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Elections, parties, and privacy.

Our vote is no business of the government

March 2018

Our election system fails us in several ways, and encourages unwarranted governmental intrusion into our private preferences. It can and must be fixed. A solution is at hand.
This year, 2018, we are seeing in the US more push-back against the domination of the two major political parties – the "duopoly" – than I can recall at any time during my now rather lengthy adulthood. An impressive number of organizations have sprung up meaning to challenge the duopoly at the polls, in court, directly in Congress, or in the public opinion. The reason they have sprung up is in part the failure of the two parties to effectively address the key social and economic issues of the country, and in part the sense that both major parties have been corrupted through the uncontrolled flow of influence money into Washington. Although our previous president promised to lead an effort to get big money out of elections, specifically by passing a constitutional amendment, that effort died a quiet death as soon as both parties' incumbents in Congress caught on to the fact that unlimited donations are a windfall for incumbents. It was no longer in anyone's career interest to talk about reversing "Citizens United".

In recent years some meaningful concrete results have begun the challenge against the duopoly. First, the state of California, at the urging of Governor Schwarzenegger, changed its primary elections to an open primary (drawing a lot of candidates) with the top two candidates for each office meeting in a later runoff (unless one candidate receives a majority). This system may still tend to favor the two major parties, but is reported as having had a salutary effect on the state legislature, where domination by the party organizations has been reduced, and actual negotiation and compromise between the members seems to be happening.

This year, the citizens of Maine managed to overcome their legislature's repeated efforts to oppose and undercut their effort to democratize their elections, and this spring's elections will be held under a "ranked choice" (or "instant runoff") method, the first such state-wide election in the country. The beauty of the RC election method is that your vote will never be wasted, since you have the opportunity to rank the candidates. In this way, if your top candidate – who gets your vote in the first counting – is knocked out, your next candidate will get your vote in the next counting, and so on. It's the same system often employed in political conventions to choose a nominee: if your favorite comes in last on the first ballot, he drops out and you vote again on the remaining candidates. So you never lose your vote.

Unfortunately, most of our states are still stuck with the same old system where a plurality wins; the system that is almost guaranteed to give us a Democrat or Republican winner, since these parties have done a good job of convincing voters that voting for anyone other than the two major parties means throwing away your vote. The odd thing about this argument is that it is true and it isn't. It's a matter of mass psychology of the voters: If they believe the argument, it is true and it becomes a "self-fulfilling prophesy", because few voters will vote for minor party or independent candidates for fear of wasting their vote. But if voters refuse to bow to the duopoly's argument, but vote their conscience, the argument fails, and the best candidate regardless of party stands a good chance of winning. (As I said, the duopoly's argument has no force with a ranked choice voting system, which is why the two parties have consistently opposed this system.)

One of several beauties of the ranked choice election system is that it does away with the need for a separate primary election; the voters are in effect carrying out two or more levels of winnowing of candidates, and choosing a final winner, all with one ballot. This clearly saves significant public funds and will cut down the time and expense required of candidates. There's another benefit, significant to me, that has not been much discussed, but that I would like to stress:

Under our current voting system, our government not only engages in the questionable expenditure of our tax dollars on primary elections that should by right be carried out and funded by the private political parties themselves, but typically requests, registers, and archives our individual voting preferences! It may be that we have become inured to this outrage, but think about it: is not this – keeping track of citizens' political views – precisely the kind of practice one might expect of a totalitarian government wishing to manipulate its citizens? Our state governments' recording of citizens' political affiliations strikes me as pernicious in the extreme.

We've grown up learning that in a democracy our vote is sacred, and it is secret. It's no one's business how we vote, unless we choose to divulge it. There are many places in the US where you may not vote in a primary election unless you reveal to the government how you intend to vote. (And it's not just to hand you the right ballot; they also record that information.) This situation is a direct consequence of the government involving itself in partisan primary elections. It may be that if there were only a general election, there would be less incentive for the government to request the political views of voters, but I wouldn't count on it. There are by now plenty of functionaries whose job revolves around massaging party registration data, and they won't give up so easily.

(A footnote, but it makes sense here: It's not just party registration that's recorded by the government. Your ballot has a number. They know to whom they gave it, and thus they know exactly how you voted. Election workers assure me that the association of my ballot with my identity is never made, the connection is only a backup if there's a system failure. Hogwash, of course. The data are there, and if such valuable information is available to the government functionaries, they will find a way to make use of it.)

We should switch our national election system to a single ranked-choice election in November. If political parties wish to choose one or more nominees for the ballot, they may of course do so, but on their own dime. On the other hand, the ballot can accommodate a number of candidates for each office, so parties may offer more than one candidate. In the meantime, I suggest it could be a worthwhile effort to sue the state governments for Fourth Amendment violation of the voters' right to privacy. Voters do not sign a permission for the government to log either their political affiliation or their actual votes. One doesn't need to have paranoid tendencies to see the potential danger in the government's unauthorized amassing of such data.

© H. Paul Lillebo

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