Friday, June 24, 2016

Voting reform: simulating voter sophistication

What should a voter do if the Democrats nominate Hillary Clinton,  the Republicans nominate Donald Trump,   and that voter thinks both of them are terrible?

Sophisticated voters understand that unless they consider both candidates equally bad,  they should vote for the one they think is less bad.  That is what I did in 2004 when, as a lifelong Republican,  I voted for John Kerry.  Since then, I have become a registered Democrat and, watching Kerry’s impressive work as Secretary of State,  his stock has gone way up with me,  but that is how I saw things in 2004.

It is like this, too,  in life in general.   During my first year on the Adrian College faculty our astronomy professor died suddenly in the middle of second semester.  No one in the science departments knew anything about astronomy, but I had taken an excellent year-long course at Willamette University and done extensive reading afterwards.  I volunteered to fill in and Dean Darrell Pollard, himself a political scientist,  graciously accepted my offer, commenting “well, you’re better than nothing!”  Obviously,  I was not an ideal candidate, but under the circumstances the Dean had to make the best of it.

 Many voters,  however,  cannot bring themselves to hold their noses and vote for the least bad major party candidate.  They  threaten to support a third party candidate or not to vote at all, despite the fact that this increases the danger that the candidate they like the least will win.  Republicans opposed to Donald Trump may even set up a third party candidate of their own, even though that could propel Hillary Clinton to victory.

A simple reform, however,  could allow such voters to retain their unsophisticated thinking but to vote as if they were sophisticated.  And this reform probably could be enacted by a mere change in federal law without requiring any amendments to the Constitution.

All that is needed is legislation providing that voters can cast their vote either for a candidate or against a candidate,  with the results for each candidate being the total votes for minus the total votes against.   This rule would allow voters to cast a vote against Trump without having to vote for Clinton (or, of course, vice versa).  Admittedly,  it would have the same consequences,  but that is exactly my point:  Voters would be able to act as if they were sophisticated without actually having to be sophisticated.

Given that the utility of such a change in election law is driven home by the candidacy of Donald Trump,  it might be appropriate to refer to the necessary legislation as the Trump Act. 

If the Trump Act also applied to primaries,  the dilemma of anti-Trump primary voters--- whether their opposition can be most effective  by voting for Ted Cruz or for John Kasich--- would be resolved.   They could just cast their vote directly against The Donald and be done with it. However initially the Trump Act would probably apply only to general elections and perhaps just for the presidency. 

Rule changes should not be made lightly,  since they sometimes produce results that disadvantage those who supported them.  It might be prudent to include a safeguard in case both major candidates got net negative votes, which could result in a little-known third-party candidate winning. But unless there are other downsides that have not occurred to me,  Congress ought to enact the Trump Act immediately so that it will apply to the elections in November. 

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