Why Our Voting System Stinks

It troubles me that more Americans are not aware of what political scientists call “collective action problems.” Here’s one example that I recall from one of my classes at UNC-Chapel Hill:

Suppose you’re sitting in a crowded auditorium–we’ll say there are 1,000 people sitting down with no empty seats–when the fire alarm goes off. You immediately wonder, “Should I bolt full speed toward the nearest fire exit? Or should I walk in orderly fashion as I was taught in grade school?”

The answer to that question depends in part on the number of people between you and the nearest fire exit.  It also depends, unfortunately, on the unknowable thought processes of the other 999 members of the audience.

Just to make things interesting, let’s say you’re seated in the middle of the auditorium. Your highly logical, four-part calculation might proceed something like this (all requiring less than a split second, of course):

“(1) If I bolt for the nearest exit while everyone else is walking, I’ll easily make it outside. (2) If I bolt for the nearest exit while a lot of other people also are bolting for the exit, then I’ll at least have a fighting chance with the other runners. (3) If I walk in orderly fashion and everybody else does the same, then we’ll all make it out alive, but I’ll be among the last ones out since I’m near the middle of the auditorium. (4) If I walk in orderly fashion and lots of other people bolt for the exits, then I’m likely to find myself behind a clog of bodies, trapped inside the auditorium. It therefore seems that bolting for the exit is my only way of being sure of at least a fighting chance.”

Note that while this may be the correct choice for you as an individual, it is exactly the wrong choice for the group as a whole. It will almost certainly guarantee that all the exits will quickly become blocked. That’s why school children spend so much time with fire drills, learning the proper way to exit a building in orderly fashion as a large group.

Note especially that the logical choice for the people who come to the problem with a spirit of maximizing their own personal freedom is the choice that maximizes the likelihood of death and destruction for the greatest number of people.

What’s all this got to do with our voting system? Well, it seems that we have a collective action problem in the way we choose our presidents. Because of our crazy system, folks who want to vote for a third party candidate must always worry about how their votes might actually benefit the wrong candidate. For example, a majority of the voters who chose to vote for Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential election might have preferred Al Gore over George W. Bush if they had been given a chance to express their second choice (in case no one got a majority). But because our system of electing presidents does not allow runoffs or points for second preferences, Nader’s voters–numbering close to 100,000 in the state of Florida–might have unintentionally helped Bush carry that state, where the difference between Bush and Gore was less than 1,000 votes.

To compound the insanity, our Electoral College practice (the modern one, not the one envisioned by the Founders) awards 100% of the votes to the candidate who gains a mere plurality of votes in a given state (except in Maine and Nebraska). Any wonder why we’ve been winding up with so many presidents who failed to win a majority of the popular vote?

Yes. Our “plurality rules,” our “winner take all,” and our lack of attention to second and third preferences keep leading us to party primary and general election winners that the majority didn’t want. We’ve been walking like good citizens to the fire exits while a mob of me-first hacks keep blocking the doors.

And we call ourselves a democracy!