September 30, 2002

So I've been thinking about

So I've been thinking about political systems.

Two years ago, when I was telling everyone why they should vote for Nader, I was saying things like, "vote for the person you think is best", and pooh-poohing all the objections about "spoiler candidates" and such. Meanwhile, my friend Michael Kimmitt was telling people about how they need to resolve differences in the primary, then unify under the selected candidate: more or less specifically affirming the two party system. I didn't really like that solution, because it routinely ends up presenting us with decisions like Bush vs Gore.

Earlier this year, the French had an election for President in which Jacques Chirac (the incumbent president) was front runner, and Lionel Jospin (then the premier) was thought to be in second. As was usual French elections, there were a number of lesser candidates as well---after ballots were counted, the top two candidates would face off in a runoff vote a few weeks later. As it happened, Jospin was narrowly edged out by a far-right candidate (Jean-Marie Le Pen), who then faced Chirac in the runoff, where he was soundly defeated 80-20%.

This pattern of events was unfortunate, because Chirac and Jospin were relatively moderate candidates, and each would have gotten a lot of votes in the runoff from people who had voted for someone else in the initial vote. Le Pen was unlikely to increase his percentage (and didn't); those who would have preferred slightly-left Jospin to slightly-right Chirac almost universally preferred Chirac to extreme-right Le Pen, sealing his victory. "It's too bad," thought I, "that they couldn't send to their runoff vote the most popular leftist candidate vs the most popular rightist candidate." Oh. That'd make the first election a primary....

Well, sort of. But it certainly sent me off into a different way of thinking. What if the elections were really just runoffs between the best two candidates, and primaries were really where the elections happened? (Michael's been saying this for years, but it never quite registered, I guess.) I thought a lot about this.

But it still galls me to think that I should have to vote for (say) the Democrat just because I think he's less bad than the Republican, and he was selected in the primary. At least, not if there are alternatives. So I flipped back to backing Instant Runoff Voting or some other fair voting system; it's the logical extension of a basic runoff vote, which is itself just an approximation at finding the most supported candidate. If IRV had been in place in France, then people could have stated explicitly that they liked <random leftist candidate> best but still preferred Jospin over Chirac; and as the runoff rounds proceeded (instantly, without the need for further voting) it would have (correctly) ended up a contest between Jospin and Chirac, instead of a system accident that wasted peoples time by pitting Chirac against Le Pen.

Of course, the existence of IRV wouldn't abolish the existence of the parties, nor should it. Political parties provide a convenient way of grouping like-minded people, and funneling monetary support in some centralised way. And for the determination by the party of which candidate to fund, primaries would continue to make sense. If a candidate is defeated in the primary, he can choose to concede---most would, I think---or go it alone, as an independent. An unfunded independent. This would be difficult, but provides a useful outlet: it's the difference between "I agree with A more than B, but in the end, B's pretty good and I'll vote for him" and "I agree with A, but barely at all with B, and the thought of voting for B is awful".

Until we can get IRV in place, though, I've definitely come around to the idea of primaries being a useful if not very perfect approximation thereof. Now I just have to decide whether I'd rather register as Democrat (so I can vote in the primaries) or as Green (to lend numerary support to their existence: it helps their cause to be able to cite numbers of registered Greens in various jurisdictions). Oh well, I'll think about that before the next elections in two years!

"Well, someone come up with a good word that means "person whose name I can put on the same invitation separated by an "and" if I want both people in a couple to show up at my dinner party" yet doesn't indicate what they do with one another in their spare time so as to earn this distinction, and I'll be happy." --Gel Thelen

Posted by blahedo at 8:37pm on 30 Sep 2002
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