Alternative Voting

In a column this week that also includes some silly suggestions, Tom Friedman hits on an idea that, unlike open primaries, really might shake up the American political system — changing the voting system:

One reason independent, third-party, centrist candidates can’t get elected is because if, in a three-person race, a Democrat votes for an independent, and the independent loses, the Democrat fears his vote will have actually helped the Republican win, or vice versa. Alternative voting allows you to rank the independent candidate your No. 1 choice, and the Democrat or Republican No. 2. Therefore, if the independent does not win, your vote is immediately transferred to your second choice, say, the Democrat. Therefore, you have no fear that in voting for an independent you might help elect your real nightmare — the Republican. Nothing has held back the growth of independent, centrist candidates more, said Diamond, “than the fear that if you vote for one of them you will be wasting your vote. Alternative voting, which Australia has, can overcome that.”

Now I should say that it’s not totally clear that this would have the result Friedman seems to want. The dynamics of a political system that features a President, along with a congress, creates incentives for politicians to try to fit themselves into one of the two major parties. That’s at least part of the reason why the Blue Dog group in the House has preferred to organize itself as a party faction rather than a free-floating centrist party. Moving to an STV system might push more moderate legislators in the direction of trying to run as third parties, or it might expose those legislators to third-party challenges from the left.

I think the bigger reform in this neighborhood would be to try to change the Voting Rights Act so as to allow states to meet their VRA requirements by electing their House delegations (or state legislatures) via a proportional representation system. That would also address a real issue — creating a politically sustainable means of ensuring minority representation in legislative bodies — that goes beyond “some people don’t like current political outcomes.”