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Vote for the Other Guy

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Written by Michael French Smith

I have encountered many unfamiliar things as a cultural anthropologist in Papua New Guinea (PNG), but none as unfamiliar as politicians urging people to vote for their opponents. PNG became an independent country with a parliamentary government fewer than 40 years ago. But PNG politicians don't solicit votes for their opponents because they haven't yet mastered electoral politics. On the contrary, they do so because they are adept campaigners in a voting system some Americans think is too complicated: a preferential voting system, also known as a ranked or weighted system. What I saw in PNG convinced me we need to go beyond appeals for civility to structural reforms that put a price on spewing political venom. Ohio wants to stop outright lying about candidates for office by making it illegal, but a head-on attack may not be the best way to combat mudslinging.

Preferential system voters not only select a favorite from among a number of candidates, they also cast votes for one, two, or more additional candidates in order of preference. If no candidate gets a clear majority (50 percent of the votes plus one) of first-choice votes, then the other ranked choices are weighed to determine the winner.

PNG adopted preferential voting following the 2002 national parliamentary elections, which were plagued with irregularities, inflammatory rhetoric, and violence. This was one among many reforms, including improving the logistics of balloting; a serious issue in a country where many people live far from roads, electricity, or telephone and Internet service.

But preferential voting was crucial. It ensured that winning candidates represented more than a handful of voters. Previously, candidates could win pluralities of votes with the support of very small percentages of voters, often drawn largely from narrow ethnic or regional groups. The preferential system also changed the way people campaigned for office. In a close race a candidate might need second- or third-choice votes from supporters of rival candidates, so demonizing them wasn't smart.

Some observers worried that the new system was too complicated for barefoot villagers. Some don't think Americans are up to it either. When the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences instituted preferential voting for the Academy Awards in 2010, a headline in USA Today read "Oscars' New Voting System a Real Puzzler." The 2007 PNG parliamentary elections, however, not only ran more smoothly, many candidates campaigned in a new way.

I first saw the new PNG system in action in 2008. I was in Kragur Village on Kairiru Island for the election of the president of the Wewak Islands Local Level Government. But even at this low level of the electoral system there were enough contenders to make each one keen for second- and third- as well as first-choice votes.

Many candidates for the Wewak Islands post couldn't afford to travel to all the scattered islands in the area. The candidates who did come to Kragur Village boasted of their superior abilities. But none attacked the other candidates. A few even praised the local favorites and humbly asked only for voters' second or third preferences.

Local campaigners proved masters at calculating different possible winning combinations of first, second, and third choices for their favorites. In private, seated around smoky cooking fires or in the light of kerosene lamps, some campaigners trashed the opposition freely. But in public rhetoric, diplomacy ruled.

This sophistication didn't surprise me. Papua New Guineans had complex political systems before they came under European-style government, and they jostle for power outside the electoral system with great subtlety. But the most important lesson we can draw from Kragur elections is not that Americans, too, could probably master preferential voting. The most important lesson is that we might be able to do more about mudslinging in politics than plead for civility.

Of course, PNG and U.S. politics differ in many ways. Among others, PNG elections feature a constantly shifting plethora of parties, while two long-established parties dominate in the U.S. But preferential voting allows many variations. The Australian version, for instance, gives minor parties a stake in the game by providing funding for the next campaign (based on the number of first-choice votes received) to any party that can draw at least 4 percent of all first-choice votes.

Those who want to keep the two-party lock on power would probably oppose the Australian variation. And the many U.S. politicians who profit from throwing vitriol would oppose any change that threatened to make this skill obsolete. Some of them would undoubtedly do so by besmirching the motives and morals of reformers. But I can't forget how refreshing it was to listen to Papua New Guineans use their considerable oratorical skills more to persuade than to vilify. Their example should at least jolt our political imaginations.

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Since 1973 Michael French Smith has worked in Papua New Guinea (PNG) as a cultural anthropologist. He is the author of three books documenting 40 years of political, religious, and economic change in a PNG island village. Hard Times on Kairiru Island (1994) and Village on the Edge (2002) chronicle the years from national independence in 1975 until the end of the twentieth century. His latest book, A Faraway, Familiar Place: An Anthropologist Returns to Papua New Guinea (2013), revisits PNG in the new millennium and is written especially for non-anthropologists. He has advised the U.S. Agency for International Development and the World Bank on rural economic development policy in PNG. He is the principal of Michael French Smith Consulting, specializing in designing and evaluating health, human services, and community development programs in the U.S. and abroad.

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