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Duverger’s Speed Bump

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Independent votes aren’t determined by choosing the lesser of evils. It’s long-term strategy.

The two major American political parties have been drifting towards opposite poles of the political spectrum for four decades. Those whose opinions and political affiliations fall somewhere between the two extremes lose a sense of representation in a democracy. As the aisle between Democrats and Republicans grows wider, independent voters are politically abandoned.  

Various centrist themed projects without a party affiliation have also attempted to attract centrist support.  These all have the right message and are seeking the right base, but none have gained any traction.”

According to a recent Gallup Poll, this gap now includes 44% of Americans.  Witnessing this many Americans who are unhappy with the polarized choices should result in a new centrist party that rushes to fill the growing gap.  This new party would have a larger base than either major party and would dominate politics. So far, however, the abhorred vacuum politics is still very healthy and growing. Where is America’s Emmanuelle Macron?

The failure of a new party to unite the middle is not for lack of trying. Several nationwide centrist parties have acquired more of a base, in addition to many single state parties. Some of these parties go as far back as 1996. Various centrist themed projects without a party affiliation have also attempted to attract centrist support.  These all have the right message and are seeking the right base, but none have gained any traction. Why are independent voters not flocking to a centrist party that will represent their interests significantly more than the major parties?

The blame can be laid almost entirely on Duverger’s Law. In theory, voters have 100% of the power and can cast votes for whoever they wish. Despite this, there is a psychological barrier embodied in the Law that effectively limits most independent voters to choosing between the two major party candidates — even when there is a third party candidate on the ballot who represents their views considerably better.  

Duverger’s Law, as applied to our plurality based elections, says that a two party system will be favored in single member districts. This describes almost all of the elections in the United States. With two caveats, Duverger’s Law supporters believe that third party and independent candidates are doomed to fail and that voters who cast ballots for a third party candidate are wasting their vote.  The two caveats are for localized concentrations of third party and independent supporters, as well as the rare case of a major party failure.

It is not a matter of ballot access or a legal requirement that effectively hijacks the independent vote in many cases. It is the rational choice of independents to give up their power as voters. It is their own rational choice that causes them to vote for a major party candidate, effectively hiding their real likes and dislikes and preventing anyone from knowing their true preferences.  How can Duverger’s Law prohibit independents from voting in a way that seems to make so much sense politically?

In a democracy, we assume that voters will cast their ballot in a sincere effort to identify the candidate they feel best represents them.  Duverger’s Law, however, says that voters will sometimes choose a tactical strategy. They will not vote for the candidate they feel best represents them if said candidate lacks credible chance to win.  The voter finds more utility in affecting the overall race with their vote rather than voting for the best candidate from their perspective, and thus having no impact on who is ultimately elected. In the short term, such as a single election day, this tactical choice over sincere decision makes sense to enough people that it has become a strong feature of our elections.

The improbable situation of independent voters supporting the major parties not only becomes possible, but seemingly unbreakable. There are three effects in the long term that the short term tactical voter may not be considering, however. Adding these three long term considerations to their voting decisions should add significant utility to the decision to vote sincerely for the candidate that best represents their views.

First, the sincere views of the independent voters are masked when they vote tactically.  If the major parties knew that 20% of the voters preferred a particular third party platform, for example, they would be eager to seek these votes by modifying their own positions to neutralize the third party’s differences. This has been a healthy role for third parties to play in the past. They accomplish forcing the major parties to adapt to meet the strong desires of voters who are unhappy with what they see in the major party. Instead, with most of those independent voters continuing to vote for the major parties, the major parties have no reason to change. They seem blind and deaf to the needs of the people in the political middle.

Second, the independent voter is left without a party that represents their interests.  With the independent voters choosing major party candidates, independent voters will be unlikely to get a candidate that represents them and they will not be able to influence the major parties to adopt some of their positions.  This is causing and will continue to cause an increasing frustration among independents over not being represented in government and not having real choices in elections.

Third, the major parties are free to drift further to the extremes and ignore the middle without fear of penalty. They will continue to attract a more extreme base as long as the independent voter continues to select the “lesser of two evils”. Of course, the degree of evil they must choose between will continue to grow as the parties drift further from the middle.

If the independent voter considered these effects and wanted to maximize the value of their vote in a long term strategy, these three negatives could all be reversed by the voter exercising their right to vote for whoever best represented their views. By prioritizing tactical voting over sincere ballots, Duverger’s Law and the related Gibbard-Satterthwaite theorem are satisfied.  Their vote effectively outlines the minimum requirements for major parties to attract the independent voter, rather than telling the party’s candidate that their platform appeals to this group. They would have to improve the quality of their product, court independent voters and stop sliding to the extremes or risk being replaced as a major party.

If the major parties changed to satisfy the independent voter, these voters would be better represented.  If a lack of change persists, a new party more responsive to the independent voter would form. The independent voter wins either way. If enough voters change adopt the long term strategy, third parties and independent candidates will start winning elections as Duverger’s Law changes to Duverger’s speed bump. Duverger’s Law implies that voters want their vote to count. As independents, let’s do more than use our vote to choose the lesser of two evils. It is too precious to be traded in for so little return. Let your vote count by changing the system.

Dale Ritchie is the National Chair of the Modern Whig Party

Dale Ritchie is the National Chair of the Modern Whig Party.

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