2008 was a historic election, and understandably for such a momentous vote, it saw the highest voter turnout percentage in over 40 years. But still, only about 63% of eligible voters took the opportunity to participate. The 2008 election also saw one of the closest and most drawn-out presidential primary contest in American history, and "Super Tuesday" set an all-time-high record for participation. That record? 27%
Primaries are funny things. In virtually every city and county in America, the local government pays an exorbitant amount of money—nearly as much as it spends on the general election—for a vote which is not only poorly attended, but which a growing number of voters are legally barred from participating in (due to both more-restrictive affiliation laws and the growing ranks of third-party and independent registrations). And furthermore, why are public funds being expended at all, when political parties are private organizations?
The U.S. Constitution makes no mention of parties; and George Washington famously warned against such factionalization. Nevertheless, the First Party System coalesced right in Washington's cabinet chambers (among his secretaries of State and of the Treasury). And despite the fact that pretty much everyone has been complaining about it ever since, we've had essentially the same two-party dynamic straight through to today.
On the flip side, consider that, of the 435 house elections held in 2008 (concurrent with those same high voter-turnout numbers), 56 were uncontested, and an astounding 149 more were won by two-to-one margins. That's over 47% where it's safe to say the "real" election didn't matter at all, and it was the primary that decided the outcome. This is the secret truth of political parties: they exist for one reason, and one reason only, and that is to hold primaries.
Why are primaries so important?
Why do we have a two-party system?
The answers to these two questions are the same: our voting system is stupid. It's stupid because it does an abysmally poor job of deciding between more than two options. Parties hold primaries in order to limit the number of options presented to voters, so that like-minded candidates won't overload the system such that every one of them loses to some other, presumably less-worthy opponent. We have two parties because like-minded candidates continued to band together into parties until a manageable number of options were presented in the final vote: two.
The collapse from a nation of individual free-thinkers to two-party rigidity happens almost instantly, but once reached, is almost impossible to escape. And when it is escaped, we fall back almost as quickly; hopefully not to many of us die along the way. But this is as much a moral failing on our part as it is a moral failing of a stone to fall to the ground. As much as the contours of the laws of physics inescapably control the path of the stone, the contours of our voting system control the path of our politics. The difference is, we can change our voting system.
Of course, we change our voting system all the time. Ballot Access News notes that, in the month of March alone, nine states had bills introduced changing the vote percentage, or the number of signatures, or the number of registrations, needed to get on the ballot for elections. Seven states are considering laws to change precisely who can vote in primaries. And some states are considering larger changes, such as California's proposition 14, which would replace all party-specific primaries with a single blanket-primary, from which only the top two vote-getters would appear on the ballot for the actual election. Every single one of these efforts is a poor attempt to patch the system without acknowledging the underlying truth that our voting system is stupid because it does an abysmally poor job of deciding between more than two choices, and until we can change that fact, no change can initiate the systemic reform that the backers of these efforts naively expect them to.
Prop 14 is particularly egregious since the failures of "top two blanket primary" are well-known, and functionally identical to "top two runoff elections", which have also led to disappointing results.
I recently read "Grand Illusion" by Theresa Amato (campaign manager for Ralph Nader in 2000 and 2004). Chapter 8 of the book is titled "'The Debate Commission Sucks'", although the book's other eight chapters could have had similarly dismissive titles. ("Ballot Access Laws Suck", "Being a Third Party Sucks", "Lawsuits (over ballot access) Suck", "Democrats Suck (and blame us)", "The Judicial System (with respect to ballot access laws) Sucks", "The Federal Election Commission Sucks", and "Voting Administration In This Country Sucks") Ms. Amato, and indeed, Ralph Nader and everyone around him, are berating a stone for falling. Although, in her defense, she does make some effort to suggest solutions, although most of them are along the same lines as what Ballot Access News is tracking. She does, however, make two passing references to the real solution: score voting (which appears in her index under an alternate name, as "range voting").
Score voting, and only score voting [PDF], can correctly adjudicate an election with three candidates. Three is a very important number. Scientist have known since Newton how to determine all the physical interactions between two objects; such as a stone falling to the ground, or the Moon orbiting the Earth. There is a simple equation which will tell us the precise positions of both objects at any time in the future. But when we add a third object, just one more, that goes away. A three-body system is a chaotic system, and while it may appear as stable as a two-body system for an extended time frame, it is inherently unpredictable.
That sort of unpredictability is what we need, because its the freedom to make our own path rather than to be locked into this repeating orbit. It's what the 40% of Americans who aren't members of the Democratic or Republican party want, even if they can't articulate it that way. It's what everyone who rails against ballot access laws or rallies for new primary laws wants, even if they don't know it. We want a smarter democracy; one that can count to three.