Kent Thiry plans to use some of his wealth to help save democracy, or at least to improve it. I love several aspects of his ballot proposal. But it would be a lot better if it used approval voting (vote for as many candidates as you want) both for primary and general elections. Also, I have some ideas for filling vacant seats. I don’t have Thiry’s bucks to fund a competing measure, but I’m hoping the keyboard is mightier than the wallet and that I can persuade Thiry to change some of the details.
In principle, and relative to the status quo, I absolutely love Thiry’s idea for open primaries. As I have repeatedly emphasized, giving political parties special treatment under the law is immoral and anti-democratic. Current law favors the candidates of political parties over other candidates, and it forces taxpayers to finance party primaries. So stupid and wrong! Thiry’s measure would obliterate this unjust system of party favoritism.
Under the proposal, party candidates would no longer be “more equal” than other candidates in getting direct ballot access. Instead, as Sandra Fish writes for the Sun, all candidates would have to collect signatures to get on the ballot, on equal footing. Excellent! Personally, I’d reduce the signature requirements to give more people, even ones of modest means, a realistic shot.
But there’s a big flaw in the way that Thiry’s measure sets up open primaries. Fish writes, “All candidates for elective office from the state legislative level on up would run on a single ballot, regardless of their party affiliation. The top four vote-getters would advance to the general election.”
Approval voting the better option
This system would consistently work great if it incorporated approval voting. But without approval voting, it could lead to disaster. Here is a hypothetical case to illustrate the potential problems. Let’s say we have a polity of 100 people. (See my earlier column for other examples along these lines.) Four horrible candidates each appeal to the bigotries and biases of a different 21 people. The remaining 16 people favor a noble and reasonable candidate. What’s more, most of the other 84 people would rather the reasonable candidate win than any of the other candidates they don’t support. In other words, the reasonable candidate has far and away the broadest base of support.
Under Thiry’s plan, the reasonable candidate with broad support is eliminated in the primary, and the four horrible candidates move ahead to the general election. Most people in the electorate hate the eventual winner. Under approval voting, however, the reasonable candidate easily moves on the general election and wins.
Notably, if we have approval voting, we don’t really even need a primary election. Why go to all the expense and irritation of a primary election when we could just hold a single, general election and take care of the business all at once? That would be my preference. But, like I said, I far prefer Thiry’s primary system to the existing party-based one, which, again, is a grotesque perversion of democracy.
Now we get to the general election. Fish clearly explains: “In the general election, voters would rank candidates in order of preference. If a candidate wins more than 50% of the first-preference votes, they would be declared the winner. If no candidate reaches that threshold, candidates with the fewest first-preference supporters would be eliminated. The eliminated candidate’s second-choice votes would then go to remaining candidates. The process would continue until one candidate exceeds 50% of the total vote.”
As I said in my last column, in most scenarios this will work okay. But there are situations in which approval voting continues to work great while ranked choice voting leads to disaster. Here is another hypothetical, again with an electorate of 100 people. Now three horrible candidates each appeal to the bigotries and biases of a different 26 people. The remaining 22 people prefer the noble and reasonable candidate. What’s more, most of the other 78 people would rather the reasonable candidate win than any of the other candidates they don’t support. Again, the reasonable candidate has far and away the broadest base of support.
Under approval voting, the reasonable candidate with broad support easily wins. Under ranked choice voting, the reasonable candidate is eliminated in the first round. Given such a possibility, I honestly do not see why anyone would prefer ranked choice voting over approval voting. Why take the risk?
Dealing with vacancies
Here is the last major leg of the proposal (Fish again): “Vacancy committees to replace state lawmakers would be eliminated and replaced by special elections when a lawmaker resigns.” I love the idea of abolishing party-run vacancy committees. (I’ve written about that before.) But we don’t need the extra hassle and expense of a special election.
Here’s my alternate proposal: Why not say that whoever comes in second in the general election fills the vacancy? With approval voting this would work out pretty well. In a lot of areas around the state, the top two vote-getters would be either Republicans or Democrats, depending. So in a lot of cases this system would replace a Republican with a Republican or a Democrat with a Democrat. But in competitive districts, a lot of times this system would result in a Republican replacing a Democrat or vice versa. I say good! That would discourage office holders from leaving office early. It would also encourage parties to run more quality candidates.
But if Thiry doesn’t like that proposal, he still shouldn’t set up special elections, I think. I’d rather that the other local office holders pick a replacement. But for me this is not a deal-breaker, and people can reasonably argue for different approaches to this. As long as we get rid of the current despicable system of party favoritism!
Thiry deserves credit for deeply rethinking our election rules. No, we should not make the perfect the enemy of the good. On the other hand, Thiry should not let the drafted plan be the enemy of a better plan. Give us approval voting!
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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