Why I'm running for Indiana Secretary of State

By Paul Hager


Most Hoosiers probably consider Indiana Secretary of State to be a fairly unimportant office. This view is widespread enough that a recent Secretary of State candidate actually ran on the platform of working to abolish the office if elected. (He lost.) Though its powers are limited, Secretary of State has the responsibility of administering the state election laws and certifying election results. We saw in the 2000 election that the Florida Secretary of State, which functions in much the same way as its Indiana counterpart, suddenly became very important indeed.

Close, contentious elections, though rare, do occur (recall, for example, the 1984 8th District Congressional race between Frank McCloskey and Richard McIntyre that involved 3 recounts and was decided by the U.S. House of Representatives). While I can argue that it is much easier for a Libertarian to avoid partisan temptations in the event of a close election, I'm not running for office in order to be a better administrator than any likely opponent (though I'd expect to be). Instead, I'm running for one specific purpose, which the Secretary of State is uniquely situated to advance: I intend to introduce fundamental voting reform to Indiana.

The problem with our current system of voting

Opinion polling results for at least the past 30 years have shown a fairly consistent, high level of public dissatisfaction with the American electoral process. It is manifest in the continuous decline in voter turnout. The choices always seem to be either lackluster or just plain awful. We end up with far too many zealots, apparatchiks, and incompetents. And far too many of the competent elected officials have their skills directed primarily towards self-preservation.

Opinion polls have also consistently shown that the public feels that something needs to shake up the two-party system that is failing us. There is a widespread view that "a third party" is what is needed. It doesn't matter whether this yearning is for a literal "third party" or just a system that is open enough to allow insurgent candidates to flourish and "shake things up". What matters is that things change.

What the two parties have done so far, in the name of opening up the system and making it easy for challengers to arise and "shake things up" has had exactly the opposite effect. The statistics on this are irrefutable. Campaign finance regulations have promoted the status quo, steadily increasing the likelihood that incumbent candidates will prevail. And just as steadily, voter turnout has dropped.

These adverse results should not be unexpected. Any established institution will naturally resist altering things so as to make it easy for potential competitors. Why should Republicans and Democrats willingly increase the likelihood of being supplanted by a third party? Even if this self-preservation instinct weren't operating, there is the observed inability of established institutions to innovate, to think outside the box. What this means is that when the Republicans and Democrats propose electoral "reform", it will tend to reinforce their position and/or be cosmetic in nature. If the "reform" has unintended consequences, further ineffective "reforms" can be offered.

Before I lay out the reform I'm proposing for Indiana, let's take a moment and look at some of the important features of the way we elect people to office. This may seem elementary at the start, but bear with me.

When two candidates are running for a given office, voters pick one or the other, and the person receiving the most votes wins. Unless there is a tie, the winner will be the person who received the clear majority of the votes cast. Not only is this method very simple, it is actually the best way for the will of the electorate to be ascertained. But what happens when a third candidate is added to the field? Things suddenly become very complex. Let's assume 3 candidates, whom we will call A, B, and C, are running for the same office. If A and B are viewed as similar and more or less equally desirable by a majority of the voters, they have a problem. Unless the voters get together and agree to throw their support to either A or B, there is a very good chance that C, who only has minority support, will win. A and B "split" the vote of their supporters. There are plenty of examples of this actually happening, notably the 1912 3-way Presidential race in which Roosevelt and Taft split their supporters' votes, electing Woodrow Wilson. Either Roosevelt or Taft facing Wilson alone would have won.

Another problem is when A and B are similar and together are favored by a majority, but one is substantially weaker than the other. If B is the weak candidate, and draws enough strength away from A, then C is elected, even though A would have beaten C in a heads-up race. B is operating as a "spoiler." In 1992, H. Ross Perot attempted to single-handedly found his Reform Party. Although Perot got almost 20% of the vote, many of his supporters later regretted their choice because they felt that they had really elected Bill Clinton.

The fact that there can be spoilers and split votes means that many voters conclude they must "hold their nose" and choose the "lesser of two evils". This is why support for third party hopefuls tends to drop as Election Day approaches.

These defects of our current voting method are not going to change, no matter how much the campaign regulators tinker with the existing electoral system to achieve supposed "reform." It is, in fact, the voting method itself that is the reason why there has never been a successful "third party" (such as the Reform or Green or Libertarian parties) that can function side-by-side with the other two.

The method of voting used in the U.S. - the only method with which most of us is acquainted - is "plurality voting". The fact that plurality voting often fails miserably and thwarts the majority choice whenever there are 3 or more candidates was first demonstrated by two French mathematicians, Borda and Condorcet, in the late 18th century. In the 20th century, the work of Borda and Condorcet was greatly extended and is now the discipline of voting science. Voting science shows conclusively that 3 or more stable parties cannot coexist in the long run with plurality voting. This explains why in all of American history there has never been a third party that has succeeded without replacing one of the two parties the voting system allows. The last such replacement was when the Republicans supplanted the Whigs in the 1850s.

The only way to change things and produce what the public really wants is to change the system of voting itself. Any other attempted electoral reform is an exercise in futility.

The solution: Approval Voting

There are a number of other voting methods that are much superior to plurality voting as a way of gauging the true preference of the electorate. One of the best of these alternatives is called Approval Voting (AV). Instead of being able to vote for only one candidate for a given office the way we do now, AV would allow people to cast a vote for every candidate they liked for a given office.

In practice this would mean that if A, B, and C were all running for the same office, a person could vote for "anyone but C" by voting for A and B. Another person who only liked A would cast only one vote for A and none for the other two. All of the votes would be counted and whoever got the most would win. It is quite possible with AV for a result in a 3-way race to look something like this: A gets 60%, B gets 55%, and C gets 40% (which totals more than 100%). In other words, 60% of the voters cast votes for and therefore approve of A, 55% of the voters approve of B, and 40% approve of C.

AV would eliminate the split vote problem, the spoiler effect, and the wasted vote dilemma, which necessitates selecting the lesser of two evils. Although it's hard to imagine that such a simple change could have such a profound impact, the science of voting and actual experience demonstrate that it would.

Returning to the 1912 race in which vote splitting elected Wilson, we can see that AV would have probably produced a different outcome. Taft and Roosevelt supporters could have cast approval votes for their preferred alternatives as a "hedge" against a Wilson victory. It is likely that this would have resulted in a landslide victory for Roosevelt.

Hedging is even more important when a potential spoiler is in the race. Unlike plurality voting, which actually punished Perot's supporters in 1992, AV would have allowed them to vote for George H. W. Bush as well as Perot. This would have prevented their preferences from working against them and electing Bill Clinton.

The bleeding away of support just before the election that is the bane of third party candidates would also be a thing of the past. For example, analysis of the 1980 3-way Presidential race in which John Anderson got around 7% of the vote shows that had AV been used, Reagan would still have been the landslide winner but Anderson would have received an approval vote of around 40%, a huge increase. AV allows third party or alternate candidates to show their true strength.

The John Anderson example is instructive in that it shows that third (or forth) parties can co-exist with the other two parties. The two-party barrier erected by plurality voting evaporates. Once third party candidates can reliably get double-digit support at the ballot box, the institutional impediments created by the other two parties will become increasingly difficult to maintain and will eventually collapse.

How Approval Voting would work in Indiana

Once introduced, the first place where AV would make a big impact would be in party primary elections. These elections very often have crowded fields. As we know from bitter experience, plurality voting can result in strong candidates knocking each other off (via split vote), which means that the candidate left standing is a weak representative. When this happens to both parties, the resulting duel of pygmies turns off voters who end up staying at home. AV would almost invariably select the strongest candidate in the field. When the parties are offering better candidates, the quality of the debate will improve and voters will have an incentive to return to the polls.

The Republicans and Democrats would immediately benefit in general elections by the elimination of the spoiler effect. This would appear to work to the disadvantage of minor parties or independent candidates. There would, however, be some compensation in the concomitant elimination of the wasted vote, which would allow voters to use AV to register support for minor parties.

Ultimately, by eliminating plurality voting and its systemic barrier to alternative parties, elections would tend to be driven more by issues. This is because the tactic of "going negative", which can work reasonably well in the plurality voting system, would be disastrous with AV. Engaging in negative campaigning invariably lowers not only the approval of the target but also of the initiator. When 3 or more candidates are running, it is a bad tactic to lower your own approval, even if it hurts one of your opponents because your other opponent(s) will be unaffected.

Because AV is so simple, it could be introduced without expensive changes to the existing voting equipment. It is already necessary to accommodate multi-candidate voting in judicial or school board elections where voters must choose, say, 4 candidates in a field of 8 to fill 4 seats. AV would operate on the machine in the same way except that only one candidate is ultimately selected and not four.

Why you should support me

AV will do everything I've claimed it will do (see the technical section for sources). It is intuitively simple, and would cost nothing to implement, yet it would profoundly change the Indiana political system for the better. A good idea - or in this case, a great idea - is a free commodity. The fact that I'm proposing AV for Indiana doesn't preclude any of my opponents from incorporating it into their campaigns. I don't expect that to happen, for reasons I've indicated above. So, it falls to me to make it happen.

This is one of those rare instances when the right person and the right issue have come together in the right campaign. I've been talking about electoral reform and AV as a candidate for federal office since 1996, but because methods of conducting elections are a state matter, it was never anything I could pursue. As a candidate for Secretary of State, however, AV becomes the one truly relevant issue, which I am uniquely qualified to raise.

By "one issue", I mean just that. Because of the limited powers of Secretary of State, I'm essentially running a non-partisan campaign to reform the voting system. I'm a Libertarian, make no mistake about it. But I'd run this campaign exactly the same if I were a Republican, a Democrat, a Green, or a Pink Kangaroo.

If you want an electoral reform that will actually work, if you want an electoral reform that will significantly alter the political landscape for the better, then I am your only choice. If you agree with that statement then join me in making this reform a reality.