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How Voting Reform could Revitalize American Politics

By Staff Writer Faith Terry ‘19

As we reach the final days of the 2016 presidential election, many Americans are still just beginning to grapple with the reality of the race. After a new president has been chosen and the dust settles, many will turn once again to a question posed throughout the election cycle:  how did the two most unpopular politicians in modern American history end up on the ballot? As it turns out, there may be one particular element of American politics that is to blame for the confusing and unsatisfying nomination process:  our voting system itself.

The failures of the American election have been abundantly clear throughout 2016, beginning with the Republican and Democratic nominations. On the left, many spoke of rigged elections and the undemocratic role of superdelegates in the party, creating disillusionment and anger among the party’s support. While the Democratic Party was accused of intentionally manipulating the election and creating an elitist nomination process, the elections on the right took a more chaotic form. With seventeen candidates running, Republican voters were overwhelmed by choices, which ultimately resulted in Donald Trump’s rise to the nomination, supported by a record low share of GOP voters as the disjointed nature of the party meant that no other candidate was able to pose a serious threat.

As for the general election, one of the most controversial elements has been the role of third-party candidates. Both Jill Stein of the Green Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party have been able to break into the political spotlight and gain some support, and independent Evan McMullin even has the potential to win the state of Utah. For those particularly opposed to either a Trump or Clinton presidency, however, these third party votes are a nightmare. Currently, the American ballot allows voters to chose only one candidate for president on election day. If a third-party candidate gathers a sizable following, they then have the potential to split the vote of one of the major parties, just as Ralph Nader did in the 2000 election.

To solve the issues of disjointed nomination processes, party elites must be willing to listen to the will of the people. This particularly applies to the Democratic Party, which uses the superdelegate system in order to soften the influence of public opinion. While this seems like a simple fix, it is clear that the problems in American elections run much deeper. While the Republican party does not have such a superdelegate system, they similarly had problems directing public opinion that was split between so many candidates during the primaries. One way to solve this problem, as well as the problem of third parties, is to implement a new form of voting.

Many Americans take our current plurality system of voting for granted without realizing that "one vote per person" is really only one of many options, including approval and ranked voting. In the approval system, voters can chose all candidates they agree with, rather than being forced to choose only one. The ranked system also allows for multiple votes, but lets voters order candidates or even assign them numerical values depending on how much they agree or disagree with the candidates.

The potential role of these alternative systems is enormous, as they could begin to erode the deeply entrenched two-party system in American politics and finally allow voters to break out of a cycle of voting for the “lesser of two evils.” It has become clear that a huge part of the electorate resents this transformation, and we have seen decreasing voter turnout as a result. This cycle of undemocratic elections and disillusioned voters will continue to spiral unless action is taken to reform our elections.

Our political system depends on plurality of opinion and thrives when all viewpoints are heard. While some of these opinions may be extreme fringe views that have little potential to gain national traction, many of them are ideas held by a large portion of the population. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign is a remarkable example of this, as his high level of public support gained during the Democratic primary proved that his democratic socialist policy positions were not as far from the mainstream as some would suspect. Though he did not win the nomination, Sanders put pressure on Clinton to adopt more left-wing policies and change many of her talking points.

When voters are able to cast their ballot for something they truly believe in, even if the candidate of their choice fails to win, they have made their views clear, possibly setting a precedent for future party platforms or allowing for more radical ideas to be considered on a national scale. This kind of revitalization may be our only option in ensuring that the chaos of the 2016 election does not repeat itself in the future.

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