Fix the ballot, Lafayette

Illustration by Peter DeHart

Why is America so badly governed? A lot of people have been asking me this question lately. (As a professor of political science, this is the lifestyle to which I am accustomed.) It is far from a ridiculous question, and democracy is struggling in many places right now, not just the USA.

Many in Acadiana who follow state and local politics feel that democracy’s troubles are not solely a national-level phenomenon. For instance, there’s been no little despair in our community at the perceived shortage of candidates who are running for local and state offices. Still others are complaining, more and more in recent years, that democracy is not working because voters are just not up to the job democracy assigns to them.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the problems of both local and national politics have a common source. But blaming voters or politicians is the wrong answer. There is another culprit: our political institutions. Foremost among the institutions of our democracy is the ballot itself — not the fact that we vote, but how we are required to vote.

Consider the following hypothetical scenario: An office of authority and leadership happens to be held by an incumbent who is dishonest or incompetent, or both. The obvious thing to do is that we the people should wait until the next election and vote the rascal out. Election day comes, and the main alternative to the rascal is yet another rascal. (Or a novice, or a crony, or a fanatic; take your pick.) We the people end up sending the rascal back for another term in office. Is this the fault of dumb voters?

Many Louisianians still remember the 1991 governor’s election. “Vote for the crook,” a popular bumper-sticker read. “It’s important.” Edwin Edwards was thereby elected while under indictment on corruption charges, primarily because the main alternative — remember David Duke? — was an unrepentant Klansman. So the crook beat the fanatic in 1991. Hooray?

When voters are forced to endorse a bad leader in order to avoid a worse one, it’s called a “lesser evil” election. This type of dilemma explains why democracy, at times, seems to produce bad leader after bad leader after bad leader. Obviously it’s not always as bad as Edwards vs. Duke — that was an extreme case. But less extreme cases of a similar kind are routine. With only two viable candidates, there is a decent chance in any given election that large chunks of citizens will find themselves choosing between two evils.

Think about how an unpopular incumbent benefits from this kind of situation, and badly governed America becomes easier to comprehend. Their best chances of avoiding punishment at the polls are, first, if there is no high-quality challenger; but also, perversely, if there are many high-quality challengers. If the challengers spread the anti-incumbent vote too thin, the incumbent can win with less than majority support. This very possibility operates, beforehand, as a powerful incentive for good challengers not to enter the race.

Many people therefore assume that there’s no viable solution to the “lesser of two evils” problem. But they may not realize that the all-or-nothing ballot, with one and only one choice for each voter to make, is the source of the problem. What’s more, they may not realize how many different types of ballot structure are not only possible but in active use around the world. I’ll mention just one, a ranking ballot, because it’s actually used already by some voters in Louisiana and Mississippi.

With the system called Ranked-Choice Voting, voters can make more than one mark on the ballot for any given contest (for example, a mayoral race). Instead of giving 100 percent of their support to one candidate, and zero to all others, voters can mark a first preference, a second preference, a third preference, and so on, for as many candidates as appear on the ballot.

This is a very simple change, to rank multiple preferences instead of marking a single candidate, but it makes an outsized impact. More candidates are encouraged to get on the ballot without the fear of spreading votes too thin. The reason is that candidates with the lowest totals of first-choice votes are eliminated early in the count, and those ballots are then transferred to the voters’ second preferences. The second-choice votes go to the remaining candidates, increasing their vote totals and sometimes changing the order of finish. The process of elimination and transfer continues until one candidate has a majority of all the ballots still in play.

For the voter, it boils down to this: With more people running, you’re more likely to find decent levels of honesty and competence among the available candidates. You then vote for your sincere favorite with your first preference, your next favorite gets your second preference, and so on. If your sincere favorite turns out to be unpopular with the electorate as a whole, you know that your vote can still be transferred to more viable candidates —  in the order of your preference.

When voters use this kind of ballot, unpopular incumbents have no “lesser evil” parapet to hide behind. They are more exposed, more vulnerable and more accountable. The solution to our problem is not smarter voters; it’s smarter ballots.

The Louisiana secretary of state already sends RCV ballots to overseas residents who vote absentee. It saves time and money because the ranking system enables them to conduct a first round plus a run-off election on a single ballot.

Why are we not providing this same time-saving, money-saving, lesser-evil-avoiding ballot for every voter, at the regular polling stations on Election Day, in mayoral and council elections in Lafayette Parish?