October 22, 2004

Don't fear direct elections!

Silliness from David Broder:
But direct election, however appealing, has plenty of problems built into it. When Congress debated it after George Wallace threatened electoral deadlock with his third-party candidacy in 1968, opposition came from small states, whose senators feared they would be overlooked by the candidates, and from urban constituencies, who feared diminution of their power to swing big blocs of electoral votes through the unit rule.

A bigger problem, Best and others argue, could be the effect on the two-party system. Most proposals for direct election specify a minimum percentage for victory -- usually 40 percent or 45 percent -- with a runoff between the top two contenders if no one reaches that threshold.

But as soon as you introduce the possibility of a runoff, you create an incentive for minor parties to form, in hopes of bargaining for favors or policy concessions from the runoff opponents. In such a system, a John McCain might have continued running after the primaries of 2000 to extract a promise from Bush to sign campaign-finance reform, or a Howard Dean this year in hopes of swaying John Kerry's policy on Iraq.
I think I debunked (or at least put a fist-sized dent into) most of the arguments against direct elections here. Small states are overlooked by candidates under the current system, and this whole idea that small-state interests need "protecting" is hogwash.

As for the two-party system falling apart, that's also hogwash. We don't need runoff voting. If a president gets a popular vote plurality of 36 percent, so be it. In the early days of the republic, we had plenty of presidents with skimpy pluralities who did just fine for themselves. This idea that a president needs a large or majority popular vote total to earn himself a "mandate" for ruling is nonsense. Did Lincoln have it? (No, 39.8%) Did Woodrow Wilson have it? (No, 41.8%) Heck, did George W. Bush have it? But they were all "strong" and forceful presidents.

So forget instant runoffs. But that aside, this idea that third parties could "bargain" with runoff opponents is also peculiar. Let's assume John McCain tried to extract a promise from Bush to sign campaign finance reform in 2000. In order for this to work, we would have to assume that there are a large number of voters who would only vote for Bush if he supported campaign finance. We would also have to assume that both Bush and McCain were fully aware of these voters, and realized they were important enough to sway the election. But if those assumptions were true, and the voters were that important, wouldn't Bush support campaign finance anyways, regardless of what McCain did? If there's a sizeable single-issue voting bloc whose views can be reasonably accommodated, then candidates are going to pay attention to that bloc no matter what. I don't see why this would drastically change if we abolished the electoral college.

-- Brad Plumer 4:33 AM || ||