THE BLOG
10/21/2014 03:26 pm ET Updated Dec 20, 2014

Two-Party Stranglehold: Alternative Voting Models to Open Up Electoral Process

The erosion of democracy and the narrowing of electoral choice in the U.S. are detrimental to most any issue, from the economy and health care to foreign wars.

Online references to politocracy come closest to depicting current U.S. political paralysis. One observer defines politocracy as a political form of government where "politicians work for the party, not the electorate, the raison d'etre of such a system is to get the party elected by using more scientific methods to win elections...The political class become self-serving thus divorced from objective governance." By this definition, the politocracy emerges from a multi-party system, with "convergence towards the mid-point of the political spectrum, hence little difference in policy between the main parties." Effectively, the multi-party system becomes a single party controlled and driven by corporate money. Or, as Noam Chomsky describes, the two main parties, Democratic and Republican, have become two arms of the "Business Party."

By contrast, an observer of the former Yugoslavia described a single-party politocracy in which "political elites, ruling through the single communist party, control the state and the economy and through those the society." In brief, politocracy holds the power of a political party more sacrosanct than democracy itself.

Given Washington paralysis generated by the stranglehold of the two-party duopoly largely controlled by corporate money that writes policy to benefit the 1%, at least some of the remaining 99% may be prepared to consider alternatives to open up the electoral process.

Are there alternatives to the current closed, narrowly defined electoral process of plurality voting that effectively limits choice to two major political parties in thrall to corporate money and narrowly-defined issues? A casualty of the two-party duopoly, the Presidential Debates were taken over in 1988 from the League of Women Voters by the two major political parties with the formation of the Commission on Presidential Debates. The two parties have defined the form and substance of the debates ever since. Much of Washington dialogue is likewise scripted by corporate underwriters, reinforcing dominance by the Military, Fossil Fuel and Medical Industrial complexes, no matter which of the two parties is predominant in Washington.

Alternative Forms of Voting

"Yes-No" voting is one alternative model of voting that would open up the electoral process beyond the choice of two major party candidates. A little noted initiative that failed to make it to the Colorado ballot in 2014, Initiative #106 would have permitted voters to vote "Yes" or "No," or to abstain from voting for every candidate on a general election ballot, excluding city elections. Proponents of "Yes-No" Voting say the opportunity to cast multiple "Yes" votes eliminates the need to settle for "the least of evils," as well as the spoiler effect that holds a vote for a third-party candidate is a "wasted vote" and potentially throws the election to the least desired candidate.

An aid to leveling the electoral playing field, Yes-No voting would not only expand possibilities for Independent and Third-Party candidates, it also potentially expands dialogue around issues previously narrowly defined by the two-party duopoly and their corporate masters, and the media that perpetuates the political status quo by narrowly depicting every major election as a two-horse race. The "Yes-No" voting option further carries the possibility of countering the distortion of big money in elections by permitting a "No" vote for every candidate who accepts big money, offering a partial antidote to influence peddling and corporate bribery.

"Yes-No" or Approval Voting is a form of Score Voting (also called "range" voting, as a numerical value may be assigned to each candidate - e.g., -1,0,+1 or 0-9). Approval Voting permits a "yes" vote on as many candidates or options as appear on a ballot. In 1990, Oregon used approval voting in a statewide advisory referendum on school financing, presenting voters with five different options and allowing them to vote for as many as they wished.

Approval and Score Voting can be used with existing voting machines, whereas voting methods would have to be adapted for Ranked Voting (Instant Runoff Voting).

Fairvote.org promotes Ranked Choice Voting (Instant Runoff Voting), a national popular vote for president , as well as "fair representation voting forms of proportional representation." Using Ranked Choice Voting (IRV) voters rate candidates by preference (e.g., 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.). Instant Runoff Voting has been tried in locations such as Aspen, Colorado, where it was subsequently reversed by a 6-vote margin. A 2011 Fort Collins initiative for ranked voting in municipal elections was defeated with heavy opposition from the Chamber of Commerce.

According to Frank Atwood, a Libertarian Party member and creator of the website ApprovalVotingUSA.org, Ranked Voting (IRV) is insufficient electoral reform, as it perpetuates two-party dominance. Some have observed that a voter's choice using simple ranked voting may have the perverse effect of electing a voter's least desirable candidate.

Atwood judges Approval Voting a remedy for such two-party voting pitfalls as the spoiler effect or the ostensible trade-off between "electability" and a wasted vote. He asserts that sabotage, polarization and lack of civility could be averted by permitting a voter to vote for more than one candidate. An example of sabotage is the ploy of spending Republican dollars to encourage Ralph Nader to run for the senate in Pennsylvania because some say that putting Nader on the ballot is 10 times more effective than spending on ads for a Republican candidate.

Some anticipate that Approval Voting would encourage greater honesty in voting, resulting in more accurate feedback from voters. In order to further open up the electoral process, Gary Swing, Green Party member and U.S. Congressional District 6 candidate, believes a more accurate portrayal of voter preference would result from the use of a Scored form of Approval Voting, e.g., a quantitative rating from -2 to +2, each number associated with a descriptive qualifier, e.g., "poor," "fair," "good," "excellent." Swing ultimately advocates for proportional representation in legislative offices as the primary means to fair representation. Such reform would require enactment by initiative at the state level, or federal constitutional amendment.

Atwood has twice promoted a Colorado state legislative bill to permit municipalities the option to adopt "Approval Voting" for non-partisan elections - the right to vote for as many candidates as desired. The same bill ran in 2013 and 2014 - SB 13-065 and HB 14-1062 respectively, both sponsored by Republican State Senator David Balmer and Democratic State Representative Jonathan Singer. The measures were defeated in committee each time, despite support by Common Cause, Secretary of State Scott Gessler, and the League of Women Voters' testimony in favor of the bill. Atwood judges the effort as a process of "failing forward" - at one level failing to pass a bill, at another, moving the ball forward. He observes that the proposal tends to face an uphill climb, as the incumbent party seeking to protect incumbency tends to oppose it.

Alternative Voting Methods Symposium November 15

Atwood is promoting Fair Elections for Colorado, a sponsoring group for the Colorado Alternative Voting Methods Symposium & Strategy Kickoff for 2015 & 2016. The event will be hosted in Glendale November 15 by The Free and Equal Elections Foundation, and its founder and Chair, Christina Tobin. Tobin founded Free and Equal in 2008 as an aid in cleaning up politics, leveling the political playing field, creating open, transparent elections while shifting power back to the individual voter and holding government accountable.

A stated goal of the Symposium agenda posted on the website is to bring together the alternative voting community "with successfully elected politicians to focus on how best to improve the election system." Potential participants include Arapahoe County Clerk Matt Crane, current Vice President and future President of the Colorado County Clerk's Association; Jill Stein, 2012 Green Party presidential candidate; Bill Redpath and Nick Sarwark, former and current National Libertarian Party Chairs; Democratic state Representative Jonathan Singer and Republican State Senator David Balmer; and others.

Invited speaker Richard Winger is the publisher of Ballot Access News, a monthly newsletter widely cited as the foremost U.S. publication focused on issues related to ballot access. Winger publishes analysis, statistics and legal information while supporting more equitable laws allowing access to the ballot for minor parties. He sits on the editorial board of the Election Law Journal, and is listed online as field representative of the Coalition for Free and Open Elections (COFOE), a ballot access advocacy group.

Winger notes that a majority of political scientists hold that a two-party system results wherever elections are based on the "winner-take-all" system. Among other things, he highlights restrictive ballot access laws passed by Democratic and Republican state legislatures making it exceedingly difficult for minor party and independent candidates to gain access to the ballot.

Information & Registration
Originally scheduled for 2 days in Littleton, the Symposium is now planned for 1 day, November 15, in Glendale, Colorado. Register online:
Alternative Voting Methods Symposium
720-260-1493