Sunday, September 7, 2014

Elected Officials are not Cheeseburgers

I think there are multiple reasons to dislike this Oregon's ballot Measure 90, which would create a top two primary.  It essentially discards our current system by doing away with primaries as we know them, moving the real election to May, and relegating November to a mandatory runoff.  It tosses out a century of work at opening party primaries, replacing them with an amorphous endorsement process whose value is unclear.  If current party primaries are bad because of limited participation, how much worse will an endorsement process be which has no rules or customs?  If most people don't vote in the pre-election now how many will vote in the pre-pre-election?  And for what?  To tread water on overall voter participation?

But I want to focus on one particular aspect of arguments for Measure 90, the idea that it increases competition and that this is unambiguously good. A recent Oregonian editorial was dedicated to the concept, and it's a common element in arguments for the measure.  But is it right?  Is an uncompetitive election necessarily bad?

We have good reason to take the idea for granted.  For most consumer decisions it holds true, having more choices allows a more specific decision that better aligns with our preferences.  The more restaurants that serve cheeseburger, the more likely it is that one of them serves the exact combination of product and price that you want.  But are elected officials like cheeseburgers?  Not really.
  • The decision to buy a cheeseburger is individual, one person makes the choice and immediately gets what they asked for.  Elections are a community decision.  Votes are cast by individuals, but they are cast for one office and only one individual wins.  In the end everyone will be served the same thing.
  • The timing of the decision to buy a cheeseburger is entirely at individual discretion.  One can buy cheeseburgers as often as one wants, it can be centennial or hourly or anywhere in between.  Elections are on fixed schedules and the decision generally lasts for a fixed term.
  • Cheeseburgers have a price constraint.  That constraint overrides any other preference, one cannot buy what one cannot afford.  The price constraint doesn't apply to voting, there is no cost to choosing one candidate over another.
Put those elements together and think about what a cheeseburger decision would look like if it had the same properties as an election.  Communities would decide by majority rule what cheeseburger everyone would have to eat, over a term of years.  They would have to make this decision without a cost constraint, so any topping, ingredient, style, or quality level would be allowed.

That would be a miserable decision even for just a married couple.  It would be miserable because in effect the only reason one couldn't get their "dream burger", one that matched exactly to what they wanted, would be the constraint of getting their spouse's agreement.  And the spouse would have the exact same problem.  Now expand the voting pool to an entire community and you can see why elections are contentious, even violent, things.  Unlike the individual's decision to buy a cheeseburger, I think communities need some structure to effectively reach a decision.  That's where parties and primaries come in.  They facilitate coalitions and compromises, they provide organization to what would otherwise be a war of all against all.

As an example of how this plays out consider approval ratings.  Who would you guess has higher ratings, an incumbent running unchallenged or a newly minted freshman who won a narrow victory?  Which election did the public feel better about, George W Bush's ultra-narrow victory in 2000 or the dominant wins by Reagan in 1980 or Obama in 2008?  The closer an election, the more competitive it is, the more people necessarily are unhappy with the outcome.

When measure 90 supporters uncritically support competition they are using the wrong model.  Elections aren't consumption decisions, elected officials aren't cheeseburgers.  An election is much more like a hiring decision, the community is hiring someone to do a job.  Competition isn't totally irrelevant to making a good hire, but it's significance depends on the circumstances:  is it an open position or already filled?  If the latter is the person competent?  Are they so incompetent that it warrants firing them in favor of an unknown?

Looking at it that way it's easy to see why many elected offices aren't always competitive, it's because voters are reasonably good at filling them.  What's wrong with that?

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