Climate change and political jiu jitsu

In 2010, Maine elected strident climate change denier Paul LePage governor with 37.6% of the vote. LePage narrowly defeated Eliot Cutler, a wealthy lawyer and moderate progressive who secured 35.9% of the vote running as an independent. The Democratic nominee garnered a mere 18.8%.

As governor, LePage has acquired a reputation as a particularly extremist brand of Republican. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) summarizes his record as follows.
Augusta is a dangerous place for anyone who gets in the way of Gov. LePage’s ALEC-written agenda. 
The first-term governor packed his administration with lobbyists and used his office to promote their environmental-deregulation agenda, and allegedly went so far as to fire a state employee who testified in favor of policies the administration opposed. 
Gov. LePage also attempted to gut his state’s open records act, and is under investigation by the federal government for trying to bully employees of the state Department of Labor into deciding more cases in favor of business.
In 2014, with his approval ratings underwater, LePage ran for re-election. And once again Eliot Cutler threw his hat in the ring as an independent. But moderate and progressive voters, weary from four years of crazy LePage, urged Cutler supporters to throw their weight instead behind Democratic nominee Mike Michaud. This was a particularly ironic strategy, given that Cutler had previously trounced the Democratic challenger. Nevertheless, that strategic thinking apparently had a great effect, as Cutler was reduced to a mere 8.43% of the vote. Unfortunately, that wasn't enough. LePage defeated the Democrat by nearly 5%. At the time of this writing (July 2015), LePage is on track to break Maine's record for overridden vetoes, and may face impeachment.

But something very interesting happened in this second election. Volunteers in partnership with the non-profit Center for Election Science conducted exit polling in three Maine cities, asking not only who the voters had actually supported, but who they would have supported had there been no limit on the number of votes they could cast. This system is known as Approval Voting, and the results were profound.

The following charts reveal the complete reversal that took place with Approval Voting. The purple bar represents the Republican, the pink represents the Democrat, and the orange represents the independent.

The impact of tactical voting is staggering, particularly with regard to independent Eliot Cutler (orange). However, it is not that surprising when we look at pairwise head-to-head match-ups based on the preference rankings we also elicited from voters.

Cutler simply dominates both of his major party rivals. This convincingly shows that his scant support in the official election was a result of tactical voting. Simply put, voters didn't vote for Cutler because they didn't think he could win. This is the quintessential self-fulfilling prophecy. But with Approval Voting, voters have absolutely zero incentive to avoid supporting their favorite candidate. If they don't think their favorite is viable, they can support any number of additional candidates. In this case, a left-leaning Cutler supporter could vote for Cutler and the Democrat, or vice versa.

While these two elections may seem like mere anecdotes, I believe they exemplify a broader problem that is pervasive within our political system. For instance, consider this headline from today.

What this headline tells us is that a good fraction of voters are considering who they'll vote for based in large part on their perception of electability. Just think about that for a moment. Voters are going to decide who will get to be essentially the most powerful person in the world, based not simply on who they actually support, but who they think others will support in the general election. If that's not an insane way to choose a leader, I don't know what is.

Moreover, think about the factors that determine our perceptions around electability. One of the biggest is fundraising success. Hence our vote-for-one election system massively magnifies the influence of money. Thus a switch to Approval Voting may also be the greatest antidote to the problem of "money in politics". Commonly discussed strategies of repealing Citizens United via Constitutional amendment seem comparatively far fetched.

Speaking of money in politics, Democratic stalwart and billionaire investor Tom Steyer recently spent $57 million to influence seven key races, including the 2014 Maine gubernatorial race. But for a fraction of that amount, he could have funded ballot initiatives to get Approval Voting adopted in a number of small US cities, where it could establish precedent and plausibly spread to bigger cities, and then on to higher levels of government. In relatively short order, it's conceivable that the US government could be radically transformed. Less two-party dominated, less polarized, less incumbent-favoring, and less controlled by wealth.

The challenge for voting reformers is that the topic is dry and mathematical, and emotionally removed from the kinds of charged issues of our day. Police brutality on a small scale can incite weeks of mass protests. But try to get anyone to march in the streets for unlimited votes on their ballot, and you just hear crickets. This kind of wonky esoteric policy change may require concentrated wealth from a particularly analytical mind. There are only a few individuals with the resources and the passion. When will they pick up a copy of Gaming the Vote and push for a fix to the core of our democracy?

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