The system is broken, Congress is deadlocked, ideology dominates political conversations and yet the make up of Congress is basically the same as the previous two years. Many of us don’t approve of the job that our elected officials are doing. Though we feel like we have no means of changing things. Even if we vote this politician or that one out of office we all know the next will play the same games. In most elections there isn’t a good choice, there are only bad choices and worse choices. How often have you held your nose while voting? Far too often.
We don’t need to elect a different candidate, that is not the true problem. We need to fix the electoral system. During the past year and half I put a lot of thought into how we could reform presidential elections in order to allow for greater diversity in candidates and a greater potential for real change. First party primaries should be replaced with open primaries. Second electoral votes should be awarded on a proportional basis.
Party primaries polarize elections. During the primary (regardless of which party) the candidates spend all their time trying to appeal to the party base. The problem is that during a primary candidates don’t care if they appeal to the center or the other side of the political spectrum. There is no concern for general appeal because during the primary only the party votes and the base votes at a higher rate so they get the most focus. This results in candidates focusing their platform toward a subset of their party. Considering that the both major party are a minority of the general population and that the base is a minority within the party that means that presidential candidates are focused on a minority within a minority. How can they truly represent the nation when they strive to appeal to a minority of a minority?
Then once the primary is finished the winner then needs to figure out how to convince the general population to vote for them. But at the same time they can’t alienate the base which just got them nominated as their party’s candidate. So they are forced to walk a tight rope of rhetoric. Unfortunately many of us can’t stand watching a candidate talk one way for six months during a primary only to switch their rhetoric for the general election. How are we to trust anything a candidate says if they switch their message like that? How can we believe any promises when they spend the general election walking back comments made during the primary?
Instead we should eliminate party primaries and the polarization they cause. In their place we should have open primaries. All candidates that qualify to get on the ballet go onto one ballet. It would contain everybody regardless of party and any registered voter could vote in the primary. The top two candidates move on to the general election regardless of party. That means the election could be between two democrats or two republicans or a libertarian and the green party. It doesn’t matter as long as they got the most votes.
An open primary would have the opposite effect of party primaries. Since the population as a whole would be capable of voting in the primary then there is less incentive to focus rhetoric and platforms to the party base. Instead general appeal becomes far more important than during party primaries. Under party primaries centrists / moderates are at a disadvantage because the center is not as appealing to either of the party bases. But the fact is that more people self identify (according to Pew) as independents than as either republicans or democrats (though the sum of reps and dems is greater than independents). A open primary would reward those seeking to engage the center by allowing the center a greater say in which candidates will move on to the general election. This would encourage greater participation by different parties and candidates. No longer would elections be driven purely by the two party system. Instead 3rd party candidates could aim at filling the center which has been devoid of candidates for a long time.
Also it is important to note that party primaries also serve the purpose of garnering media attention for candidates. The primary allows candidates to get television and news coverage which in turn can elevate a candidate to the national stage. This is as important as any other function because without basic name recognition a candidate has no hope of winning the presidency. Since party primaries only allow their party to participate in certain functions like debates they are able to focus the media attention on their candidates to the exclusion of other candidate. Whereas with an open primary no candidate would be excluded from debates or other primary type functions based on party. That can allow a greater diversity in perspectives and platforms presented during the primary which in turn may open up the political conversation to a greater degree.
Thus an open primary could serve to reduce political polarization which expanding the political dialogue by allowing greater diversity of candidates. Furthermore it would allow candidates to appeal to the center rather than forcing them to focus on the party base. Finally it would eliminate the need to focus rhetoric toward the base only to change it once the general election starts.
The second part to electoral reform is eliminating the winner takes all electoral college. As is most states award all of their electoral votes to the candidate who takes a majority of votes in that state. I propose that electoral votes should be distributed to candidates based on the proportion of the vote that each candidate receives (rounding up for the candidate with the most votes). Thus if a candidate wins 51% to 49% then 51% of the electoral votes go to that candidate. But that also means the other candidate still get 49%. Not everybody voted for one candidate so why should one candidate receive all of the electoral votes? Instead by splitting them the electoral votes represent the popular vote. That means your voice / vote is heard even if your candidate didn’t win in your state. As it is currently the winner takes all system discourages many from voting. How many of you live in a red or blue state as opposed to a swing state? Those of us living in a solid state know which way the say will vote regardless of how we vote. That leaves little reason to show up on election day when you already know that your vote won’t make a real difference. At that point you only vote in order to bring up the popular vote total in favor of your candidate.
Furthermore winner takes all benefits the two party system while making it extremely difficult for a 3rd party to break in. Since so many states are winner takes all electoral votes and so many of them are solid either red or blue then the two parties don’t have to focus resources in those states. They already know which way the state will go and neither party is going to contest it. Instead they focus their resources into the swing states. That means they try to focus their rhetoric, policies and platforms toward the swing states in an attempt to get their votes. They do this while ignoring the rest of the country.
Now consider if electoral votes were awarded proportionally. That would give all candidates an interest in appealing to the entire country. They would have an incentive to campaign everywhere not just in swing states. That is because even if they can’t get 51% of the vote in a specific state they still can get some electoral votes from that state. Now the two parties wouldn’t like that because it makes all states contested states which could effect the outcome of the election. But this would be a boon for 3rd party candidates who could acquire some electoral votes from just about any state in the union. They wouldn’t need to be able to carry the state rather they would just get a proportion of electoral votes from the state. That would allow a greater diversity of candidates to come forth since they would have a very real potential of winning electoral votes even in party strongholds. That in itself could put the major parties on the defensive as they have to consider how to appeal to the whole population in every state so as not to loose electoral votes. That would further broaden the political discourse and could bring about a greater diversity in ideas and policies presented during an election.
When these two ideas are combined that serve to strengthen one another. An open primary with proportional electoral votes would allow greater diversity in candidates and platforms while reducing political polarization. It would allow 3rd party candidates to break into the race and acquire the media attention needed for a national campaign. While at the same time it would force the two major parties to focus more generally on the country rather than on their base. The proportional electoral votes would require the two major parties to defend themselves even in party stronghold instead of focusing purely on swing state. It would make it possible for candidates outside the two major parties to successfully make it to the general presidential election.
For these reasons I believe that party primaries should be replaced with an open primary and that electoral votes should be awarded proportional to the popular vote.