Written by Richard Fobes, author of the ebook titled Ending The Hidden Unfairness In U.S. Elections
“Amazing!” This word describes magic tricks, circus acts, and the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
We are amazed that the world’s most important popularity contest has reached the point where the only two possible winners, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, are so wildly unpopular. How did this happen?
It’s like a magic trick. And just as with any magic trick, there’s a secret. Political insiders know some parts of the secret, and they try to keep those parts hidden. But there is a bigger part of the secret that even political insiders don’t know about. I’m going to reveal the full secret to you here.
Let’s start by understanding why we have the first, and last, black president. How did this happen? Remember that in the 2008 Democratic primary election Barack Obama was competing against Hillary Clinton. The secret in this primary election was that some of the money that supported Obama’s campaign came from people who wanted the next president to be a Republican. They assumed that if the Democratic candidate was African-American, then any white male Republican, with any choice of running mate, would easily win the general election. Oops. They miscalculated.
At this point you’re thinking “Wait a minute! Republicans don’t give campaign contributions to Democratic candidates!” Well, most of us average folks do not cross party lines when we make political donations. But the people who donate the largest amounts of money to politicians give money to both Republican candidates and Democratic candidates.
This sounds incredible, so where’s the proof? For congressional elections, that information is available at Open Secrets, and it reveals that major industries — such as agribusiness, finance, healthcare, transportation, communication, and energy — give money to both Republican and Democratic congressional candidates. The flow of money to presidential candidates also has a similar pattern.
To give this insight some clarity, consider this example. There are two brothers in Florida who make lots of money from sugar milling and sugar refining, and one of the brothers is registered as a Republican and he gives money to Republican candidates, and the other brother is registered as a Democrat and he gives money to Democratic candidates. Along with other business owners in the sugar industry who also give lots of money to politicians in both parties, what do they get? Those of us living in the United States pay lots more for sugar compared to the cost elsewhere in the world. If you want proof, look at commodity prices for sugar and notice there is a separate category called “US sugar.” What do we get? The polite way to say this is that extra money is taken out of our wallets when we buy anything that contains sugar. In addition, some of the tax dollars we pay to the IRS help pay for the canals in Florida that make the growing of sugar cane possible.
Let’s be honest about this. This kind of arrangement is called corruption. Yet it’s the kind of arrangement that has become commonplace in Washington DC. The pattern of paying members of Congress to get virtual monopolies and taxpayer subsidies is so dominant that one of our presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton, seems to be clueless about our concern over these corrupt arrangements. That leaves us frustrated with Clinton as a candidate for president.
How frustrated are we? Some people are so frustrated that they have become angry. How angry? They are ready to trust a presidential candidate who promises to “make America great again” even though he has no record of bringing economic prosperity to anyone except himself and a few business buddies who use corrupt tactics, and even though Trump admits he’s hiding his tax records because they would seriously hurt his chances of getting elected. And it’s ironic that many middle-class and lower-income voters are so angry that they are choosing to trust Trump even though he has openly stated his belief that people who are not rich are “losers.”
It’s time to pull back the curtain that covers up the full map of politics. You already know about the political “left” and the political “right.” Well, there’s also a political “up” and a political “down.”
Political and financial insiders want to keep the up-and-down part of the political map a secret. Partly they do this by owning TV stations and newspapers and keeping the news focused on left-versus-right issues that distract voters away from stories about corruption in Congress, and corruption in state legislatures. The distracting news items cover topics that the biggest campaign contributors don’t strongly care about, such as gun control, abortion, immigration, gay marriage, neighborhood crimes, and cute puppy videos. Except for the puppy videos, this is the familiar left-versus-right map of politics, where “conservatives” are on the right, and “liberals” are on the left.
Above both the Republican and Democratic parties is the “political up” region. Who is there? Most of us, the voters. What do we, the majority of voters want? We want less corruption. We want fairness, which is what a free market is supposed to provide. And we want financial prosperity for both hard-working employees and responsibly run businesses. Our enemy is corrupt businesses that use corrupt politics to write corrupt laws that basically steal money from us in our roles as consumers, taxpayers, employees, and stockholders.
So who are the people in the “political down” region, below both political parties? They are the people who give the biggest campaign contributions. But don’t confuse this category with the category of rich people. Yes, all the people in the political down region are rich, but not all rich people give huge campaign contributions. The people who give the biggest campaign contributions are the people who own businesses that benefit from corrupt laws. These corrupt laws provide tax breaks, tax subsidies, virtual monopolies, and other financial advantages for these favored businesses.
All politicians and both political parties are halfway between the political up and the political down. Politicians and parties are pulled upward because they want our votes, so they promise they will solve the problems we want solved. But, under current conditions, they are pulled downward, away from keeping those promises, because they also need money from the biggest campaign contributors. Now you understand why both the Republican and Democratic parties rarely provide candidates we actually like.
Here’s another way to see what’s going on. Essentially the biggest campaign contributors pay Congress to get super-sized slices of economic pie. This legal bribery has been going on for so many years that countless businesses now get super-sized slices of economic pie. That leaves the rest of us hungry, underemployed, frustrated, and even angry. This corruption leaves us without money to buy what non-corrupt businesses are selling. In other words, corruption in Washington DC drains wealth from the U.S. economy, and that corruption rewards just a few short-sighted business owners and their political puppets.
A moment ago I qualified the idea that politicians need money from the biggest campaign contributors, saying “under current conditions.” What are those conditions?
We have arrived at the core of the secret. Here it is. Nearly all the corruption in politics is made possible by the use of single-mark ballots, which say on the ballot Only mark one choice.
Huh? This is confusing.
Most of us don’t read the instructions on the ballots we mark, but all of us have been taught that we would “spoil” our ballot and get it tossed out if we mark more than one candidate in the same race.
For most of us, this limitation makes sense. After all, it wouldn’t make sense to mark more than one choice because each of us gets only one vote. And we can only have one winner. So what’s the problem with marking just one choice?
We have arrived at nearly everyone’s biggest nightmare. No, it’s not a Trump presidency, and no it’s not another Clinton presidency. It’s math! That’s right, we are very afraid of math.
In fact, right now you’re very afraid I’m going to start talking about numbers. You can relax. I’m not going to talk about numbers.
Fortunately there are some math geeks who have done our math homework for us. And fortunately they have given us just four words to remember: Ban single-mark ballots.
What the heck does this mean? It means we need some help from a math geek. So let’s ask a math geek named Ricky. He was one of those students who actually liked math in school. So we ask Ricky “What’s the secret to what’s going on in voting?”
He says “The biggest source of corruption happens in primary elections when there are more than two choices on the ballot.”
Can you be more specific, like maybe give us an example?
Ricky says “Sure, take a look at the 2004 presidential election. During the Democratic primary, the “socialist” enemy of the biggest campaign contributors was John Edwards. The most business-owner-friendly Democratic candidate was John Kerry. Which of those two candidates do you think got money from the people in the “down” part of the political map?”
We think the answer is John Kerry because he’s more business-owner-friendly. Ricky says “That’s right, and that money helped Kerry get more votes. However, back then, before John Edwards’ infidelity was discovered, Edwards was still more popular than Kerry. For that reason some of the biggest campaign contributors also gave money to Howard Dean.”
What the heck? We now know about cross-party funding, and that explains why “conservatives” would give money to Kerry as the more conservative Democratic candidate, but why would they also give money to Howard Dean?
Ricky tells us “Those campaign contributors were taking advantage of something called vote splitting. Dean was similar to Edwards because both wanted to “reform politics,” which is the polite way to say reduce corruption. The money given to Howard Dean’s campaign paid for more pro-Dean ads, which increased the number of votes for Dean. But very importantly, lots of those votes were coming from voters who otherwise would have marked their ballot for Edwards.”
This still isn’t clear Ricky. To which Ricky says “Look at Canada.”
He refers us to a case of voting that happened several decades ago when two Canadian towns were merging to become a single city, and they chose their new city name by voting. The most popular name was “Lakehead.” The other less-popular name was “Thunder Bay.” But then some folks wanted another choice on the ballot. They added to the ballot the name “The Lakehead.” That’s right, it’s the popular name with the word “the” in front of it. That change did what’s called splitting the votes. So now the merged city is called Thunder Bay. What the heck?! As Ricky says, “If they allowed voters to mark a second choice, and then counted right, the name Lakehead would have won.”
And that’s why we are very afraid of math. What seems to make sense to us doesn’t make sense to people who love mathematics.
For a clearer perspective, Ricky suggests that we time travel into the future and peek at the ballots that our great-grandchildren will be using. He says “We would see that those ballots have five or six or seven major candidates competing in each important race. And we would see that those ballots allow a voter to indicate not just a first choice, but also a second choice, and a third choice, and so on. That’s a 1-2-3 ballot. And they will be counted using something called pairwise counting.”
What do we call the ballots we use now? Ricky says “It’s a single-mark ballot, because we can only mark a single candidate.”
We ask Ricky why we haven’t noticed any problems with our single-mark ballots, and he says “Marking only one choice is really only designed to work for two candidates. Yet it also usually works if there are just one or two popular candidates and the remaining candidates are unpopular. And since we only have two main political parties, ….”
Ah, now it’s becoming clear. The biggest unfairness happens in primary elections when there are three or more strong candidates. Did we get this right Ricky? He nods in agreement, and silently thinks “Isn’t that what I just said a bit ago?”
And now we know what our great-grandchildren will think of us. They will look back at us and say “Why the heck did you use such primitive ballots?” And our answer will be “Because we are very afraid of math.”
So let’s see if we’ve got the Howard Dean contributions figured out. Some people at the bottom of the political map gave money to Howard Dean to split votes away from John Edwards in a way that’s similar to the way the name “The Lakehead” split votes away from “Lakehead,” right? Ricky replies “Yep, that part is right, that’s called vote splitting.”
At this point we wonder, was Howard Dean a spoiler candidate? Ricky replies “Actually there is no such thing as a spoiler candidate when using a fair voting method. What spoils our elections is our use of single-mark ballots.”
Ricky adds “And there’s one more part of the secret. The opposite of vote splitting is vote concentration. In voting for the city name, notice there was only one other non-splitting choice. That was the name Thunder Bay. If instead there was a fourth choice, say “The Thunder Bay,” then the outcome would be like a circus where nobody knows what to expect.”
So is vote concentration part of the strategy used to control elections? Ricky says “Yes indeed! Before a primary election begins it’s common for the political insiders within that political party to have private meetings where they choose which single candidate they will focus their money on. Later, when other possible candidates ask the insiders for financial support, those politicians are told that money will not be available if they enter the race. This back-room decision-making strategy concentrates votes on just one money-backed candidate in each primary election.”
Hmm, that means we could bypass their corrupt strategy with a third political party, right? Ricky says “Nope. If a third party were to become popular, the “political down” folks would use their money to infiltrate that party too.”
Hmm, very discouraging.
And Ricky adds “There’s one more important point about Howard Dean’s participation in the 2004 Democratic primary. Lots of people think that what sank Dean’s campaign was conservative TV news shows repeatedly showing him doing the “Dean scream.” But what really sank Dean was that the amount of money flowing into his campaign significantly dropped. He was becoming too popular, so the people in the political down region cut off their supply of money. Oh, and as an interesting point, remember the “swift boat” ads that sunk Kerry in the general election? Some of the money for those ads came from some of the same people who paid for Kerry ads during the primary.”
Ouch! Politics is cruel. And it’s like a circus.
And that brings us to the Republican primary that Donald Trump won. More than a dozen candidates were in that election, so we now know that lots of vote splitting was going on. Is that right Ricky? He says “Well, we don’t know what was really going on. Why not? Because Republican voters were not asked for a first choice and a second choice and more choices. All we know with certainty is that more Republicans voted against Trump than voted for him.”
Huh? Ricky says “Apparently the people running the Republican primary election were stupid about the math, and didn’t bother hiring any math geeks. So the Republican insiders didn’t realize that single-mark ballots produce wilder and wilder results when there are more and more candidates.”
Ah, four years earlier Mitt Romney won that crowded Republican primary election. In hindsight it was obvious that Romney wasn’t actually popular. After all, he lost the general election. Ricky adds “And the fact that Romney lost to an African-American is what fuels some of the strong support for Trump.”
So let’s see if we’ve got this right. When there are more and more candidates, it becomes harder for political insiders to control the results, right? Ricky nods in agreement.
By the time insiders realized Trump was getting lots of free news coverage, and getting lots of attention by being entertaining, insiders were too late in their efforts to weaken his popularity so that a more puppet-like candidate could win. Right? “Yup.” And in hindsight it helped that Trump had no political experience and that he hid his tax records because that made it difficult to dispute his claim that he was capable of making America great. To which Ricky says “That’s a matter of opinion, not necessarily a fact. But we do know from Trump’s lawsuits, bankruptcies, and divorces that he breaks some of the promises he makes.”
Does this mean Donald Trump was not the most popular? Ricky says “We don’t know who was most popular. And that’s because apparently the Republican insiders are clueless that using a single-mark ballot with more than a dozen candidates is not capable of identifying the most popular candidate.”
Is there anything we’re overlooking? Ricky says “Yes, if the Republican primary had included one reform-minded candidate with a successful track record, sort of like a conservative version of Bernie Sanders, then that candidate probably would have won. In fact, part of why Trump won is that lots of Republican voters thought he was a reform-minded candidate who cared about average folks. The important point is that in the future, after better ballots and counting methods have been adopted, there will be a dramatic increase in the number of actual reform-minded candidates entering primary elections, and they will easily win against special-interest puppet candidates.”
Hmm, that makes sense. Out of curiosity, where does Donald Trump fit on the political map?
Ricky says “He doesn’t fit on the map. He’s a solo act. The political map shows how groups of people are interconnected, but in Trump’s case, except for his children, everyone around him changes over time. And when he says in his speeches that he wants to silence some news reporters, well, obviously he doesn’t understand the First Amendment freedoms that set some limits on corruption.”
And what about Bernie Sanders?
Ricky says “Bernie Sanders is the tip of the iceberg. His early political success is partly because his hometown, Burlington Vermont, experimented with an alternate kind of ballot and an alternate vote-counting method. But his socialist views scared people who feared he would impose higher taxes to pay for the changes he wanted.”
OK, I think we’ve finally got this figured out. When we start using better ballots and better counting methods then money-based tactics will not be effective. Is that right? To which Ricky says “You’ve got the secret figured out!”
Now we realize that the reform-minded leaders we want in Congress and the White House are waiting for our help. They won’t enter presidential elections, or even congressional elections, until we adopt better ballots in primary elections. At that point we can happily give them our votes, and they will win without our money and without public campaign funding. So, what reform-minded leaders need most is for us, the voters, to demand that elections stop using single-mark ballots in primary elections.
Hmm, there’s a big problem. Adopting 1-2-3 ballots would be messy, and it would take a long time, right? Ricky says “Yes, but there is a workaround. Remember that the biggest unfairness is in primary elections. In those primary elections we can just remove the words that tell the voter to only mark one choice.”
Huh? It’s as simple as removing those words from the ballot? Ricky says “Well, this simple improvement would only work in primary elections where the winner is automatically from the correct political party. And when I say primary elections, don’t get confused by something called an “open primary.” Whoever thought that idea would work with single-mark ballots deserves a failing grade in math.”
What’s that simple voting method called? “Approval voting” says Ricky, “And the counting method that goes with it is simple. Just count the number of marks for each candidate, and whoever gets the most marks wins.”
Now we know how to fix, er, improve, the next election cycle.
And now we understand the secret behind wild presidential elections, and why we’ve got so much corruption in Congress. Political insiders, the people in the down part of the political map, take advantage of our use of single-mark ballots, they concentrate their money on a single business-owner-friendly candidate in each primary election, and then, if needed, they spend a bit of extra money to split votes away from any reform-minded candidate who dares to enter either primary election. Did we get this right Ricky? “You’ve got it! High five!”
What if we don’t make the change to better ballots and better counting methods? Ricky says “The corruption will get worse, the way it has in Rio.”
Rio de Janero, where the 2016 summer Olympics were held, is so corrupt and bankrupt that they aren’t paying their police officers their full salary, and the city government allows raw sewage to be dumped into their bay, and the city’s slums are huge, and the widespread lack of sanitation spreads disease on an epidemic scale. That’s what really bad corruption looks like. Let’s not go there.
To this Ricky adds “And I remember what we learned in history class. Corruption and inept leaders and epidemic diseases brought down the Roman empire and the Chinese Han dynasty.” Good point. And thank goodness someone was paying attention during history classes.
So we ask Ricky if there’s there anything we’ve missed. He says “Yes, one final point. In the upcoming election the ballot is not asking us to mark a first choice, because that implies we also can mark a second choice. Instead it’s as if you’re getting a marble and you must put that single marble into one of the buckets that have the candidates’ names on them. But only the Clinton and Trump buckets will get their marbles counted to determine the winner. The third-party buckets might as well be bottomless. Even worse, the winner will win with less than half the votes. This means that the outcome rests on the shoulders of just a few voters in swing states who could switch from voting for a third-party candidate to voting for Clinton or Trump, and those few votes will change the course of history.”
So there you have the perspective from math geeks who have done our homework for us. Now it’s time for us to take the test. In this case the test is the upcoming election.
Here is the test. If you live in a state where the election outcome is not certain, then please, please, please do not vote for a third-party candidate unless you really, really, really have no preference about whether Trump or Clinton wins.
If you aren’t sure whether you live in a swing state, trust me, you live in a swing state.
For those of you in the other states, where there is an absolute certainty about whether Trump or Clinton will be getting your state’s electoral votes, it’s OK to cast your vote for a third-party candidate, although it’s worth remembering that your single-mark ballot is not really asking you for your first choice.
Some of you might feel lots of peer pressure to not vote for Clinton and not vote for Trump. If this is you, please recognize that you will be marking a ballot that is corrupt, and this situation is like when a criminal points a gun at you. In both of these cases you automatically have permission to lie. Your mark is a secret, so you can tell your friends and relatives and coworkers whatever you want about how you are going to vote, and how you voted. But in a swing state you can secretly vote for Clinton, or maybe Trump, now that you understand what question the ballot is really asking.
Yes, most of us will be tempted to mark our ballot for a third-party candidate as if that were a way to say “None of the above, start over, try again.” And some people might think that voting for Trump is a way to express frustration or anger at the corruption in Washington DC and on Wall Street. In either case, remember the words of some British voters who voted in favor of “Brexit” because it seemed like a way to express their political frustrations. After that election some of them expressed regret and said “I didn’t know my vote would really make a difference.”
Yes, every vote counts. That’s a basic principle of math.
And not voting? That too is math stupidity.