Why do we need voting-system reform when our current system seems to be working fine?
The biggest problem with the current implementation of our voting system is that it virtually guarantees that the two current major political parties will continue to dominate, winning most of the elected positions in government. And it should be apparent to all that the predominant interest of both parties is either to get into power or to stay in power. For instance, neither party has balanced the federal budget for decades (with rare exceptions) because they fear losing the votes of the particular constituencies. This is because Congress would have to raise taxes or cut spending. We need people in government who will do what is best for our country, without worrying about their re-election chances.
What are some solutions to this, related to the voting system?
1) The first solution offers a way to lessen the impact that the two major political parties have by making it easier for third-party and/or independent candidates to get elected. The current system is designed so that either a Republican or Democrat gets elected. The solution offered here is to change our voting system to what is usually called an "Instant-Run-Off" voting system.
A traditional run-off election occurs when it is required that the winner get at least 50% of the vote. If more than two people are running, it is possible that no one gets over 50%. If so, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated, and a new vote takes place. This process continues until one of the candidates gets over 50% of the votes cast.
An instant-run-off voting system gives the same results as a traditional run-off election, except that each voter need vote only once in the instant-run-off voting system. In the instant-run-off system, the voter indicates his/her preferences by numbering the names of the candidates from 1 to N, where N is the number of candidates. It's very easy for the voter to do; and with electronic voting, it would be even easier, with the voting machine asking for the voter's number 1 choice, and then asking for their number 2 choice, etc.
When the votes are first counted, only the number 1 choice on each ballot is counted. If no number 1 candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, the candidate with the fewest number 1 votes is eliminated. Then, on only those ballots that have chosen this candidate as their number 1 choice, their number 2 choice is now used for the second balloting. This continues until someone gets over 50% of the votes.
It can be shown that this voting procedure reflects voters' desires better than the usual plurality voting that just picks the candidate that gets the most votes, because a candidate may get elected without a majority of the votes cast. A number of cities in the U.S. use this system, as well as some other countries. (For more details see the Wikipedia entry on the Instant-Run-Off voting system).
Instant-run-off voting allows voters to actually vote for the candidates they prefer, and not feel compelled to vote for who they think might win. Currently, when voting, if you'd prefer a particular candidate you think won't win, you may vote for a candidate that you think can win so that you're not "wasting" your vote. With an instant-run-off system, you can vote the way you desire, and if your candidate gets eliminated, your next-highest candidate replaces the eliminated one, so your vote would not be wasted. Thus, voters could truly vote their conscience without worrying that their vote would be meaningless.
Another advantage to this system is that it allows us to get a better idea as to who the voters truly wish to elect, because the results for each round will be made public.
Something that we have in place now that fits well with the instant-run-off voting system is that most jurisdictions allow a person to get on a ballot if he or she receives a certain number of signatures from voters in their jurisdiction. Then, in such a system, all such candidates who qualify would be put on the ballot. The voter then ranks each candidate, and that's all the voter needs to do.
2) Another important proposal that complements the instant-run-off system is a simple-but-important modification to the current system: for the government to stop putting a candidate's political-party affiliation on ballots. There is nothing in the Constitution about political parties, so there is no prohibition against this idea. Not putting a candidate's party next to his/her name would require more knowledge on a voter's part – and that is a very good thing. Besides, people can bring names of their candidates into the election booth.
Implementing these quite reasonable and eminently fair actions would go a long way toward reducing the power of the two major current political parties, thus improving the chances that government reforms that could actually benefit the people could come about.
I'd be very happy if both of those voting reforms were made, because both of these reforms would lead to a better democracy.
The last voting reform I'm suggesting here may sound more controversial, but it's hard for me to find good reasons not to do it, and easy to find a number of good reasons to do it. So here it is.
3) This reform (an amendment to the Constitution) would require that before a citizen has the right to vote, he or she must pass a fairly simple test on the Constitution and US History. Let's say the voting age is 18. A person could begin attempting to pass the test starting at, say, age 14. There would be no limit as to how many times a person could take the test. The test would only have to be passed once to earn the right to vote forever.
This reform would have a grandfather clause that would allow citizens who are already able to vote without having to take the test. Also, citizens under the age of 14 would not have to pass the test in order to vote when they are 18.
The test itself would consist of true/false and multiple-choice questions and be similar in structure and difficulty to the Citizenship Test that new citizens must pass. All questions must be approved by Congress.
For example, one question might be: "True or False: One of the powers granted to Congress by the Constitution is 'To regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes'." The answer to this is true, and indicates the type of question that would be appropriate for the test.
Another might be, "Who is the 16th President of the United States?" This would be a multiple choice question whose answer I leave to the reader.
Probably the best thing to do is to have Congress pick say 200 questions. Then a person taking the test would be given 50 of those questions at random. Thus, none of the questions could be considered to be partisan or biased toward a certain political point of view.
The advantages to this are numerous. For one, schools would all start teaching children more about the Constitution and US History, so that their students could pass the test. (Teachers and everyone else would have access to the 200 questions that Congress picked). This in itself is enough to warrant this voting reform.
Also, since voters would now be more familiar with the Constitution, they would more likely complain to their representatives if a piece of legislation is proposed that does not seem to be authorized by the Constitution.
And lastly, only those citizens who take voting seriously would likely take and pass the test.
These voting reforms would improve our democracy and likely result in better-elected officials, because the electorate would be better informed. Therefore, they would be an important part of the comprehensive government reforms needed to make our country better.
Tim Farage is a Senior Lecturer in the Computer Science Department at The University of Texas at Dallas. You are welcome to comment upon this blog entry and/or to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.