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Voting is Destroying our Democracy

With the increase in divisive bitterness and rancor that’s polluting our systems of governance and our culture as a whole, I’m developing an interest in voting reform. Our antiquated system of “pick one” plurality voting rewards divisiveness. It sets a course that runs through the entire electoral process whereby two dominant parties form, and those two parties crystalize their brittle identities around a dialectic of each differentiating itself from the other in the terms that like entropy can only increase in antagonism over time.

I don’t think it’s controversial to say this level of partisanship is toxic to our society, from top to bottom, and unsustainable. We all feel it. We’ve all lost (and gotten rid of) people in our lives, friends and family, to this inexorable creep of Us vs. Them. This isn’t to say it’s not without ample reason. People have developed extreme priorities around their political opinions and affiliations, often to a degree that is fundamentally disrespectful of and sometimes dangerous to those of who have different values.

One common answer to this seems to be that we need to forcibly remove one subset or another of the population, or at least cow them into silence. Such-and-such values are unacceptable and therefore the person espousing them needs to be constrained, shunned, threatened, or purged. And it’s true. Some values are inherently antisocial and unacceptable in our society. Disenfranchising a person (or enfranchising them) because of who they are rather than because of how they choose to act is fundamentally anathema to the American value system. Yet this value has become of defining feature of our political discourse.

I don’t think this needs to be the case. Any population involving two or more people will having varying, mutually exclusive values that will need to be sorted out and negotiated in order to make a peaceable, working society. It’s not those differential factors by themselves that are problematic. Problems take hold when differences become the overwhelming focus and overlap gets ignored. Rather than being life affirming and vital, those differences become levers of division.

Changing our voting system can help this. It’s not that our current method of “first past the post” plurality voting is innately problematic all by itself. It’s probably good enough for many circumstances and has served our country reasonably well for a couple centuries. We no longer live in such circumstances. It has become a weakness that due to the increase of speed and virulency of communications has become weaponized by powerful agents, from without and within, subverting our democratic process and the social fabric that process relies upon.

In our current system, voting for an unpopular third party candidate is little more than a protest vote. More often than not, one of the dominant party candidates is much closer to your preferences than the other. If the third party did not exist, you would vote for that near-miss dominant party. Voting for the third party is a protest. That vote is not materially advancing your values. I believed for years that that was not true, that voting Green or Socialist would persuade the Democratic party to shift their platform away from corporate interests, or that voting Libertarian would influence Republicans to accept broader social liberties. I see no evidence it has worked in the least! And I have come to understand it’s not because the ideas and values of the Left are not popular. Rather, our voting system makes it nearly impossible for the dominant parties to stray from their equilibrium of covalent opposition. And there are never enough voters who are willing to defect from the “lesser evil” of the dominant parties in order to grow and legitimize a third.

More sophisticated voting systems make it possible to vote for the person who truly best represents your own values even if they’re not a popular candidate, and still not “throw away” your vote. There are various systems for accomplishing this, but generally they involve ranking your preference among a list of candidates. If your top pick ends up getting only a tiny margin of the total vote, rather than throwing away your ballot altogether, your ballot now counts toward your second choice. Then your third, and so on. If there are ten candidates, you can vote for all them, ranking them according to who best and least supports your preferences, knowing that you’re not effectively giving your vote to some candidate you completely reject by not voting first for the “lesser evil” popular one.

The way this impacts civil discourse is significant. Instead of popular candidates playing only to their base, they have to work hard not to disenfranchise a larger swath of the populace. Not only are they motivated to be people’s number one choice, they’re motivated to be second or third. In this system candidates are rewarded with success for appealing well beyond their base. The divisive levers of identity politics, factionalism, and “going negative” become suboptimal as coalition-building gains more traction. The focus of debate and candidate messaging swings away from “who they are” toward “who we are.”

I am deeply worried about how we talk to ourselves on a societal level. We face existential problems. Our partisanship and divisiveness stand in our way during a time when we need to draw from our common interests and values to steer away from disaster. Changing our method of voting isn’t a cure-all, but I do believe it can make a systemic, beneficial change in our social discourse.

To this end I’m looking at organizations like The Equal Vote Coalition and FairVote to see how I can lend a hand toward reforming our voting with systems that more accurately express voter intent and heal our social discourse.