U.S. plurality voting system criticized by SF author

    Arguing that votes in U.S. elections do not entirely affect outcomes, author Steven Hill, during a talk on Feb. 18, advocated modifying the U.S. voting system, both to open more opportunities for third parties and to promote increased voter participation.

    Hill, who recently authored “”Fixing Elections: The failure of America’s winner-take-all politics,”” spoke to an audience in Center Hall of about 50 people during his book signing, which was sponsored by the Campus Greens at UCSD.

    “”The voting system that you’ve chosen to use has a lot to do with who gets elected, who sits at the feet of policy making, has a lot to do with how campaigns are conducted, how much money it costs to run a campaign — all these things are dramatically affected by voting systems,”” he said.

    Under the current voting system, which is familiar to most Americans, the candidate who earns the largest percentage of the vote — a plurality and not necessarily a majority — wins the election.

    “”It’s very simple,”” Hill said. “”It’s also very primitive.””

    Hill, who worked on instituting instant runoff voting in San Francisco, argued in favor of implementing instant runoff voting at the state and local levels.

    Instant runoff voting seeks to elect candidates by creating a simple majority, by allowing the voters to rank the candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives a prima facie majority, an instant runoff occurs, in which the preference votes are tallied to determine which candidate is preferred by the majority of voters.

    “”If you take the same votes [in a plurality system] and put them through different voting systems, [you will] come up with completely different results,”” he said. “”I mean, think about it. It sounds kind of arbitrary.””

    Hill cited Franklin Elementary School in Berkeley, Calif., which uses instant runoff voting to elect its student body president, as proof of the instant runoff voting system’s simplicity.

    Hill went on to describe what he called low representation rates of women and minorities in the government, both of which he said were respectively at about 14 percent in the House of Representatives. Hill said that with a proportional representation system, these groups would be more reflective of the larger population.

    “”Some people try and balk at the idea of using race in this way, or using gender in this way, but the fact of the matter is that it’s already being used now,”” Hill said. “”Race still matters in the United States in 2003.””

    The use of a proportional representation system would also theoretically allow for increased representation of third parties, such as the Green Party and Libertarian Party, in government. Currently, the proportional representation system is used in most European democracies, as well as in Israel and Japan.

    In a proportional representation, legislative seats are determined by the respective percentage earned by each political party. At its most basic and unaltered form, a political party fielding candidates for a legislature that earns 60 percent of the vote in a proportional representation system is entitled to 60 percent of the available seats.

    Hill linked democracies that have higher voter turnout than the United States to their use of proportional representation systems and instant runoff voting.

    “”All these things are being dramatically affected by this winner-take-all system, which is basically 18th century democracy technology,”” he said. “”I think it’s important to understand that our system is breaking down.””

    Hill’s appearance coincided with the A.S. Ad Hoc Task Force on Voting Systems’ tests of three proposed new voting systems on campus. A target of about 150 students will have an opportunity to sample the proposed voting systems via kiosks set up on Library Walk from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Feb. 21. Following the sample election, the task force will meet to review the results and make its final determination.

    Some members of the task force, including Eleanor Roosevelt College Freshman Senator and Task Force Chair Max Harrington, were present in the audience.

    The task force is examining three prospective voting systems: instant runoff voting; Condorcet voting, a pairwise method in which the voters’ preferences of candidates are evaluated as one-on-one races between pairs, with the winner determined by ranking; and approval voting, in which voters make a “”yes”” or “”no”” vote for all the candidates running for a single office, with the most “”yes”” votes winning.

    Harrington said that despite looking at new systems, the task force might just as well decide to recommend keeping the current system.

    “”The reason why we’re even looking at it in the first place is because we do feel that the system can be improved, because we don’t think it’s good for democracy that somebody can be elected with such a low percentage of the vote,”” he said. “”We don’t feel that [the current voting system] actually shows the true preference of the voters.””

    Harrington said that any changes would not take effect until after the spring 2003 A.S. elections.

    “”If everything goes well, this election will be the last election using the current system,”” he said.

    Within California, the student governments at Stanford University, California Institute of Technology and UC Berkeley use some form of a ranking system. At UC Davis, ASUCD is also mulling over proposed changes to its voting system.

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