Exactly how important is it to Americans that their elected officials receive a mathematical majority of votes in any given election in order to carry the vaunted mantle of having a “mandate from the people?” And if we see a continuing trend of voter dissatisfaction with the normal two menu choices and 3rd party candidates carry more and more influence, will this help or hurt our great American experiment in democracy?
New Jersey’s gubernatorial race is now showing embattled incumbent Jon Corzine grabbing a slim lead in a race where he never should have stood a chance. He can thank Chris Daggett in his acceptance speech should he prevail. In next week’s special congressional election in New York’s 23rd district there is no doubt that the NY Conservative Party candidate, Doug Hoffman, has turned the race on its ear. A couple of potentially dubious polls actually show Hoffman in the lead with only a few days to go. And his presence has split the positions of the GOP’s likely slate of 2012 presidential candidates. But whether he wins or loses, his impact will leave us with a few questions to ponder.
If Hoffman, Owens, Christie or Corzine take their respective seats with a popular vote total in the low forties, (or possibly even the high thirties) does this somehow leave a taint on their term… a symbolic weakness or lessening of their legitimacy as an elected official? Or does it actually represent the variety of opinions in our diverse population and speak well of them for beating a greater number of challengers?
As a cranky independent, I clearly choose to go with the latter. By default I believe that Americans like having choices and a wide range of voices and positions to choose from, so viable third party candidates add much needed spice to an otherwise drab, two party stew. But as with most things, we need to be careful what we wish for and remain aware of the law of unintended consequences.
In some states you can’t win with a plurality. Governor’s races, among others, are sometimes sent to a run-off election between the top two vote getters to ensure that one of them has a majority. While this is certainly legal, and appropriate if the state’s residents wish it to remain that way, it’s kind of a sad outcome. The final winner gets to strut away with the aforementioned mandate, while all of those third party voters either stayed home for the runoff or sullenly went and cast their second ballot for the lesser of two evils.
Let’s extend this thought out for a moment to our future presidential elections. It’s been a long time since a third party candidate captured a single state’s electoral votes, but if what we’re seeing today continues, it might happen. And in both of George W. Bush’s elections, if some upstart had taken a single good-sized state, we could have been in a situation where nobody manged to get 270 votes in the electoral college. Unlike some of the state and district elections referenced above there is no path to victory with 269. Nor is there any provision for a runoff election. The next leader of the free world would – according to Article II of the Constitution – be decided by the members of the House of Representatives, a group of people generally locked into party loyalty and subject to shady deals cut in cloak rooms. This is the same august body which is currently so wildly popular that they have a national approval rating only a few points higher than the President of Iran.
So the decision, originally offered to more than 300 million citizens, would fall to the choice of 435 people. Do you really want two of those levers being pulled by Michele Bachmann and Dennis Kucinich? Should we ever face another case of presidential impeachment, it’s bad enough that one percent of the votes will be cast by Al Franken.
So there is the quandary. An independent minded electorate with a variety of choices is good for America. But we have a system which can really go pear shaped if we get too carried away with our multitude of candidates. Either way, should things continue on this track, be sure to hang on to your hats. It’s going to be a wild ride.