Plurality Voting

While there has not been much public discussion of the new electoral system, the little discussion that has taken place has dealt almost exclusively with the change to closed party primaries and the consequences of that change.

Small attention has been given to, and almost no analysis has been made of, the more significant change: The candidate who gets the most votes in the general election will be elected, even if he or she gets less than a majority of the votes cast.

This plurality voting system really benefits those would-be candidates who have a reliable 25-30% base of support in their Congressional districts (or statewide, for U.S. Senate races), but who could not realistically get over 50%.

While closed party primaries have long been advocated for Louisiana as a way to counteract the trend of two extreme (or, at best, niche) candidates getting into a runoff, the plurality voting system could more than offset the supposed moderating effect of party primaries.

If we consider the primary results of past elections, we can see what effect this plurality system would have had if it had been in place in those elections.

Although it is a bit dated and none of the candidates involved then is still the force that he was at the time, the 1991 gubernatorial primary results provide an interesting scenario. That was basically a four-man race. (There were a few other candidates, but Edwin Edwards at 34%, David Duke at 32%, Buddy Roemer at 27%, and Clyde Holloway at 5% got almost all the votes.) If we imagine that race as a 2008 Senate race with Edwards as the Democratic nominee and Roemer as the Republican nominee and Duke and Holloway as independents, Edwards would have won by a plurality. If, however, Holloway had stayed out of the race and his votes had gone more to Duke than to Roemer (which would have been likely, given Duke and Holloway's supporters' similarities) then Duke would have actually been elected with slightly more than 34%.

Obviously, I have assumed a lot of things in the above scenario that might not come to pass in contemporary Congressional elections, but I think I have illustrated how the new system might result in a minority of voters electing a very non-mainstream candidate.

This new system also greatly increases the chances that a black candidate could be elected from some district other than the majority-black Second. Five of Louisiana's six majority-white Congressional districts have large enough black populations that a black candidate could get a plurality if the white vote were sufficiently split among three or more (or, in some districts, two or more) other candidates. The significant black population statewide should also make the U.S. Senate races attractive to black candidates.

If the black candidate were also able to secure the Democratic nomination (which might be difficult since the party primaries will involve a runoff) then his or her chances of winning the general election would be really very good.

Conversely, a lone white candidate could win in the Second District if the black vote were sufficiently split.

The supporters of plurality voting might argue that it has worked fine in other states (which is a debatable point), but we should recognize that Louisiana is not politically like the other states.

First, Louisiana does not have the sort of strong political party culture that other states have.

Second, Louisianans have historically shown more of a willingness to vote for rogue candidates than voters in other states have.

Third, compared to other states, Louisiana has very easy ballot access laws for individual candidates.

The ease with which a person can get on the ballot in Louisiana without first building either a fortune in campaign funds or an army of campaign volunteers or endearing himself to the leaders of a political machine is a good thing, in my opinion. It helps keep the electoral process open to new ideas. Even the no-hope-of-winning candidates (a group in which I proudly include myself) can offer something of value. If nothing else, just having an array of protest-vote options allows a voter to demonstrate his dissatisfaction with the leading candidates. Let us hope that the legislature does not react to any problems which might arise over plurality voting by simply restricting ballot access.

A more open and more democratic solution would be instant runoff voting (IRV). Voters would rank the candidates, rather than just picking their first choice. Even if no candidate was the first choice of more than half of the voters casting ballots, those rankings would allow a winner to be selected by an absolute majority rather than a mere plurality. As the name implies, it would achieve the same result as a runoff, but without the expense and delay of another election. In fact, if IRV were also used in the party primaries, the whole Congressional election could be reduced to two stages, rather than the three stages likely under our new system.

Unlike the plurality system, IRV would eliminate the worry that voters and potential candidates will have over splitting the vote and throwing the election to a candidate that most voters voted against. People would be able to vote their hopes, rather than their fears.

Before we dismiss instant runoff voting on the grounds that Louisiana should not take the risks involved in being at the forefront of such innovative electoral reform, we should consider that Louisiana already uses IRV on absentee ballots sent to U.S. military personnel and to Louisiana voters residing abroad. (RS 18:1306 A. (4))

If instant runoff voting is good enough for Louisianans serving away from home in the U.S. military, why isn’t it good enough for the rest of us?

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