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The Unwasted Vote

Part 4 in a series on election reform

Dan Knight
November 30, 2000

The biggest obstacle to a meaningful multi-party system in the United States is the concept of a wasted vote. Some claim any vote not cast for a Democrat or a Republican is wasted.

The Wasted Vote

Using that logic, any vote not cast for the winner is a wasted vote - a principle almost every voting American would deny. In reality, there are only three kinds of wasted votes:

  1. Uncast votes. About half of all registered voters don't bother to vote. That's a real waste, as is the number of citizens who are not registered to vote.
  2. Spoiled ballots. We keep hearing about 19,000 spoiled ballots in Palm Beach County (FL) due to two votes for President. Voters need to be more careful. It's a shame some people make the effort to vote, but then waster their vote by spoiling their ballot.
  3. Votes for a Democrat or Republican when you really support someone else, whether Nader, Buchanan, Browne, Hagelin, or someone else.

If you vote for your candidate of choice, you have not wasted your vote. You have spoken your mind, which is a core concept in the American democratic experiment (see the Bill of Rights).

The Unwasted Vote

Still, a lot of Americans fear that voting for their candidate of choice may lead to the election of the major party candidate they least want in office. I believe that's why all third-party candidates did so poorly this time around - because we perceived the Bush-Gore race as so close, a lot of voters didn't dare cast a third-party vote, selling their convictions for security.

What if it didn't have to be that way? What if you could vote Browne or Buchanan, but have your vote go to Bush if your first choice didn't win? What if you could vote for Nader, knowing your vote would go to Gore if Nader didn't win? Wouldn't you be more likely to follow alternative candidates and parties if you could be assured your vote would be recycled, not wasted?

It can happen, although it wasn't a terribly easy thing to do before computers. All you have to do is change the ballot from "vote for one" to "rank these candidates." If your top choice is Hagelin, he gets a 1. If your second choice is Bush, he gets a 2. You can stop at any number you choose.

Better yet, with computerized voting, you could vote for your first choice, confirm it, then go to a second screen that lists the remaining choices. After that vote, you'd have a chance to cast your third choice vote among the remaining candidates. The computer would track your vote as a series of numbers.

At the end of the election, the system would tabulate and publish the first choice results. If no candidate had a majority, all votes for the candidate with the fewest first choice votes would be distributed to the second choice of those voters. The process would be repeated until one candidate has a majority.

Such systems have been effectively used in various parts of the world - and also some places in the US. It not only gives you a vote, but it takes your opinion about a second and third choice seriously. It eliminates wasted votes.

Distributing the Vote

Under the current system, we could use this process to distribute votes for the electoral college. In a state with 20 electors, votes for the less popular candidates (below a certain threshold) might be distributed to more popular ones, perhaps resulting in 9 electors for one candidate, 8 for another, 3 for another, and 1 for a fourth.

Should we abolish the electoral college, the distribution would take place on a national basis until one presidential candidate has a majority - something neither Bush nor Gore achieved in the last race.

Such a system could also be used to select members of the House of Representatives on a statewide basis, whether the state has a single Representative or dozens. In larger states, instead of voting for individual candidates, we could vote for political parties. If the Democrats received 42% of the vote, 42% of that state's Representatives would come from the Democrat's slate.

The End Result

If we establish national standards for voting and being listed on the ballot, eliminate the Electoral College, distribute votes, and allow for proportional representation in Congress, we can reduce vote fraud, level the field for third-party candidates, assure those elected of popular support, and increase the diversity of opinion at all levels of government.

Parts of this may not be an easy sell to the American public, which is entrenched in a two-party outlook. However, such a system celebrates the diversity which makes up our nation and may result in a system which leads to more consensus building and less polarization.

In light of the last election, there's no better time than the present to discuss election reform and find ways to improve the system.

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