How Can America Break Free Of The Two-Party System?

The economic turmoil of the past year hasn’t just thrown Wall Street into disarray—it’s causing ideological havoc in Washington. The two major parties are just as confused by the crisis as the rest of America, and party lines are becoming blurred just at the point where the Democrats seem poised to steamroll the Republicans on a national level.

For years, the lines were clearly drawn in the sand—Democrats were Keynesians who wanted to increase regulation, and Republicans were free-market devotees who wanted to minimize government intervention in the markets. The last month has seen a startling realignment in Congress—the White House and moderate Democrats and Republicans lining up to hammer out the largest government intervention since FDR, while left wing Democrats and right wing Republicans banded together against this bipartisanship and the $700 billion bailout.

“There are a few hundred socialists in Congress,” observed a friend during the first bailout hearings, “and one fiscal conservative—Bernie Sanders!” Sanders, who opposed the bailout, is the only Socialist and one of two independents in Congress (the other, of course, is Joe Lieberman, essentially booted out of the Democratic party over his support of the Iraq war). The major news networks all stumped for the bailout as soon as it was announced, warning that there would be a major drop in the markets if the bill did not pass. It seemed a foregone conclusion, said every newscaster, that Congress would act swiftly to “save the economy.” There was only one snag. Poll results, announced a few days into the crisis, revealed that Americans were against the bailout by huge margins.

Let’s look at the vote counts in the House, where every Representative is up for re-election in less than a month: on the first vote, where the bailout bill was defeated, 40% of Democrats and 67% of Republicans voted “No.” On the second vote, 27% of Democrats and 54% of Republicans voted against the bill, which then passed. Both presidential candidates said they were in favor of the plan, with McCain even “suspending” his campaign to go back to Washington and work for the bill’s passage. (If you want to gauge McCain’s legislative effectiveness, note that the bill only passed when the Arizona senator left Washington.)

When both major-party candidates are in agreement with each other and disagreement with the majority of Americans in an election year, you have to wonder how well American democracy is working. On the eve of the first presidential debate, when it wasn’t certain whether McCain would even show up, there was one thing which was undeniable: no minor party candidate would be allowed to speak. Libertarian candidate Bob Barr, Green candidate Cynthia McKinney or independent Ralph Nader could have provided counterpoints to McCain and Obama’s support for the bill, but each was locked out of the debate. Barr is polling about 1% nationally, but 4% in his home state of Georgia, where he may draw enough Republican votes away from McCain to make the state competitive.

About a third of the American electorate consistently identify as independents, and the indepenedent vote is the most coveted prize in a national election. A popular theme for both major party candidates is either “bi-partisanship” (for McCain) or “post-partisanship” (for Obama). But why is it that there are only two independents in all of Congress? Why does dissatisfaction with the two-party system (which a Zogby poll in 2007 cited as 67%) have little to no effective outlet across America?

The answer, according to political scientists, is that America’s voting system is the least democratic of any democracy. That’s because we use “first-past-the-post,” or, in poli sci jargon, “single member district plurality” voting. Simply put, whoever gets the most votes wins a single seat in each race. That may sound like common sense, but it leads to all sorts of unintended consequences—the most important is called “Duverger’s Law.”

Maurice Duverger, a French social scientist, was the first to publish the theory that voting systems like ours tend to produce a two-party system. When there are third parties on the ballot, as we saw in the 1992 (and arguably 2000) election cycle, their effects are limited to being “spoilers” for the parties most closely aligned with their platforms, helping mututal enemies more than anyone else. With only two parties, the actual platforms of each becomes secondary to vague cultural appeals, boiling down to “liberal” vs. “conservative,” whatever those terms actually mean. Since two-party systems end in a competition for the independent vote, parties are in a constant state of coming apart at the ideological seams.

There are many other types of voting systems, but the one that has gotten the most traction in the United States is called “instant runoff voting,” or IRV, where voters rank the candidates by preference. For example, if you were a Florida voter in 2000, you could have voted 1 for Nader and 2 for Gore, or 1 for Buchanan and 2 for Bush; when the votes are tallied, second preference votes are redistributed from the lowest vote-getters until an absolute majority of voters are shown to prefer one candidate over another. IRV is used in Australia and Ireland; many other countries use similar systems to fill more than one seat (imagine Congressional elections where Representatives are elected on a state-wide ballot, and apportioned according to the overall percentage of votes by party, instead of district-by-district plurality).

IRV, which is part of the platform for Nader and both Libertarian and Green parties, has already been adopted by a few dozen local governments and minor party primaries around the country—it eliminates the costs of having a spearate runoff election for multi-candidate races. Recently, Arkansas, Louisiana, and South Carolina implemented IRV for all overseas and military voters, and cities from Cary, NC to San Francisco have adopted IRV locally.

Interestingly enough, both Obama and McCain are on the record as supporting IRV, according to Fairvote.org; Obama voted for IRV in Illinois municipal and primary elections, and McCain urged the voters of Alaska to adopt IRV in 2002, saying, “Instant runoff voting will lead to good government because voters will elect leaders who have the support of a majority. Elected leaders will be more likely to listen to all and cities will be able to enjoy big tax savings and keep majority rule.” There has only been one call to implement IRV on a national level—a 2005 bill sponsored by current third-party candidate Cynthia McKinney, when she was a Georgia Democrat.

What IRV does (besides make election night vote-counting much more interesting) is allow third parties to have an impact on policy and provide an opportunity for wider debate on the issues. This is a lot more complicated than it sounds—Australia, for example, has had tons of minor parties with names like the Non-custodial Parents Party, the Fishing Party, the What Women Want party, or the No Aircraft Noise Party. Critics of IRV contend that it gives minor parties undue influence over general elections, and many point out that one of the two major party candidates usually wins anyway.

On the other hand, preferential voting doesn’t always lead to multi-party democracy, and there are important exceptions to Duverger’s Law. The recent election in Canada (which also uses first-past-the-post) underscored this point; Canadian federalism gave rise to certain parties which compete on a national level but only operate in parts of the country—notably the Bloc Quebecois, which only runs candidates in Quebec, or the New Democratic Party, whose power base is traditionally in the western provinces. The Canadian Green party, by the way, got 7% of the popular vote, but no seats in Parliament, and many progressive Canadians are heaping scorn on Green voters in the wake of the reelection of a Conservative minority government.

By the way, there is a simpler and supposedly more democratic voting system than IRV, which has become all the rage in voting systems analysis—range voting—where voters rate each candidate from 1-10.

No matter the method, what is clear is that breaking free of our two-party system will require a state-by-state campaign to change the way we elect our leaders, and most likely the elimination of our wildly unpopular Electoral College. So if you want third parties to have a real impact, you’re better off organizing a state-wide ballot initiative than casting what amounts to a protest vote for Nader or Barr. If a third party gets a real foothold in Congress, they can make a real policy impact. Otherwise, we’re still stuck with the lesser of two evils.

Don’t you at least want a wider variety of evils to from which to choose?


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