Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Win-Win Vote

This blog has hosted a rainbow variety of topics and discussions, from Hawaiian and Pacific history to environmental and labor history topics to travelogues to Occupy Wall Street. But not once have I blogged about voting. This is because there are lots of people who get turned off by talk of politics, especially U.S. national politics, and I understand that. But for me, I find U.S. politics infinitely interesting. This is especially so every four years during presidential election campaigns, because for whatever strange reason, most Americans seem to believe that the one person we elect to serve at the very top of the national government has supreme influence and power over the course of our lives. Yes, very few Americans vote in local town, city, county, or even state elections. But all our deepest passions and convictions come out for presidential politics, and voter turnout in presidential elections is often at its highest.

Be that as it is, I want to make a proposition to the American people. This November, many of you think that you will have to make a decision between two candidates: Barack Obama (Democratic Party) and Mitt Romney (Republican Party). If you have voted before, you will go into the voting booth well aware that the ballot will have all kinds of mumbo-jumbo on it that you will mostly ignore, but at the very top of the page will be the two major parties and under the column "President of the United States" the two major candidates: Obama and Romney.

If you would rather Obama win, you can vote for him and that's what I call a "win" vote. I call this a "win "vote because there is only one simple goal you want to win (i.e. to achieve), and that is Obama's "win" and Romney's "loss." This is a binary, with one winner and one loser, and figuring out how you feel when the votes are tallied on Election Day is pretty clear. Either "your guy" won, or he lost.

Similarly, if you would rather Romney win, you can vote for him with a similar "win" vote. Perhaps you hope that Obama will lose, and if he does then Romney will by default win. Vice versa, if Romney wins, Obama can do nothing but lose. This binary system is basically a game with a winner and a loser, and there is no middle ground.

Well, my proposition to the American people is this: have you considered voting to "win-win"?

"What is a "win-win" vote?" you say. "You can't possibly mean that both Obama and Romney would win!!"

No, of course not. In our U.S. electoral system, it is impossible for more than one candidate to win the office of President. However, it is not impossible for more than one candidate to "win." And to understand this, we need to reconsider what "winning" means.

Let us consider another candidate. Let's take Jill Stein, Green Party candidate for President, for example. There is almost no chance that she will win the Presidency, but, can she and the Greens "win" in another way? The answer is yes. For example, if Ms. Stein were to win over 5% of the national popular vote (something a third party candidate achieved most recently in 1996: Ross Perot and the Reform Party), the Green Party would qualify — or to think of it in another way, "win" — public campaign financing for the next presidential cycle as well as (likely win) ballot access in all fifty states plus D.C. (Each state has its own ballot access rules, but 5% seems to be a common threshold in many states.) Just what would such a "win" mean? It would mean not having to petition in state after state to get on the ballot. It would mean not having to fight in court against the two major political parties that every four years hire tons of lawyers to try and remove third party candidates from the ballot in select states. It would mean not being completely outspent by the corporate-funded, billionaire-funded, Wall Street-funded major parties. It would, to put is simply, give the Green Party equal status with the Democratic and Republican parties on the presidential stage (although Green Party candidates would still need to poll at least 15% nationally leading up to the debates in order to participate in televised debates. More on that later.).

Well, perhaps you think Ms. Stein winning 5% of the vote is a stretch. Cynics will undoubtedly bring up the 2000 candidacy of Ralph Nader, who "spoiled" the election, or so say Democrats, by taking votes away from Al Gore and letting George W. Bush win. In fact, exit polls demonstrated that most Nader voters were people who would have otherwise stayed home and not voted at all in the 2000 election, so one of the "wins" back in 2000 was that Nader and the Green Party actually inspired millions of Americans to participate in our country's democratic process rather than sit on the sidelines. But Democrats would rather scapegoat Nader and the Greens than fess up to the fact that Al Gore simply did not win enough votes; he was not a good candidate and he himself lost the election...or maybe Bush helped him lose it. Then again, let's be fair and acknowledge that if the Florida recount had continued, and if the U.S. Supreme Court had not intervened in Mr. Bush's favor, evidence suggests Gore would have won the electoral delegates from the state of Florida and won the Presidency. That Gore conceded rather than continuing his political/legal fight against Bush is just one more reason why he lost.

Anyway, point being: Nader won only 2.8% of the national popular vote in 2000. And if that was such a big deal, how could Jill Stein even think to win 5% in 2012?

But what else could she and the Green Party possibly "win" without actually winning? They could, for example, attempt to win at least one state's electoral college delegates, but this is something a third party has not achieved since 1968 when George Wallace sweeped the Deep South with his pro-segregation American Independent ticket, winning five states. If this did happen, however, if Stein won Vermont for example, but no other state, it would mean taking away three electoral delegates from Obama and Romney. Such a "win" could actually pose more of a threat to the major parties than anything Nader did. For even though Nader won 2.8% of the national popular vote, he did not win one single electoral college delegate. In this way, his "win" in the popular vote actually did not translate into any discernible loss for either the Democrats or the Republicans. It was only at the state level—in only two states in fact: Florida and New Hampshire—where Nader won enough votes to overcome the difference between Bush's win and Gore's loss. This means that in forty-eight states Nader could have received no votes at all and the results in the electoral college would have been exactly the same. Only in New Hampshire and in Florida, and only if most Nader voters had voted for Gore, would Mr. Gore have squeaked out a win. And yet putting all this weight on Nader is unfair since other candidates from a variety of other political parties also won many votes in those two states that potentially could have helped or hurt Gore.

What we should realize is that only an actual win—that is, the winning of electoral college delegates, or the winning of the Presidency itself—should be identified as the cause of someone else's loss. But all other possible kind of "wins," like the fact that Nader helped build the Green Party and encouraged millions of Americans to participate in the democratic process who otherwise would not have, cannot be seen as causing any other candidate's loss. Only their own loser-ness is responsible.

Anyway, back to "winning." There is another "win" that all third party candidates desire, and that is the "win" to participate in the privately-organized televised debates leading up to the election. For whatever reason, back in the 1980s Americans ceded any sort of public control over the presidential debates when the Commission on Presidential Debates was established. It was and is a private not-for-profit organization supported by the two major political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. They developed rules governing which candidates can participate in the televised debates. The rules they devised were and are meant to exclude third party candidates. For example, to be included in the debates, a candidate must be on the ballot in enough states to theoretically win the electoral college. In 2012, only four candidates will qualify under this standard: Obama, Romney, Jill Stein (Green Party) and Gary Johnson (Libertarian Party). But there is another rule/qualification, and that is that the candidate must have polled over 15% in at least five national polls in the lead-up to the debate season (September and October). Of course, the only way a candidate can poll well is if Americans across the country are familiar with him or her as an option. But leave it to polling companies like Gallup to set their own rules regarding which candidates are even suggested to potential voters during a poll. Gallup, for example, has only included candidates Jill Stein and Gary Johnson in one or two polls over the entire course of 2012; meanwhile, they daily publish a head-to-head poll between Obama and Romney. By asking potential voters who they would rather vote for, and then giving them only two options, Gallup and other polling agencies are being deceitful regarding the actual choices voters will have in the voting booth come November. Although Gary Johnson has been polling as high as 10-13% in certain states, and above 5% in the few national polls that have included him, don't expect that the Libertarian candidate will get a podium at this year's presidential debates.

As you can see, third parties in the United States are forced to fight an uphill battle against the two major parties that basically control the entire system. Neither Stein or Johnson may "win" a place in the debates this autumn, but big "wins" in the popular vote come November, or even winning delegates in the electoral college, can help the Green Party, Libertarian Party, and other third parties gain greater national recognition and status. "Winning" 5% of the popular vote can grant them access to federal campaign funding (plus perhaps full ballot access) in 2016. And "winning" millions of Americans' participation in the democratic process who would otherwise stay at home...well, that's priceless.

So, if these are all worthy "wins," then what specifically is the "win-win" vote?

The "win-win" vote encompasses both of the two definitions of "winning" I have presented. It is a strategy to help your favorite major candidate win the Presidency while simultaneously helping your favorite third party candidate "win" greater recognition and status.

It goes something like this. Say you live in New York State where Obama is predicted to win by 25 percentage points in November (this is based on faulty polling that only takes into account the two major candidates, but, we'll have to deal with that for now). Obama's likely win of 60% of the vote to, I don't know, Romney's 35% (just rounding off here) means that even if 1 out of every 3 likely Obama voters were to stay home in November, Obama would still win New York State. Just barely, but he would win. But, for some crazy reason, most New Yorkers will still go to the polls and vote for Obama in November even though he doesn't need their extra votes. For if he wins New York by 1% or by 30%, he will receive the same amount of delegates in the electoral college. In other words, in the U.S. system, it doesn't matter at all what the margin of victory is in a state like New York. (Like most but not all states, New York awards all its delegates to the winner. It's a "winner-take-all" system.) So for every New Yorker who votes for Obama above and beyond the total number of people who vote for Romney in the state, they can basically consider that their votes will be wasted—totally meaningless. They can just as well stay home this November, and the election will turn out exactly the same.

This is equally true for Obama supporters in California, or Romney supporters in Texas. If you live in a "solidly blue" state or a "solidly red" state, and you support the leading party/candidate, there are really few reasons to vote. Perhaps voting might mean the chance to take a nice walk down the street to your polling place—perhaps something of a social occasion. You can pat yourself on the back and feel good about voting, about voting for "your guy," but, if there is a 1 in 3 chance that your vote won't help your candidate at all because it is an excess vote, then think about that and tell me again if you feel good about voting! Something is wrong with this system where so many votes go to waste!

So what can you do to make your vote matter? Vote "win-win." This means, if you live in a "solidly blue" state like New York, and you would rather see Obama win than lose, you should realize that you have ample wiggle-room to vote for a third party candidate and still see "your guy" win. You can vote for Jill Stein and perhaps your vote will be the one that tips her national popular vote above 5% so that the Greens "win" federal funding and greater ballot access in 2016. Now that's an influential vote to cast! But unfortunately, a vote for Obama would not have nearly the same meaning in terms of the popular vote, because the Democrats already have full ballot access and federal funding, and your vote would also have absolutely no influence on the electoral college because Obama's already got those delegates in the bag. But by voting "win-win," in November you get to see Obama win a second-term (which you might think is better than seeing Romney win), and yet you also have helped strengthen our democracy by increasing the status and recognition of a third party with an alternative voice and party platform. Now that's a "win-win" outcome!

Now think about this. In 2008, nearly five million New Yorkers voted for Obama, while only 2.75 million New Yorkers voted for John McCain. Obama won the state with over two million excess votes. But he did not need those two million extra votes. All those liberal New Yorkers could have stayed home—or better yet, voted for various third parties they agree with—and Obama still would have won every single delegate from New York State in the electoral college. Think about it! Two million New Yorkers wasted their votes in 2008—and I sadly was one of them! My vote was not necessary for Obama to win New York, and it was not necessary for him to win the electoral college. Sure it added to his national popular vote, but that result had no benefits for the president or for the party except for whatever "bragging rights" he could claim about his "landslide" victory.

Elsewhere, in California, for example, Obama won by an excess of over three million votes in 2008! Wasted!

On the other side of the aisle, let's imagine there are many Ron Paul supporters in his home state of Texas. In our basic winning vs. losing equation, they would probably rather that Romney wins the Presidency than Obama. But ideally, they would prefer a libertarian to win. Well, why not vote "win-win" by voting for Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson? In Texas in 2008, John McCain beat Obama by an excess of over one million votes! One million votes...wasted! They did not help McCain win any extra delegates in the electoral college. Not at all. Those were votes that could have supported the Libertarian Party, but instead they simply had no meaning and failed to influence the election in any positive way.

From a third party perspective, the appeal of the "win-win" vote comes with the pragmatism of recognizing that in 2012 the actual winner of the Presidency will probably be either Obama or Romney.  If the result of that match-up matters to you, and you live in a "swing state" like Florida or Ohio or Virginia, then you probably will have a harder time figuring out a way to vote "win-win" while still sleeping at night. Anyone who thinks Romney is better than Obama would not be happy to give Jill Stein the vote that tipped a key state in Obama's favor. Anyone who thinks Obama is better than Romney would not be happy giving Gary Johnson the vote that tipped a key state in Romney's favor. Of course, the premise that a vote for a third party candidate is somehow a vote taken away from a major candidate is false. But it could still keep you up late at night trying to figure out all the "what ifs."

So if you live in a "swing state," and there aren't that many of them—certainly no more than ten states are seriously in play—then I encourage you to think deeply about the "win-win" vote and if it is right for you. But if you live in any of the other forty "blue" and "red" states, what is there to even think about? Would you rather cast a vote with no meaning, or cast a "win-win" vote? Would you rather your vote was like all others, or would you prefer it to be unique?  New Yorkers, Californians, Texans, most Southerners, most New Englanders, all live in states where the election is basically already decided. If that doesn't sound like "democracy" to you, then there is at least one way to change that: vote "win-win." Give a third party candidate your vote this November AND see the best of the two major party candidates soar to victory....or lose....but that much is actually out of your hands. Unless you are going to travel to a "swing state" and knock on doors or make phone calls to potential voters, the election is really out of your hands. But what is in your hands is the power to reshape our political system, to support alternative voices and alternative platforms, and to help give the American people more options this election day and next election day as our "win-win" votes help move this country towards a multi-party democracy rather than the Dem/GOP oligopoly it currently is.

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