Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Importance of Elections Policy

There's an interesting thread on Samizdata about ballot access issues that links to a site called Ballot Access News. Looks like a general repository for headlines related to issues of third parties and independent candidates getting their names on the ballot in political races.

Since I vote straight-ticket Libertarian as a general rule (though I may consider voting Republican for Prez in 2008 if Newt Gingrich decides to run - provided he can start talking more about privatizing Social Security and balancing the budget and less about God and terrorism - which is a huge "if"), this is an issue of some concern to me. I say "some" here in the literal sense: to be perfectly honest I think a lot of Libertarians don't really want their party to win and in fact sabotage its chances. I would like to help fix that problem, but first I think I should have a stable job, my PhD, etc. In the meantime I do what I can to support it - which mostly involves paying my dues, voting in elections to contribute to their numbers, and occasionally doing volunteer programming and internet research (which I did for the Badnarik Campaign in Fall 2004). But until they start making a real effort, the point is kind of moot, I admit.

Nevertheless, I think the public as a whole has a general interest in not letting the two major parties gain a legal monopoly over our electoral system (to complement the de facto monopoly they already have). McCain-Feingold was a massive setback for individual rights in the US, and given the Supreme Court's capitulation, there may be more to come (the Court has changed since then, though, and the new edition might not play so fast and loose with the Constitution on this issue, so there's reason for hope as well - we'll just have to wait and see).

Noah and I have talked a bit in the past about the advantages of the two-party system. The general idea is that our two-party system, where the major parties aren't that different philosophically (assuming you think they have philosophies at all, which is another good point) and where neither ever really holds a clear advantage, is inherently conservative, and that this is a good thing from a law-and-order point of view (becuse even if you don't agree with the law, you at least know what it is and - perhaps more importantly - that it will be 99% the same tomorrow too). This is in sharp contrast to, say, the UK, which more or less elects a kind of temporary dictatorship every so often, and it's not clear when this junta will come up for review, and where (at least in the past - not so much now) the two sides of the aisle in Commons might be radically different from one another in important ways. Or (and this was the country brought up by the professor that got Noah thinking about this) - different from Canada, which has the same kind of "temporary dictatorship," except for the part about it being temporary.

My take on this, though, is that it isn't really so much the fact of having two parties that counts. What makes the US system more change-resistant in the short term (which I tend to agree is a Very Good Thing) is the separation of powers. The powers of various branches of government are clearly enumerated and balanced. Congress never turns over completely (this is a very important point, I think), elections for the Senate being staggered so that only about a third of the chamber is ever up for election. The system works because it is walled off into functions modules (like a well-written program! Ok, ok, no more of that today, I promise...).

What I'm getting at is this: we don't need to worry too much about preserving the traditional Democrat-Republican divide. It isn't the Two Highly Similar Parties aspect that keeps us safe from tyranny (though that part no doubt helps). It's the distributed structure of the system itself. With that in mind, I think it's important to preserve popular checks on the system. The only real way to create a central office where everything gets decided in America (like the Langevin Block in Canada) is to shut out other parties legally - giving the power brokers in the two existing parties a freer hand to set policy. That is why things like McCain-Feingold should be avoided like the plague, and why it is important to allow the Libertarians and other third parties (hey, as a Party Member in Good Standing I'm biased!) fair ballot access.

These issues are important - and this Ballot Access Webzine seems like a good way to stay informed about them.

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