So I was talking to someone at work who wished he could vote for a third party candidate because he doesn’t like either of the major party candidates. Tough, I said — the tyranny of basic arithmetic in a first past the gate system (i.e., guy with the most votes wins) pretty much guarantees a two party system (i.e., you need 50%+1 votes to guarantee election, thus the system will naturally settle down to two parties over time as smaller parties coalesce to guarantee themselves that 50%+1 votes).
So the next guy in the room says, “what we need is a parliamentary system.” I then pointed out that parliamentary systems that used a first past the gate system to elect MP’s tends to converge upon two parties also, with the exception that parliamentary systems also tend to spawn regional parties like the Bloc Quebecois in Canada or the myriad of regional parties in India. The net result is that the regional parties end up having an outsized influence on politics because nobody can have a majority without them, so they can get whatever they want by simply threatening to bolt the ruling coalition and caucus with the other major party. The minority tail wagging the dog isn’t any better than what we already have.
The next guy proposed a proportional voting system — if the Greens got 5% of the vote, for example, they’d get 5% of the members of Parliament. I pointed out that Israel has such a system — and it’s not working out so well for them. The problem is that you have to form a coalition with extremist wackos on either the left or the right to have a majority, which gets you the same problem as the parliamentary system with regional parties where the minority tail wags the dog by threatening to bolt the coalition if they don’t get their way — but worse, because the extremists always want something stupid like banning abortions or banning personal automobiles in exchange for their support. In this case, the extremist wackos on the right have basically made it impossible for Israeli Prime Munster Benjamin Nuttyahoo to get a budget passed, and so he’s calling another election hoping his party gets enough additional seats (and the even nuttier parties lose enough seats) that he doesn’t need the far right wingnuts to get a budget passed.
The final solution proffered at the table was an “instant runoff” preferential system such as Australia uses, where you rank the candidates according to who you prefer. But let’s look at Australia. In Australia, the Liberal (conservative) Party and Labor (socialist) Party have dominated politics in Australia since 1910 — every single PM in that time period has been a member of one of those two parties. In the 2010 elections, 11% of voters voted for the Greens, but the Greens only got 1 lonely representative in their House of Representatives (their version of the UK’s House of Commons), out of 150 total members. That 1 lonely Greenie turned out to be very important due to caucusing with Labor, which gave Labor the 1 vote advantage over Liberal needed to form a government, but the reality is that the results of instant runoff elections basically look the same as in a first past the gate election — the two biggest parties always end up in the runoff, and the members of the smaller parties then decide as their #2 preference which of the two biggest parties they want to run things. All that instant runoff elections give you over the current system is the joy of having voted for the Green candidate as #1 above the Democratic candidate at #2 — the Democratic candidate still ends up in the instant runoff, your #2 vote is counted for him, and he still wins (assuming you’re in a mostly-Democratic district). Mathematically speaking, there is no (zero) difference in the outcome, just a reduction in the number of votes held since the runoff is held on the same day as the election.
So there you have it. When it comes to elections, we seem to have a choice of either systems that give minority parties too much power to steer the body politic, or systems that give minority parties too little power. The math just doesn’t appear to support the creation of a system where minority parties have an amount of power equal to their representation amongst the general public. The tyranny of 50%+1 — the most fundamental number in a democratic system — applies regardless.
- Badtux the Numbers System