Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Egypt and California

Democracy is trickier than people think. The boring parts, like voting systems, turn out to be really important.

Good news: Egypt finally has an elected president. Bad news: He's what people had in mind when they invented the phrase "the lesser of two evils." He is a pretty hard-line Islamist; he ran against the last prime minister of the now-ousted President Mubarak. Neither candidate represents what a lot of those in Tahrir Square thought they were fighting for. How did this happen?

Egypt had a presidential primary, in which these two candidates were the top vote-getters, with 25% and 24% of the vote, respectively. The next three candidates, all more moderate, got 49% of the vote collectively. What we have here, in short, is the familiar problem of vote splitting, where all the moderate candidates are saying, "Get out of the race?? No, you get out the race."

To be more analytic about it, there's a result in political science known as the "median voter theorem." It says that, given certain assumptions, the candidate who gets elected is the one whose position on the issues is closest to the position of the center of the electorate. The intuition is not difficult: if you have one candidate in the center and one on, say, the right of center, the one at the center will get the 50% to the left, plus those who are on the right but close to the center, and will win.

Here's the thing about the median voter theorem: it only works in a two-candidate race. For more than two candidates, candidates with extreme positions can sometimes win, as in Egypt.

So what happened in Egypt was not a problem with democracy. It was a problem with a particular electoral system.

Today, the primary system used in Egypt seems like the obvious and intuitive one. But the ancient Greeks used negative voting, where the person with the most votes lost (specifically, was exiled). The medieval Venetians used approval voting, in which electors vote for all the candidates who are acceptable, and the winner is whoever gets the most votes. Then there is instant-runoff voting, known in Britain as alternative voting, in which voters rank the alternatives in order of preference. Any one of these systems would probably have changed the outcome of the election, and thus Egyptian history.

The Egyptian system, of one big nonpartisan primary, is known in the U.S. as the "jungle primary," which, under the rubric "top-two primary",was recently adopted in California. It was intended as a way of favoring more centrist candidates than would be produced by a party-primary system. California just had its first top-two primary, for Diane Feinstein's Senate seat. It was a bit of a circus: there were more than twenty candidates, and Feinstein got 49.5% of the vote. (Even if she'd gotten over 50%, there still would be a runoff.)

How did they do at avoiding extremism? There was some speculation that Orly Taitz, the Queen of the Birthers, might come in second, but in the end she placed fifth. The second-place finisher was Elizabeth Emken, a Republican who is a former vice-president of Autism Speaks.

So the jury is still out on how well the top-two primary works. But the example of Egypt is unsettling.

No comments:

Post a Comment