Friday, August 24, 2007


The US political scene is in shambles as states compete to go first, or early, in the ‘primaries’ which allocate delegates to party national conventions reflecting presidential candidate preference expressed in the vote. The party conventions then choose a presidential nominee, who chooses a vice-presidential ‘running mate’.

The Question

Why is it done this way? Historical accretion. No federal law dictates how parties choose presidential nominees. In fact, nothing in the Constitution envisions ‘parties’. Regulation is accomplished by state law and party decision, state by state.


In this section I’ll set out a way to choose presidents which [a] junks the present ‘system’, [b] ensures that every voter is on an equal footing with every other, [c] provides an important contribution by parties, but is free of party control, and [d] offers a framework which, with further legislation, could remove the role of money in determining who can be a candidate to be president, and could therefore put all prospective candidates in a position of equality with all others.

This method makes use of two simple voting procedures which are radically different from the outdated and unfair system taken for granted in the United States. By US custom, candidates run against everyone else, and the biggest vote-getter wins, even if he or she has fewer than 50% of votes cast: the threshold for election is achieving a ‘plurality’.

The first simple method is called ‘OK’ and is useful in ranking the attraction of candidates when there can be many, exactly the case of US primaries. The second method is called ‘preferential voting’; each voter ranks the candidates 1, 2, 3, ... If the voter’s preferred candidate is dropped because he or she has the lowest number of votes, that candidate’s votes are distributed among second choices, and so on. So every voter’s vote counts, though in the end (when a single position, such as the Presidency, is at stake) of course the minority loses.

So here are the steps of this approach, which we can call a   “Checkbox then Choice”   system.

[A] an Election Commission, with a narrow, specific mandate, is constituted.

[B] the Election Law would stipulate that candidates for the primary would be nominated to the Election Commission. Governors and present and past Senate members, and former Presidents and Vice-Presidents, could propose themselves; others could be proposed by designated persons or bodies; and parties with some stipulated result (‘substantial parties’) in the last election could nominate directly to the Election Commission.

[C] the Election Commission would determine [a] if nominees wished to be primary candidates, [b] whether they met the formal requirements (age, native born), and [c] whether they accepted a party endorsement or chose to run as an independent..

[D]   Checkbox  the primary ballot would list all candidates, identifying by party or as independents, who might be dozens; by a check or an X the voter would say “ok” to as many of the candidates as he or she wished.

[E] the primary election would take place on the same day throughout the United States, and no ballots would be counted until the last polling station in Alaska or Hawaii had closed.

[F] the NUMBER with the most votes—say, the top six or eight or ten—would be candidates in the general election. [NUMBER is the number of candidates set in the Election Law, plus the added ‘substantial party’ candidates if any.] In addition, the highest-ranked primary candidate of any ‘substantial party’ would go on to the general election list, even if the number of primary votes received was insufficient.

[G] each of the NUMBER would choose a vice-presidential candidate of his or her party, or an independent in the case of independents, from among the candidates in the primary.

[H] note that there might be more than one presidential candidate from major parties, who could, but need not, cross-list among themselves in designating vice-presidential candidates.

[I]   Choice   the general election ballot would list the NUMBER of candidates, their party affiliation, and the corresponding vice-presidential candidate. Voters would then rank them from 1 to NUMBER (though they would not be required to rank any further than they chose).

[J] in counting the ballots, the usual method to count a ‘Hare system’ or ‘preferential ballot’ would be used. The first choices would be tallied; the candidate with least first choices would be dropped; his or her second choices would be allocated to those remaining. This process would yield a new list of (NUMBER - 1) candidates. The one with least would be dropped. Their second or, in the case of those distributed after Round 1, third choice votes would be allocated, completing Round 2. The candidate with least votes would be dropped &c. &c. until one candidate had more than 50%.

Here are two elective features:

[C.1] all ‘electioneering’ in the weeks leading to the primary election would be done throught the Net. The Election Commission would provide access to candidate’s web sites, where candidates could promote themselves. The Election Commission would pay all bills, up to stipulated maxima, for mounting and serving from these sites, so no funds need go into the hands of the candidate. In short, low and controlled campaign costs, removing donors from the political cycle.

[H.1] similarly in the general election, except that the NUMBER would also be free to roam the hustings and hold events open fairly and without prejudice to any prospective voter. But the time between the primary and general election would be reasonably short: say, four weeks.

And here’s a further twist which you might find attractive. One could argue—though I don’t—that the fact many voters don’t go to the polls should not reduce the weight of the vote in that region. On this argument you could, for example, take the number of registered voters, or citizens of voting age, in each Congressional district, and correct the total vote from that district as if the full number had voted in the proportions of those who actually went to the polls. So if the registered voters were 300,000 but only 200,000 voted, then the vote totals would be corrected by a factor of 3/2 before being sent forward for tally. Of course, there is a strong argument that those who don’t vote should be penalized by their vote’s not counting. But this does reward those who do vote.

To summarize, if NUMBER was eight and the ballot might look like this in 2008:

Please rank the following tickets. Rank your most preferred 1, your next 2, and so on. You may rank all, or fewer than all, as you wish.

Al Gore [Green & Democrat]. VP nominee: Barbara Boxer [Democrat].
Barack Obama [Democrat]. VP nominee: Hillary Clinton [Democrat].
Fred Thompson [Republican]. VP nominee: Mitt Romney [Republican].
Hillary Clinton [Democrat]. VP nominee: Barack Obama [Democrat].
John Edwards [Democrat]. VP nominee: Nancy Pelosi [Democrat].
John McCain [Republican]. VP nominee: Joseph Lieberman [Independent].
Oprah Winfrey [Independent]. VP nominee: Martin Sheen [Independent].
Rudy Giuliani [Republican]. VP nominee: Henry M. Paulson, Jr. [Republican].

The Primary Election ballot uses checkboxes to determine the candidates with the widest favor among voters. The General Election ballot is a preferential ballot by which voters express their rank-order choice among the winners of the Primary.

The Political Design Problem

Can you do better?

Then: how would you go about getting approval for this plan or another?


[1] Electoral Reform Society [UK]

[2] Californians for Electoral Reform

[3] Canadians for Electoral Reform

[Political Design 2007.08.24 Post A17.]