Monday, February 11, 2008

Goldberg, Steyn on US electoral system

Two recent comments by conservative pundits Jonah Goldberg and Mark Steyn, both at National Review Online's "The Corner", warrant some dissection. First, Jonah Goldberg wrote:
"... Voter turnout fetishization has been one of my oldest hobbyhorses... I like this email from a reader:
'Before the hate mail starts pouring in, I just wanted to let you know that I've always agreed with you on this. When I was 15, I went a school trip to Australia. Our class was at one of the government seats and tour guide was explaining to us that in Australia there is compulsory voting and that because of it more Australians vote then [sic] Americans (they were [sic] around 90% compliance). Previously she had explained that the order [in which] candidates are placed on the ballot was determined by random draw so that the advantageous spot at the top wasn't just assigned by alphabetical order. So I asked her if [sic] why would a system that needs to have a lottery to see who gets on the top of the ballot and gets all the votes of people who don't care possibly be better then a system where only the people that care vote? She showed us some lovely paintings right after that.'
- " iPod Democracy" (16 November 2007)
To which Mark Steyn replied:
'Jonah, I think Americans beat themselves up way too much over "low" voter turnout. For a start, the nature of American democracy is profoundly different: If you live in Hampshire, England, you can vote for just three offices - a local councillor, a Member of Parliament, a Euro-MP - every five years. If you live in New Hampshire, New England, you can vote for hundreds of folks - President, Governor, Senator, Congressman, State Representative all the way up to County Commissioner, Sheriff, Register of Probate, Town Clerk, School District Treasurer, Cemetery Commissioner, Library Trustee, Sexton, etc. If you factor in the multiple officers, America has the highest rate of civic participation in the developed world.
'The US system is designed to reward informed participation. That's why in America you get to choose not only which party you support but which candidate: There's no caucuses or primaries in most other democracies. And in Continental Europe you're mostly voting under PR systems for "party lists", and which particular representative you wind up with is decided by the bosses back at party HQ. I don't see why a higher turnout rate in national elections to check a box for someone whose identity will be revealed later should be the only measure of civic virtue.
'Secondly, a smaller vote tally is surely also a reflection of a smaller government. If the state controls your health care and your job, as it does in much of Europe, it's hardly surprising that more folks turn out to vote, any more than it's surprising that (to use a Goldbergian analogy) Homer Simpson drags his family along to Mr Burns' company picnics.
'Third, and to contradict myself, I'm not sure about your reader's Australian reference. The Aussies have had compulsory voting since (I think) the Twenties, and I wonder if that doesn't at least partially explain why they have some of the sanest politicians on the scene. Contrary to the received wisdom that high turnout would benefit the left, Australia's experience suggests it requires successful parties to be wary of disdaining a center that is (in the broadest sense) culturally conservative. If 100% of Americans had to vote, for example, there would be no talk of illegal-immigrant amnesty. (That said, I oppose compulsory voting on principle.)'
- " Re: iPod democracy" (16 November 2007)
In reply to Jonah, I refer to Wikipedia's entry on "donkey voting" (as we call it here in Australia). Yes, yes, I know normally Wikipedia is not always the most reliable source. But that particular entry is very reliable, because I wrote a good portion of it. These paragraphs, in particular, which demonstrate that top-to-bottom voting also visibly occurs in the USA and Ireland, both of which have voluntary voting:
... Donkey votes are not limited to Australia: a similar effect has been observed in other democracies, even those without compulsory preferential voting, although the unique presence of these two factors in Australia makes the phenomenon more visible. Donkey voting shows up in US elections, for example, in States which use the "long ballot" for numerous offices, and/ or in multi-seat elections where there are several candidates from the same party. In his book The Rise of Guardian Democracy: The Supreme Court's Role in Voting Rights, 1845-1969 (Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 1974), Ward EY Elliott notes that:
"One long-time Democrat precinct captain in Denver noted that, besides having party or lobby support, a candidate had to rank high in the ballot list. Since ballot ranking was alphabetical, most of the eight Denver [district State] Senators had names beginning with A, B or C." (p 362, citing appellants' brief in Lucas v Colorado).
British pro-STV campaigner Enid Lakeman noted the same effect in UK local elections, where significant numbers of voters invited to X (say) three candidates for three council seats would simply X the three highest on the ballot-paper, even if they belonged to different parties.
However, since most non-preferential elections require the voter to mark only one single candidate, or one single party list, it becomes impossible to speculate how many votes for the first candidate or party on the ballot are genuine supporters and how many simply "donkey-voted".
Furthermore, in societies where voting is not compulsory, it seems counter-intuitive that many who attend the polls would be apathetic. However, there may be countervailing factors that produce a "donkey vote" even with voluntary turnout. In many US elections, a voter may well be intensely interested in (eg) the Presidential contest but not in other, less prominent races on the same "long ballot".
In Ireland, where voting is preferential but not compulsory, the donkey vote has its greatest effect not between parties but within them. With an alphabetical list of candidates, and several candidates from each major party for the 3 to 5 seats per district, the proportion of Dáil Éireann deputies with surnames A to M is typically much higher than 50%, whereas it is only about half the population (according to the Irish telephone directory). (See, eg, B Walsh and C Robson, Alphabetical Voting: A Study of the 1973 General Election in the Republic of Ireland, Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), General Research Series No #71, Dublin, January 1973). In O'Reilly v Minister for Environment [1986] IR 143, the Irish High Court upheld the constitutional validity of alphabetical listing against an equality-rights challenge, noting that despite its faults, A to Z does have the advantage of making it easy to find candidates on the ballot-paper.
Moreover, in some elections (eg Germany and some US States), the order of parties on the ballot is descending order of their support at the previous election (with new parties being placed lowest in random order). A system like this makes high ballot position both a cause and an effect of high electoral support...
Even with first-past-the-post voluntary voting universal for all US States, some US States already rotate the candidates' names as the ballots are printed (eg, New York and Ohio), while others (eg, Kentucky) draw lots. Taking this extra trouble would be pointless unless hard-headed politicians were aware that there are people going to the polls - voluntarily, without being compelled (indeed, in the USA, being discouraged) by the government - who still aren't quite certain about the candidates and so start at the top and work downwards until they run out of votes to cast. I can't speak for the USA, but in Australia compulsory voting works well; it ensures (a) that if the Angry Far Left or the Angry Far Right number only 10% of the total population, they will also number only 10% of those who vote; and (b) that the election result isn't determined by whether it rains on polling day. Having said that, I think there should be a "none of the above" option on the ballot-paper. Mark's description of party-list PR as "check[ing] a box for someone whose identity will be revealed later" is odd. As a part-Belgian, Mr Steyn would of course know that the majority of European party list systems give voters an opportunity to prefer individual candidates over team-mates from the same party. For example, in the recent Japanese upper house election (all right, Japan isn't in Europe, but it's a party-list system) former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori was decisively rejected by the supporters of the "People's New Party" that nominated him, coming sixth (whereas the PNP won only 3 seats). In some European countries, particularly Switzerland and Finland, there is no party ranking at all and the result is determined solely by individual candidates' totals. If you really want to criticise European party-list PR systems, a stronger ground is that they encourage multiple parties that are ideologically inflexible. But in terms of choice among candidates, it is simply not true to claim that Europeans don't know, when they vote for the Republican Party ticket, whether they'll end up electing Nixon, Agnew, Ford or Rockefeller. (In fact, the only election I know of where voters had to choose a party ticket, without knowing the individual candidates' names, was an election that Mr Steyn praised highly.)


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