obama was rated the most liberal senator in 2007. This is not a critique of his policies or presidency. It’s a recognition of how the most extreme attracts the strongest support. The exact same thing happened in the previous election. As as most Republicans (seemed) to prefer other candidates to Trump, their votes were so divided that he handily took the nomination.

The nation ends up with a choice between the two most polarizing candidates.

The founders understood the danger of tyranny of the majority, where half the population has the potential to terrorize the other half. They gave us an incomplete solution.

George Washington warned us. But we can still take action.

In his farewell address, Washington rightly recognizes the threat of a two-party system. Washington explicitly warns how tribalism, loving one’s own political party and growing in the “spirit of revenge” against the other party, leads to “permanent despotism” (yes, he really says permanent despotism). We are tumbling head-over-heels down a slippery slope towards extremism, widespread violence, and the neutering of civil liberties.

I would love to be incorrect about this.

While the founders created many checks and balances in our political systems, it is our responsibility to improve their oversights. It wasn’t until 1870 when American architect WR Ware designed the “alternative vote” system, also known as instant runoff or ranked-choice voting, which is currently used in Australia, Maine, and several US municipalities.

In a nutshell, instead of voting for one candidate, you rank your preferences of any (or all) the candidates. All the votes are counted, and if your favorite ends up in last place, they are eliminated from the running and your second pick is now your vote. The process repeats until one candidate has a majority.

The alternative vote gives nuance a chance. It allows third party candidates to have a voice, eliminating the possibility of “throwing away your vote” or having to pick the lesser of two evils.

You do not have to throw away your vote — ever.

This doesn’t require another amendment. It could happen on a state-by-state basis. Unfortunately, the only people who are capable of rewriting the rules of our system to prevent us from having those two parties are…the two parties. No one will ever willingly change the rules of the game to make it harder for them to play.

The average voter does not like or feel any loyalty to a party — they just dislike one or both. Until the great mass of disenfranchised voters are able to organize themselves outside of the standard political machine, we’ll never have an alternative system, and we will inevitably sink further into the mire of extremism.

I’m not registered with any party. I’ve cast votes for three parties in my lifetime. Maybe I’m one of the politically homeless now. The point is, I’m not here to carry the torch for any particular person or special interest.

I’m here to name and shame the spirit of tribalism, when we decide our group’s identity matters more than truth or goodness.

Doing nothing will only lead to a greater partisan divide.

The only way to address the systemic error of our two-party system is to address it the way the founders intended — realizing our collective mistake, organizing ourselves like real citizens, and revising our archaic voting system to allow a greater level of democratic expression.

Extremism is not corrected overnight. Turning the ship around starts with turning the rudder. Our style of voting is our rudder.

*Okay, it’s 50% plus one vote, but that’s a lot to write every time, so I’m just going with 51%. You get the idea.

developer, writer, marketer, optimist

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