Ballot Measure 90, the Oregon Top Two Open Primary, directs the Legislature to implement an equal vote. The Coalition's current campaign is focused on educating Oregonians about what equality in the vote means, the true text, intent and implications of Measure 90, and encouraging our fellow citizens to join the coalition for the equal vote.
Although our founders required from before the beginning that our votes carry equal weight, they do not. The specific inequalities in the weight of the vote itself lead directly to the screwed up politics we see today: governing bodies locked in partisan stasis, and policy outcomes that tilt overwhelmingly to the advantage of well-funded special interests.
As it has been since ancient times, the test for equality of weight is balance. Therefore, in order for our voting system to provide an equal weight vote to us all, for every possible way you can vote, there must exist a counter-balancing vote I can cast that leaves the election outcome the same before and after our two votes are counted.
But because our current system limits us to one choice, whenever there are more than two candidates, the more similar candidates split supporters' votes. This is the spoiler effect inequality - the limit of one choice creates a vote that is impossible to balance and actually gives more power to those of us who prefer fewer candidates. Consequently, we are encouraged not to “waste our votes” on a long shot candidate we might really like and instead vote only for the “lesser evil,” in order that our worst option be prevented from winning.
And this strategic voting compulsion gives an overwhelming advantage to the money - not just because candidates who raise more can spend more on advertising, but because we have to vote for one of the two candidates most beholden to well-funded interests. The lesser evil is just the more tolerable of the two frontrunners with the biggest financial war chests.
Independent candidates without big backing don’t even get a fair count. Instead they are vilified for participating, because the more support they draw, the more likely their presence on the ballot will spoil the outcome and result in the election of the "greater evil." The single choice limitation essentially creates the one-dimensional two-party dominated political system we live in today.
The Second Inequality: Exclusion
The primary election was created more than a century ago to give voters the choice of which candidates from their party would be nominated to the general election. Prior to the establishment of the primary, the two main party candidates were chosen at party conventions or in the "smoke-filled back rooms" by party bosses. Unfortunately, this effort to give more voice to the people has created another dimension of inequality in the vote: partisan exclusion.
Taken together, these inequalities silence more than half of us and afford choice only between two polarized candidates deep in the money's pocket. Not super surprising then that we have a special-interest dominated government mired in partisan gridlock.
The Top Two
California and Washington created a new kind of primary system to fix the partisan primary exclusion inequality. Instead of segregating us by major party (or not), all the voters get a primary ballot that shows all the candidates, and the top two who get the most votes advance to the general election regardless of party.
The vote between the top two is always equal. But what about the first stage? California's version of the top two has no requirement of equality in the primary vote. Instead, the California law actually reinforces the one choice limit, and so magnifies the spoiler effect inequality that compels "lesser evil" voting.
As a result, Californians have experienced directly the pernicious effects of increased vote-splitting: campaign costs have increased and in some cases two candidates advance who don’t at all represent the majority.
Ranking vs. Rating
The choice of a single favorite, a system known as Plurality Voting, is the simplest ranking system. It turns out that with more than two candidates, all ranking systems fail the equality test and are provably "unfair." Rating systems don’t suffer these significant defects. Think of Olympic judging, product reviews on Amazon (5 out of 5 stars!), or the simple “Like” on Facebook. All are examples of rating – attributing to each competitor, product or idea an independent measure of value.
For every rating you give a candidate, I can give a balancing rating: yes to your no or zero stars to your five, so all rating systems actually pass the voting system equality test. Even the simplest rating system – a binary yes or no, +1 or 0, support or not – lets us communicate what no rank ordering can: which choices we actually approve.
And the ballot for the simplest rating system, also known as Approval Voting, looks the same as the ballot for the simplest ranking system, only with the single choice limitation removed.
This isn’t just about theory: a 2012 exit poll study conducted in Manhattan’s 69th Assembly District substantiates the claim that minor party candidates are unfairly marginalized by today’s system. Participants in the study were asked to re-cast their presidential votes using Plurality Voting and a variety of alternate voting methods, including Approval Voting on each candidate. The results were striking:
Although the district is clearly not philosophically representative of the public as a whole, the data demonstrate empirically that the single choice limitation overwhelmingly favors the two best-funded major party candidates, and that if voters are given the opportunity to rate each candidate equally and independently that all candidates will receive an accurate measure of voter support.
This real-world data is backed by significant research.
The field of voting method analysis has advanced considerably in the 200+ years since the founding of the country. Princeton Mathematics PhD Warren Smith has characterized more than 50 different voting systems.
According his analysis, equal (rated) voting methods capture the top four spots as measured by both key performance measures of voting system efficacy: propensity to elect the Condorcet Winner, the candidate who would beat every opponent in a head to head contest, and minimization of net social regret at the outcome of the election with both strategic and honest voters.
#41 on the list? That's the California System. But check it out - if we remove the single choice limit in the first phase, we produce the second best election system ever analyzed, yet keep the same simple ballot format and two-stage nature of our current system. The only way to make it better is to increase the resolution of the rating, but that would require a new ballot format.
The Equal Vote
So the simplest way to make a top two system awesome and actually equal is to remove the single choice limitation in the first phase. That’s it. Instead of making one choice per office, we’ll get to look at each candidate individually.
Finally, at long last, we’ll be able to honestly express support for candidates we actually prefer, without having to consider first who has the most financial strength or who the media says is “electable.” We can actually look at a candidate and think, “I like. Support!”
The Oregon Top Two - Ballot Measure 90
This isn't just a friendly word to our neighbors north and south. Oregon voters will have the opportunity to decide this November whether we should create a Top Two system of our own. Unlike the California Top Two, the Oregon version carries no requirement that the spoiler effect inequality continue. Quite the opposite: Measure 90 explicitly directs the Oregon Legislature to “create a fully open, equitable, and fair election system … through which all Oregon electors may participate on an equal basis … so that all Oregon voters have the equal ability to select two finalist candidates...” This directive unambiguously requires that all voters be equal in all elections. No more partisan exclusion, no more spoiler effect.
We’ll get rid of the election system division that creates hyper partisanship and diminish the influence of money in politics by taking away the sneaky incentives to support only the candidates with the most money. And since U.S. public elections have only used ranking systems, we’ll make the equal vote another significant Oregon first.
Please join us.
The Equal Vote Coalition was founded this year in Oregon to help make the vote actually, for real, provably equal, here, for the first time in the nation's history. Because it calls for the equal vote, we're starting by educating voters and legislators about Measure 90, the Oregon Top Two Open Primary against the backdrop of our current and very broken system.
The influence of money in politics
76% of Americans think that the amount of money in elections gives rich people more influence than the rest of us. They're right. Princeton and Northwestern University recently released a released a study suggesting that our government outcomes function on behalf of a polarized special interest oligarchy not the majoritarian democracy. That's not the deal promised by the whole "We The People" thing.
The Founding Vision of Equality in the Vote
The earliest Supreme Court reference I could find defining the principle of "one person, one vote" is Gray v. Sanders, where the Court unequivocally concluded:
"The conception of political equality from the Declaration of Independence, to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, to the Fifteenth, Seventeenth, and Nineteenth Amendments can mean only one thing-one person, one vote."
This language of equality flowed through the opinion:
"Once the geographical unit for which a representative is to be chosen is designated, all who participate in the election are to have an equal vote -- whatever their race, whatever their sex, whatever their occupation, whatever their income, and wherever their home may be in that geographical unit. This is required by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The concept of 'we the people' under the Constitution visualizes no preferred class of voters, but equality among those who meet the basic qualifications."
In Wesberry v. Sanders the Court affirmed this notion of vote equality and traced the principle of "one person, one vote" even further back, before the adoption of the Constitution itself. The Court cited James "Jemmie" Madison, our fourth President and author of the Bill of Rights, who wrote in Federalist #57:
"Who are to be the electors of the Federal Representatives? Not the rich more than the poor; not the learned more than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names more than the humble sons of obscure and unpropitious fortune. The electors are to be the great body of the people of the United States."
The Court specifically equated Madison's passage to the principle of "one person, one vote."
In that same opinion the Court mandated the equality of vote "weight":
"... The apportionment statute thus contracts the value of some votes and expands that of others. If the Federal Constitution intends that, when qualified voters elect members of Congress, each vote be given as much weight as any other vote, then this statute cannot stand.
We hold that, construed in its historical context, the command of Art. I, § 2 that Representatives be chosen 'by the People of the several States' means that, as nearly as is practicable, one man's vote in a congressional election is to be worth as much as another's."
The Court reaffirmed this notion of weight equality in Reynolds v. Sims, concluding, "the right of suffrage can be denied by a debasement or dilution of the weight of a citizen's vote just as effectively as by wholly prohibiting the free exercise of the franchise."
The purpose of the Equal Vote Coalition is to adjust the mechanism of voting itself to address clear vote weight inequalities in the franchise: the limitation of a single choice in elections with more than two candidates and the segregation of voters and candidates by major party (or not) in the first (primary) election stage.
The Spoiler Effect and Lesser Evil Voting
The spoiler effect is the effect of vote splitting between candidates or ballot questions with similar ideologies. One spoiler candidate's presence in the election draws votes from a major candidate with similar politics thereby causing a strong opponent of both or several to win. The minor candidate causing this effect is referred to as a spoiler.
The lesser of two evils principle (or lesser evil principle) is the principle that when given two bad choices, the one which is not as bad as the other should be chosen over the one that is the greater threat.
More on Ranking Systems
Plurality voting - the choice of one favorite in a field of many candidates - is the simplest ranking system. Other methods like Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) allow you to rank multiple candidates 1,2,3, etc. in order of your preference. It turns out that for elections with more than two candidates, ALL ranked voting methods fail the test for voting system equality because there are rank orderings for which there are no counter-balancing orderings. Further, rank orderings can't account for disproportionate clusterings of candidates, so such systems are necessarily vulnerable to vote-splitting. Some super smart dude named Nobel Prize Winning Economist Dr. Kenneth Arrow actually proved that no rank order voting system with more than two distinct alternatives can produce a “fair” outcome.
Other complaints regarding ranked systems include ballot complexity and winner computation complexity.
Computing the shutout
Currently only members of the two major parties can participate in the primary election. According to May voter registration statistics, 30.9% of voters don't affiliate with either, and are therefore excluded from the contests that select the two frontrunner candidates for the general election. Further, a strong majority of districts provide a single party enough of an advantage because of the imbalanced segregation of voters in the primary stage that its candidate always wins the general election. This silences another 19.7% of voters in the minority party in dominated districts.
That's actually more than half of us. Without a voice of representation in a "representative democracy." Hmm...
You can download the spreadsheet that computes this result.
The California Top Two
California adopted a top two general election system in 2010. While the California law bears similarity to the Oregon Open Primary, it differs significantly in its purpose, excerpted in part:
“(a) Purpose. The Top Two Candidates Open Primary Act is hereby adopted by the People of California to protect and preserve the right of every Californian to vote for the candidate of his or her choice…
(b) Top Two Candidate Open Primary. All registered voters otherwise qualified to vote shall be guaranteed the unrestricted right to vote for the candidate of their choice in all state and congressional elections… The top two candidates, as determined by the voters in an open primary, shall advance to a general election…”
The California system has no requirement of equality within the primary election itself. Instead, its Purpose subtly reinforces the single choice limitation, and so because all the candidates are in a single, larger primary field, California has seen a magnification of the vote-splitting/spoiler effect inequality present in our election system today.
The Oregon Top Two does not suffer this critical defect. It is imperative therefore that the enactment of the Oregon Top Two address not just equality in the general election, but also provide equality in the choice of the top two as its clear statement of intent demands.
The Oregon Top Two Open Primary Statement of Intent
"The intent of the Open Primary Act of 2014 is to create a fully open, equitable, and fair election system, that will be applied to specific federal and state elected offices currently elected on a partisan basis.
This Act will abolish the current practice of relying on political party members or party officials in closed primary elections or conventions to nominate candidates for these offices -- while prohibiting the participation of non-affiliated voters entirely -- and replace it with a system through which all Oregon electors may participate on an equal basis, in all phases of the selection process.
This specifically means changing the current system of primary election contests for these offices so that all Oregon voters have the equal ability to select two finalist candidates to appear on the general election ballot, regardless of the political party affiliation, or lack of party affiliation, of the elector or candidate."
Read the fine print including a section by section analysis of the full measure.
A discussion of strategic voting in the equal vote with a top two
"Bullet Voting" - FairVote, a national election reform advocacy organization, has criticized rating systems because "they create obvious, immediate and ongoing strategic dilemmas in every election. With approval voting, each equally weighted vote counts both for that candidate but effectively against the other candidates -- if you indeed have a preference between the two candidates, you need to weigh whether to 'bullet vote' for your favorite to avoid canceling out that vote by voting for someone else. You can be sure candidates will publicly call for voters to reach out to all candidates they might like with their votes, but privately to urge all backers to bullet vote for themselves."
In a discussion of using a rating system for the primary election with a top two, Rob Richie, Executive Director of FairVote conceded that adding a second round mitigates the bullet voting concern. A voter's desire to see his or her favorite candidate win is balanced by the safety of having two acceptable candidates advance (including his or her favorite).
"Voting or advocating for the weak opponent" - A number of folks have suggested that one way to "game" this system is to cast dishonest votes in favor of a weak opponent candidate in order to squeeze out a more-feared strong opponent. This is not a safe voting strategy; in fact it is only viable if the voter has a very high degree of confidence that his or her favorite candidate will out-poll the strong opponent in the first round. Voting insincerely does not change at all the calculus between the voter's favorite and most feared opponent, but actually increases the likelihood that the voter's own favorite will get squeezed out. This weak opponent strategy is an effective technique in most other primary election systems.