Voting is, without doubt, the bedrock of a democracy. During elections, it enables the citizens of a state to have a say on which candidate is best fit to represent them and is capable of making the right decisions. In just a few weeks, millions of Americans will have the opportunity to exercise their democratic right by voting in the 45th President of the United States – but will they be satisfied with the outcome?
You may be aware that in the US, presidents have long been elected under a controversial plurality system known as first-past-the-post (FPTP). Under FPTP, voters are instructed to select only one candidate on the ballot, and the candidate who receives the most votes is declared the victor. This stands in contrast to the preferential voting system Australians are accustomed to, which requires voters to rank all eligible candidates in the order of their preference.
The FPTP voting system has constantly come under fire for failing to produce a truly democratic outcome. Candidates don’t necessarily require an absolute majority of votes to be elected, while the famous spoiler effect impedes potential for greater ideological diversity in the political arena. Perhaps worst of all is the lack of a mechanism through which voters can express their opinion on all candidates, not just the one they prefer the most. Unfortunately, FPTP does not have much going for it other than its simplicity and the facilitation of a stable two-party system, if you consider that to be a good thing.
One of the main arguments directed against FPTP is its tendency to induce strong, potentially disingenuous support for candidates affiliated with well-established and popular parties, those being the Republican and the Democratic nominee in the case of the US. With media coverage so heavily skewed towards Trump and Clinton, it is easy to forget that voters do have more than two choices as to who they would like to see inaugurated next year. Notably, the Green Party aims to appeal to environmentally-conscious voters and disgruntled Sanders supporters, while the Libertarian nominee hopes to connect with undecided voters who value small government and civil liberties.
The inclusion of third-party and independent candidates on the ballot should be a boon to voters who hold a negative view of both Clinton and Trump, and there certainly seems to be an abundance of them this year.[i] In spite of this, few Americans find it worthwhile to utilise or even consider these alternatives.
Recent opinion polls suggest that an overwhelming majority of the electorate still intend to direct their vote towards a major party nominee, as has occurred in the past.[ii] The tendency of votes to gravitate towards the Democratic and Republican nominees is consistent with Duverger’s Law, a political science theory arguing that two-party systems will often develop when elections are conducted under plurality rule.[iii] According to Duverger, voters will select a viable major party candidate over their sincere favourite, in order to make their vote more impactful. Votes for weaker and non-viable candidates are often described as wasteful, since they have no influence on the election outcome unless the candidate is miraculously within reach of a plurality.
The restrictive nature of FPTP means that voters are unable to indicate a preference between the major party nominees if they opt for their favourite third-party/independent candidate, and this will definitely matter to voters who have a strong aversion towards one viable candidate. Many voters won’t find their ideal candidate in Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and chances are they may even dislike both. However, under the premise that they are the only two candidates with a realistic shot at winning the presidency, most voters will stick with the one they can find common ground with in order to prevent the more disliked candidate from winning. The notion that voters will misrepresent their true preference on the ballot does rest on a couple of assumptions, so it is worth exploring a plausible scenario under which this may occur.
Consider the case of an informed, rational and self-interested voter who wants to vote for the presidential candidate that maximises his or her expected utility. The voter has carefully reviewed the merits of each candidate, and genuinely believes that the Green Party nominee Jill Stein would enact policies most beneficial to them. A vote for Stein would provide the voter with some degree of satisfaction since they are acting in line with their interests and ideology. Now, let’s throw in some further assumptions. The voter also lives in swing state, so it is relatively unclear which of the two frontrunners will nab the state’s electoral votes. Furthermore, the voter ranks Clinton well above Trump on their preferences. This affects the utility that the voter would derive from voting for Stein because if Trump ends up winning the state by a razor-thin margin, the voter may regret denying their preferred viable candidate a vote.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place, the voter now has to decide whether to cast a strategic vote for Clinton or risk a sincere vote. In order to make this decision, they will consider the change in utility that would be realised from a Trump or Clinton presidency. More importantly, the voter will also have to assess the probability of each candidate winning. For example, if polls in the state are deadlocked and this voter is entirely convinced President Trump would cause their quality of life to plummet, then it is in their best interest to push ahead with the tactical vote.
Without exaggeration, first-past-the-post voting is probably one of the least democratic voting methods still widely used around the world today. A fair election should grant everyone the ability to freely vote their conscience and truthfully reveal their preferred candidates, without fear of tacitly supporting the election of a disliked major party candidate. While the Australian preferential voting system has its imperfections, it does effectively address the unfortunate dilemma that independent and third-party voters will be facing in the US this November.
Image: “Precinct 86 voting booths” by Big Dubya, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND
[i] Blake, A. (2016, August 31). A record number of Americans now dislike Hillary Clinton. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/08/31/a-record-number-of-americans-now-dislike-hillary-clinton/
[ii] RealClearPolitics. (2016, October 12). Election 2016 Presidential Polls. Retrieved from http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/latest_polls/president/
[iii] Center for Range Voting. (n.d.). Duverger’s law of 2-party domination. Retrieved from http://rangevoting.org/Duverger.html