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Dead heats and democracy

March 13th, 2008

I can’t resist a racing metaphor to describe the problem that’s now facing the US Democrats, but one that is a more-or-less generic problem for democracy. In any system of government, there is a problem of succession, which has a large contingent element. In monarchies, for example, the absence of an adult male heir can produce crises of all kinds (in England, this problem recurred in different forms for all the Tudors from Henry VIII onward). Dictators rarely nominate a capable successor until the last possible moment, so their sudden death often brings about the collapse of the regime. To avoid this, it’s common to see a quasi-hereditary succession which rarely works well for more than one generation.

In democracy, unexpectedly close election results can cause big problems, since there is always a range of uncertainty in which normally unimportant procedural decisions or rule violations become critical. Obvious recent examples include the Bush-Gore race in 2000, the Mexican election of 2006, the recent election in Kenya and now the Democratic nomination race. Such close races inevitably produce a lot of bitterness and can lead to disaster. At the moment it seemed as if the threatened breakdown of democracy in Kenya has been averted, but it’s by no means certain that the power-sharing agreement there will hold. And it’s far from clear that the closeness of the race between Obama and Clinton won’t produce a vicious contest that sinks the eventual winner.

It’s tempting, and sometimes correct, to argue that the sharp divisions that emerge at times like these were there all along. But often this is no more valid than the kind of analysis which ascribes civil strife to “ancient ethnic hatreds” when these are, in reality, little more than rationalisations of contemporary power politics. Certainly, in the case of the Democratic nomination, it’s clear that the vast majority of Democrats would be happy with either candidate and likely that the majority would prefer an immediate end, regardless of the choice, to a continued contest.

Rather than reflecting deeper underlying problems, to a large extent, these succession crises really are problems of institutional design. Some kinds of institutions manage succession problems better than others. Confining attention to democratic systems (broadly defined), I’d argue that there are substantial benefits to simple and definite procedures. If US national elections (including primaries) were based on popular vote (whether first-past-the-post or instant runoff) the likelihood of a result so close as to permit serious dispute would be very small. By contrast, when the result is reached from 50 state ballots, each operating under local and variable rules, the only surprise is that crises can be averted.

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  1. wmmbb
    March 13th, 2008 at 14:47 | #1

    It occurs to me that federalism is part of the institutional design of the presidential electoral process, and so variability is inherent. It is one thing to have a number of experiments, it is another to learn what works best, which to be fair is a process that takes time. For example, caucuses from very small beginnings seemed to have diffused to wider adoption.

    I wonder how true it is that both candidates are equally acceptable to the ‘vast majority” of their supporters, and so will be energised to turnout in November for the successful candidate. Clinton’s campaign has been successful as a function of name recognition, her husband’s coattails, and the connections to the party machine. Obama seems to have been successful as appealing to demographic base outside the party institutional framework. Thus the Obama enthusiasm may prove more effervescent if the candidate is not the nominee. Clinton has appealed to women, and in this regard in Salon, Camille Paglia has a different take on Clinton from her feminist perspective.

  2. snuh
    March 13th, 2008 at 15:06 | #2

    our own government is elected based on the results of 150 separate ballots, albeit all conducted under the same rules, and that seems like the key to me. to an outsider, the fact that most substantive electoral outcomes in america occur on a state-by-state basis is nuts, but it’s never going to change. certainly it will never happen in our lifetimes that america will abolish the electoral college and elect its president on the basis of a popular vote.

    what should be the focus is trying to create a system of rules that ensures each of the 50 separate ballots at least occur under the same rules. i.e., the same voting machines, the same procedures for absentee voting, the same rules regarding a felon’s franchise, each state’s presidential primary being on the same day and so on. ideally all administered by one federal electoral administration, but this seems unlikely.

    but the thing about this post that interests me is the assumption that the democratic nomination is unusually bitter. i.e., that it has created a real risk of a long-term division arising in the democratic party. the clue that this is not the case is that, as you say, “it’s clear that the vast majority of Democrats would be happy with either candidate.”

    now, obviously, the hard-core partisans for each candidate are out of their minds (and especially that ferraro woman, i mean wtf). but given that most of each candidate’s voters would happily vote for the other in the general seems to rule out any lurid civil-war like scenario.

    and has a bitter primary campaign ever sunk a party in the general election? the democrats in 68 maybe. but consider the fight between ronald “i paid for this microphone” reagan and george “voodoo economics” bush in 1980. a serious and fundamental dispute about the issues, and they ended up running together on the same ticket in the general and crushed carter.

  3. March 13th, 2008 at 15:06 | #3

    Some decision rules are set up to produce a definite decision quickly, but others are designed to deliberately slow down the process and introduce ambiguity. The appeals process in the legal system and proportional representation are examples of processes designed to slow decision making, to allow longer consideration and the synthesis of multiple interests and points of view. But what about the Democrats?

    The problem with the current US Democratic race seems to be more duration than closeness of decision making. The race has got to the point where Obama seems to be almost certainly the winner, but the official decision will not be made for some months.

  4. March 13th, 2008 at 15:23 | #4

    PrQ,
    I would add that the problem of succession is what caused the Tudors – usurpers which they almost certainly were. Have a read on the Wars of the Roses for background.
    .
    On something closer to the topic – I would argue that the difference between Clinton and Obama is not so much of policy than one of style. It is the very similarly that is making this one close and acrimonious. The less a debate matters the more acrimonious it tends to get.

  5. Ian Gould
    March 13th, 2008 at 15:31 | #5

    The problem of effective dead heats is aggravated by the winner-take-all characteristics of both the American and Westminster systems. (Originally, of course, the American system provided for the winner of the second largest number of electoral college votes to become Vice-President (and therefore President of the Senate).

    At the other extreme you have the Swiss system where the five major parties all take part in the federal coalition government.

  6. swio
    March 13th, 2008 at 16:57 | #6

    “certainly it will never happen in our lifetimes that america will abolish the electoral college and elect its president on the basis of a popular vote.”

    Actually that’s not necessarily true. You could still have a president elected on the popular vote without getting rid of the electoral college system. At the moment all electoral votes for a state are given to whoever wins the popular vote in that state but there is nothing in the constitution saying it has to be that way. If a state wanted to, it could divide up its electoral votes and give each candidate electoral votes that reflected its popular vote within the state. That’s entirely within the states own control. The reason for the current system is more to do with politics and gerrymandering.

    But there are some plans to change this as alot of states are getting fed up of being ignored in every presidential election because they’re not a “swing state” and almost always go to the same political party. The idea is that a state that is reliably Democrat looks for a corresponding state that is about the same size and reliably Republican. Then they both agree to end the winner take all system for their state and instead divvy up the electoral college votes according to the popular vote. The net effect would be of no benefite to either party, but it would force presidential candidates to spend time campaigning in both states with commensumate benefits for the local political elites and pork barreling for the voters. I think there may be unofficial offers out there from at least one or two states for this to happen.

  7. melanie
    March 13th, 2008 at 19:48 | #7

    I think that JQ is right and it is not the policy differences, but the rules that are likely to produce bitterness at the end. Clinton, for example, had clear victories in Michigan and Florida when the party had decided not to give those states any delegates. 2.3 million people voted in those two elections, almost 10% of the total Dem primary vote to date. But now the Obamaists are hysterical that the two states might get their delegates back and want to rerun the primaries if that happens.

    On the other hand, much of Obama’s delegate lead is accounted for by caucuses which he wins by far larger margins that he does in most of the primary voting. In Texas, which had both, she won the primary 51:47 and he won the caucuses 55:44 – he ended up with one more delegate than her. There are reasons why he wins caucuses – they happen at children’s teatime, bedtime, for one. If he can get the predominantly male activists out to the caucus votes, it doesn’t mean he can win an election.

    Thus if things remain the way they are, she is likely to win the popular vote and he is likely to get the most delegates. On the basis of the hysteria that I’ve witnessed so far, the convention should be a load of fun!

  8. rabee
    March 13th, 2008 at 19:54 | #8

    The theoretical prediction is that first past the post election rules produce two contenders with the same number of votes.

    The idea is that some people voting for a contender who is very likely to would rather stay at home than vote; she’s going to win with or without my vote.

    Those voting for candidates who are very likely to lose would also find it beneficial to avoid voting; which is costly.

    Elections involving many voters who actually vote characterize dead heats between equally liked candidates and who typically hold positions around the median political position.

    It has never been clear to me why in Australia with its compulsory voting and complicated rules we see two dominant parties.

  9. March 13th, 2008 at 20:55 | #9

    Actually that’s not necessarily true. You could still have a president elected on the popular vote without getting rid of the electoral college system.

    Swio is right. There is already a big push for this in the US. The details are linked below. The prospects for success seem quite good, almost inevitable.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Popular_Vote_Interstate_Compact

    The compact is based on Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, which gives each state the right to decide how to allocate its own electoral votes. States have chosen various methods of allocation over the years, with regular changes in the nation’s early decades. Today 48 states and the District of Columbia award their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the most popular votes statewide.

    States joining the compact will continue to award their electoral votes in their current manner until the compact has been joined by states representing a controlling majority of electoral college (currently 270 electoral votes). At that point, the member states would give all their electoral votes to the slate of the winner of the national popular vote in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. With the winner of the nationwide popular vote sure to have a decisive majority in the Electoral College, he or she would automatically win the Electoral College and therefore the presidency.

    Now if they can just figure out how to integrate instant run off.

  10. Alan
    March 13th, 2008 at 21:06 | #10

    The draft compact provides mechanisms for the returning officer in each state to publish their own results and consult the results published by other returning officers. There is no theoretical reason why a group of states within the compact, if it ever comes into force, could not sue the same process to eliminate successive candidates and distribute their votes to the enxt available preference.

    The IRV compact would need to resolve what is to happen if the IRV winner is different from the FPTP winner.

  11. March 13th, 2008 at 21:13 | #11

    It has never been clear to me why in Australia with its compulsory voting and complicated rules we see two dominant parties.

    Having just been involved in an election (2007 senate ticket) I can tell you that the funding arrangements don’t help. The major parties get their candidate registration costs refunded, the minor parties don’t. The major parties get taxpayer funding, the minor parties don’t. If your party already has an elected MP then certain AEC fees are waivered. The system is designed to keep the outsiders poor and the insiders cashed up.

  12. LuxuryYacht
    March 13th, 2008 at 21:20 | #12

    It strikes me that “primary” elections, while they are meant to be good for democracy, really only serve to entrench a two-party system. The State support, the money required and the media coverage mean that neither party can fail.

    If people want to be active in the political process, they should join a political party or local area association and get involved, then preselect the candidate they choose.

  13. Ikonoclast
    March 13th, 2008 at 23:46 | #13

    The entire US system is now corrupt to the core. The US is an irredeemable mess. This is sad because many Americans did attempt to create free, democratic and open society. However, that possibility is long gone. I can hold no hope for anything good coming from the US now.

  14. March 14th, 2008 at 00:37 | #14

    “The entire US system is now corrupt to the core. The US is an irredeemable mess. This is sad because many Americans did attempt to create free, democratic and open society. However, that possibility is long gone. I can hold no hope for anything good coming from the US now.”

    What complete rubbish.

    American democracy is messy and deliberately so. It forces politics to the point of least dissatisfaction. Australian politics are homogenous and hegemonic by comparison.

    America has a better constitutional and democratic system than Australia. The Australian system has superior electoral technologies, but is out innovated by the American system every where else.

  15. March 14th, 2008 at 01:08 | #15

    @melanie: another issue is whether the system is designed for the time-poor. Some systems (like the ALP as I remember it) are designed to consume large amounts of activist time precisely to keep the franchise with the time-rich. The argument is that the time-rich will have their own sources of information (and not be reliant on the mass media) and so make better decisions.

  16. mugwump
    March 14th, 2008 at 04:42 | #16

    Having just been involved in an election (2007 senate ticket) I can tell you that the funding arrangements don’t help. The major parties get their candidate registration costs refunded, the minor parties don’t. The major parties get taxpayer funding, the minor parties don’t. If your party already has an elected MP then certain AEC fees are waived. The system is designed to keep the outsiders poor and the insiders cashed up.

    And god forbid, if an outsider does start to threaten the hegemony of the major parties, they’ll be pilloried by the media and preferenced out of existence (One Nation).

    [Note: I don't agree with One Nation's politics but I disagree more with how they were treated]

  17. snuh
    March 14th, 2008 at 09:47 | #17

    Swio is right. There is already a big push for this in the US. The details are linked below. The prospects for success seem quite good, almost inevitable.

    inevitable? a big push? really? there are currently 2 states that are part of the compact. but anyway, this sort of idea seems more likely to cause problems, not less. it seems almost tailor-made to exacerbate a dispute in a close election.

    it’s basically an idea without precedent, and no one can know what the supreme court would do with it when the next popular/electoral vote mismatch occurs. there are any number of bases on which the compact could be thrown out by a supreme court minded to do so. it could be held to dilute minority votes (contrary to the voting rights act), it may be a change to voting practice that requires preclearance from the federal attorney general (also required by the voting rights act), or it may indeed be unconstitutional, either as being contracy to the compact clause or because it is, manifestly, an end run around the constitution.

    think about bush v gore in this context. few people geniunely believe that case was correctly decided (correct in the sense of according to law). more likely at least some justices were swayed by who, personally, they wanted to see become president.

    my point is that, had there been a compact between enough states in 2000, the election would still have been decided in the supremes, and the judges who wished to do so (a majority) would still have deceded it in bush’s favour. but instead of a bitter fight about a narrow issue like a recount in florida, you’re having a bitter fight about the entire system of american democracy.

  18. March 14th, 2008 at 10:12 | #18

    A crisis is often caused by the lack of an effective or competent successor. The Holt/Gorton/McMahon debacle after Menzies’ retirement is a case in point.

    The Democrats have a different problem: two candidates who would be clear winners if the other wasn’t in the race. Perhaps the closeness of the primaries (not the caucuses) contributes to their strife but one national primaary vote (or any other system) could easily produce a similar result given their respective popularity.

    In terms of the US Presidential election, the facts don’t support your thesis. There have been very few crises because of the quirks of the electoral college. Very few Presidents have won with less votes than their opponent. It has only happened on three or four occasions and only once in the last 120 years.

    Winning government with a minority of the popular vote has been far more common in Australia. Ask Kim Beazley.

  19. March 14th, 2008 at 11:16 | #19

    the american system was designed in the 1780′s. it was modelled on british society, the president had similar power to the king, gIII, and might well have become a king, elected once for life. washington, although demanding status and pomp similar to the king he replaced, saw the advantage of setting a good example of two terms, and out.

    this system was not intended to be a democracy, except in the sense that any society not ruled by a king is a democracy.(the monarch’s view, not aristotle’s)it was also not envisioned as the active executive power of the nation. most activity was local, most decisions taken by the states and lower governments.

    the diffusion of power by a federal system, the purposeful attempt to limit tyranny through the creation of three arms of government, each with some control over the others, has made the path to power in the usa tortuous and prolonged.

    is it ‘democratic’? yes, in the monarch’s view. no, in aristotle’s. does it get good leadership? depends who you ask, i suppose, but i reckon they would get better results with a random number generator. (or actual democracy, of course)

    does it matter what we think? we can’t even influence our own elite, much less america’s. why discuss what we can’t affect? because we have the heritage of most homo saps, the capacity to cogitate, discuss, decide. ozzies don’t use it much, due to cultural limitations, but the capacity remains, however stunted. perhaps someday an ozzie ‘obama’ will ignite the flame of democracy with the match of our innate capacity for social thought.

    in the meantime, in the real world of the usa, we see two heretofore ‘unelectable’ people throw their hats in the ring, because ‘any democrat’ will win this one. unfortunately, while either might have beaten mccain, only obama has nearly consistently looked a winner in polling. the struggle of two unelectable people may in fact make both unelectable. ain’t life a constant source of interest!

  20. O6
    March 14th, 2008 at 13:25 | #20

    Washington didn’t introduce the two terms only requirement. That constitutional amendment came more than a century later in FDR’s time, during FDR’s 4th term.

  21. Pepper
    March 14th, 2008 at 20:45 | #21

    Ian Gould
    “the Swiss system where the five major parties all take part in the federal coalition government”

    fyi: Four not five. Together they hold about 80-90% of seats. I don’t think they actually see themselves as a coalition (there have no agreement for instance). There are half a dozen minor parties.

  22. Ikonoclast
    March 15th, 2008 at 10:00 | #22

    As I understand it, the US does not have a Federal Electoral Commission or anything like it. Each state runs colleges, elections etc. Electoral fraud is the norm in the US; elctoral fraud on a massive scale.

    Just look at the dictator George W Bush who stole two elections. The first with the Florida fiasco and the second with rigged voting computers particularly in Ohio with the lockdown used to rig the counting precinct. When that happens in any other country everyone belyyaches non-stop about rigged elections. Why this big blind spot about the USA?

    Honestly, anyone who believes that the US has free, fair and democratic elections is living in fairyland.

  23. March 15th, 2008 at 15:15 | #23

    “Just look at the dictator George W Bush who stole two elections. ”

    My mistake for taking your previous comment seriously.

  24. March 15th, 2008 at 15:26 | #24

    Gee Ikonoclast, and what happened in the other 49 states each time? Close elections are always a bit messy. The fact it was so close shows that Gore was not able to get far ahead of Bush – even if he did get slightly ahead. Who’s fault was that?

  25. Ikonoclast
    March 15th, 2008 at 17:56 | #25

    Many of the states were rigged AR.

  26. melanie
    March 15th, 2008 at 19:52 | #26

    martin @15, ‘time-poor’ is another way of saying somebody has to put the kids to bed. Your activists may have better information or they may have stronger prejudices.

  27. March 15th, 2008 at 20:21 | #27

    Ahhh, Ikonoclast, so you are in the “vast right-wing conspiracy” group. So, who was on the grassy knoll – was it the same person that faked the moon landings?

  28. March 15th, 2008 at 20:29 | #28

    Oh, so you would also have to add in the polling companies – all of them, who were all showing a very close election.

  29. Ikonoclast
    March 16th, 2008 at 00:00 | #29

    Check this.

    http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/10432334/was_the_2004_election_stolen

    There are many more sources and references. Only the millionaire media moguls won’t tell this news. Why have the internet if you don’t for alternative news?

  30. March 16th, 2008 at 00:46 | #30

    Interesting Ikonoclast. It is a bit late, so I am off to bed. Just an off the cuff thought. Let’s look at the argument as relates to Ohio.
    The exit polls are polls of those who actually voted – but Democrats, apparently, had been “purged” from the roll – i.e. they did not actually vote. So – the argument here is that people who did not vote were captured in the exit poll numbers? Interesting.
    Just a thought for the night.

  31. gerard
    March 16th, 2008 at 16:36 | #31

    As melanie should be aware, the Michigin and Florida primaries were conducted after the Democratic Party had already determined not to seat their delegates and the candidates had agreed not to participate. Clinton broke her pledge and is now saying that the delegates should be seated, despite the fact that at the time that the votes were conducted the people of Michigin and Florida were told in no uncertain terms that the primaries would not count for anything.

  32. gerard
    March 16th, 2008 at 16:57 | #32

    Dumb question Andrew. I doubt that you actually read that whole article, let alone any of the hundreds of others that a spot of research (surely not too difficult for someone of your education) could acquaint you with. many people who voted in 2004 did not have their votes counted and many others were prevented from voting altogether. The instances of irregularities and fraud are very well documented.

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