Why it’s time to rethink our winner takes all elections..
Updated: Feb 10
Born into it and schooled in it, no wonder I’ve supported it for so long. Having designed and delivered elections, by-election and countless local election campaigns I get it and how to win at it. The reality is it’s not about having the best policies, the better candidates and the optimum organization - though that helps - our election system is just about getting ‘one vote more‘ than the other guy.
First past the post is a zero sum game- ‘you win or you lose".
For activists like me, that means planning campaigns which enable and encourage two of the worst elements of modern elections: negative campaigning and the continuation of the two party system.
Negative campaigning not only makes your own supporters dislike the opponent more, it has the potential to derail his or her own support. In a race to the tape it is clearly a powerful tool. Negative campaigning is a specialist art - I know agencies who only deal in it, nothing positive comes out of their research and creative process. A good friend of mine cut his teeth dealing dirt on opponents for UK Sunday tabloid scoops before moving on to majoring in defamation and litigation PR. It is where the big money is spent in the US via PACs, SuperPacs and special interest groups. Mayor Bloomberg and the Republican mainstream organization Lincoln Project have raised and spent billions on advertising President Trump’s numerous flaws and indiscretions. The Commander in Chief, in return, has spent all the time and opportunity afforded to the incumbent trying to rubbish his opponent as old, soporific and careless with his laptop.
But it also cements another core problem - the 2 party system and fear of plurality. President Bush Senior will tell you over iced tea he would have won if it wasn’t for Ross Perot splitting his vote, and Al Gore will splutter into his eco, organic soy decaf at the mere mention of his spoiler Ralph Nader. Both felt the emergence of a third voice was decisive. And not helpful.
In the UK we still smile at the mention of the “I agree with Nick’ Election debates when both main parties tried to align with the threat of a 3rd party. It ended in tears as the LibDems subsequently went into an ill-fated coalition government with the Tories and voted against many its supporters’ core policies, seeing it wiped out in future elections. Fears of the Brexit Party also shaped policy going into subsequent ballots.
Historically, the parties and their candidates for the top jobs we’re fighting for the middle ground - sure in the belief that Soccer Moms and Mondeo Men was where elections were won. Converging on the center, the 2 party system seemed benign. The space between the parties - at least at the start of the first term - was slight, more of a course correction than a re-routing of the service.
But now, as we see the major parties drift towards the noisy fringes, your candidate not winning has suddenly become a serious problem. And while preferences for Trump or Biden may seem clear - many voters feel they are being asked to chose the less of two evils, or at least a choice between two candidates neither of whom wholly represent the spectrum of views. As the parties and their candidates move away from the center, voters are faced with either having to shift uncomfortably left or right or ditching their vote.
So maybe a switch in how our votes are tallied might help more people to feel included and represented.
A transferable voting system asks electors to rank their choices from most to least preferred and allows space for a good range of candidates representing many views. When the wannabes with the lowest number of first choices are eliminated, rather than their votes being nullified, their second preferences are assigned. In our presidential examples earlier, that may have seen Perot’s votes enable Bush Snr to beat Bill Clinton, and Nader’s votes could have put a Green/Blue Gore in the White House.
There are already local elections in California, Minnesota and elsewhere decided by this system and it has dramatically altered the tone of political debate - if you want a candidate‘s supporters to give you their second or third preferences you are unlikely to indulge in name-calling and instead look for more compromise. And it opens the field to alternatives. The recent Democrat primary saw a range of opinions explored from Sanders to Bloomberg and beyond - all the candidates knew without the official stamp of the donkey their campaign would end but a transferable system may have identified a candidate more reflective of all the supporters‘ views.
of course nothing will change before Nov 3rd so we are faced with another election where who wins is decided by who is least unpopular, may not have the most votes and leaves everyone feeling cheated.