In the first century B.C., Cicero wrote, “Everyone knows that laws which provide a secret ballot have deprived the aristocracy of all its influence.” The Roman aristocracy had been manipulating elections through coercion; the secret ballot put a stop to that.
Two thousand years later, the same thing happened in a new nation. Wealthy industrialists — the aristocracy of 19th century America — were manipulating elections just as the Romans had done. Up through the Civil War, most voting in the United States was done in public; not until the 1880s was the secret ballot ratified in all states.
There is a pattern here. The powerful seek more influence in choosing leaders than their one vote provides. The less powerful counter with reforms. In a healthy democracy both groups succeed, and the pendulum swings. That conflict, in an endless cycle, is the story of the Democratic Experiment.
We are in the early stages of just such a cycle, and two state legislators from Yarmouth have given Maine an opportunity to play a lead role. Sen. Dick Woodbury and Rep. Janice Cooper have proposed legislation that would bring “instant runoff voting,” a type of multi-choice voting, to Maine.
Our current voting system allows voters to pick just one candidate from a list, which suggests that opinions are black and white: “I like this one candidate and hate all the others.” Multi-choice voting lets people express more nuanced and realistic sentiment: “I prefer candidate A, but I also like candidate B.”
This seems like a modest reform, but the implications run deep. Just as public ballots give the aristocracy undue influence, single-choice voting gives political parties too much power.
Single-choice voting makes “split votes” possible, where two similar candidates share a bloc of voters, letting a third candidate win with less than a majority. That is exactly what Ralph Nader was accused of (or thanked for) doing to Al Gore in 2000.
Strong parties are a strategic reaction to the risk of the split vote. It explains why improbable bedfellows — such as environmentalists and longshoremen, or hedge fund managers and evangelicals — form alliances. It is why Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan are pressured to not run, and the rest of us are pressured to not vote for them. Although less overt than the bribery and threats of ancient Rome, the spectre of the split vote is still an effective form of coercion.
That coercion leads inevitably to a two-party duopoly. Third parties cannot reach critical mass because they cannot overcome the stigma of the “wasted” vote. Sensible voters are likewise constrained: we are told it is our civic duty to vote, but it is illogical to vote outside the duopoly.
Henry Ford famously offered his cars in “any color you want, as long as it’s black.” Similarly, our voting system lets us vote for any candidate we want, as long as it is from one of the two main parties. This is not true democracy; it is the illusion of democracy.
The antidote is elections that are immune to split votes, so that nominations lose their strategic value, and party insiders will no longer be gatekeepers to office.
The antidote is ballots that free citizens to vote their sincere beliefs, without strategizing.
The antidote is multi-choice voting.
There are those who will oppose this change because they stand to lose. The parties themselves, of course. Also anybody influential in the nomination process: wealthy donors, activist leaders and the extreme wings of both parties.
Faced with a loss of privilege, the privileged expect the apocalypse. They fear that change is bad for them, so they direly warn that change is bad for all. The Roman aristocracy surely predicted — and truly believed — that the secret ballot would destroy their republic. Our country has seen similar rhetoric against abolition, women’s suffrage, gay rights, inheritance tax, and Jews in the yacht club, and each reform gets delayed by fear, confusion and doubt.
The people of Maine must resist the claims that multi-choice voting will be confusing, expensive and prone to manipulation. Democracy’s pendulum has, for too long, defied gravity, granting a tiny minority too much power. It is time to pull it, and them, back into balance.
David Rea is an educator, technologist, investor and writer. He grew up in Auburn and currently resides in Boulder, Colo., where he is working on a book about election strategy.