Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Laws Limiting Third-Parties Are an Effect, Not a Cause

Funny story out of Massachusetts. As you're hopefully aware, a special election is soon to be held to fill the seat of the late Ted Kennedy. The party primaries are over, and ballot-access forms have been filed, leaving three contenders. But just the other day, the Boston Globe came out with an opinion piece saying that one of those three should be shut out of the debates.

Obviously, I think that's a travesty of democracy that, after jumping through all the hoops it takes to get on the ballot as a third party, that anyone thinks that not enough was done to keep the rabble out. And most of the candidates agree; two-thirds, to be exact: the third-party candidate and the one who disagrees with everything the third-party candidate stands for.

Aww; how nice of a politician to stand up for the rights of someone who she doesn't even agree with. But allow me to be a bit cynical for just a moment. (Pause for laughter.) She's only doing it because it helps her. The third party candidate leans right, and is therefore more likely to draw away her opponent's otherwise-Republican voters rather than her own otherwise-Democratic voters. And she knows it; I'm fully certain that if the third ballot-qualified candidate were a member of the Green party, she'd be singing the opposite tune, and so would her opponent.

But let's look at this from the other side: spoilers suck. If I'm the Republican in this race, knowing that Massachusetts leans left, I'm going to need all the help I can get. But more importantly, if I really think most of the voters prefer me over the Democrat, then the voters stand to be harmed by the third-party candidate as well. A spoiled election means the wrong candidate gets elected, so how do you prevent that from happening?

It's popular to claim that ballot-access laws, and debate access, and media coverage are all a cause of poor performance by third parties. But it's the opposite that's true: it's the strong performances by third parties that inspire these things. Not strong enough to win the election, but strong enough to spoil it. From a certain point of view, these things exist to protect the voters, because unless a third-party is strong enough to win the election, then their presence is a hindrance to the will of the majority.

Before you start screaming: yes, this logic ignores lots of other very important factors. But from this limited view point, it is an entirely rational responses to the damaging effects of third-party candidacies. And as long as we insist on using voting methods which are known to be prone to spoilers, methods which we know have two-party dominance as the only long-term equilibrium, then these sort of short-sited "solutions" are going to be something that we will constantly be fighting against (or for, depending).

The long-term solution is spoiler-free election methods; something that can fairly tease out the real majority-will in a three-way contest. Plurality doesn't do it. Score and approval voting do.

If you find yourself screaming at ballot-access laws, or yelling about third-party candidates being shut out of debates, or crying over a close election that was spoiled by a third-party, (I'm looking at you, Theresa Amato) place the blame where it belongs: on our foolish voting system. And then, commit yourself to changing it.

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