As ballot laws exist now, we are held perpetually one move from checkmate. The ballot keeps us in check. The mechanism that sets the stacked chessboard is known to political science as Duverger’s law. This law is alluded to implicitly whenever one speaks of the two-party system. While America doesn’t have a de jure two-party system, the dynamics of our electoral system are built so that, until we retool the system, this is our de facto reality.
Part of what makes America exceptional is our individualism, and a part of that is voting individuals into office, so proportional voting is out. The alternative is the closest thing we’ll have to a silver bullet: preferential voting.
In the simplest form, preferential voting is a ranking system for votes. Let’s say we preferred Bob Barr for the 2008 presidential election, but saw McCain as slightly better than Obama. As ballots exist now, you “hold your nose” for McCain, who has a realistic chance of winning.
But a preferential system is different. In this system, you rank your votes by choosing a favorite, then a second favorite. Your vote for the favored Barr will go to Barr if his vote total places him in the top two in the election results. If your favored isn’t among the top two vote-getters, your second favorite is selected in an instant runoff. Because you ranked him second, you don’t have to hold your nose for McCain; the ballot does that for you.
With this one change to the ballot, voting outside the duopoly is no longer a strategic mistake in any race. The worst of all evils never has to benefit from your disillusionment.
But now you’re cynical again, because the state legislatures belong to the partisan duopoly. Majorities would never pass a bill that would revoke the privileges of the existing order. That will indeed prevent preferential voting from ever becoming law in roughly half the states, but the other half allow for citizen-driven ballot initiatives.
Collecting enough valid signatures in the twenty-plus states that allow initiatives will be tough work, but we already know how dedicated the tea party movement is. If given a printer-friendly page of the petition, barrels of ink in aggregate would be printed and signed within hours of word getting out.
This is our bottleneck. The ballot we’ve been cursed with has been the mechanism of regulatory capture that keeps the cartel dominant. The ballot initiative was always meant to be the cure. Now, it is.