Small Country Spells Out Solution to U.S. Presidential Election Woes

The Constitution could use a modern makeover, says Assistant Opinion Editor Patrick Healy. “We’re obsessed with separating intra- and inter-governmental power … but much of the world recognizes parties, not governmental bodies, as the entities in most need of separation.” Healy highlights the political systems of New Zealand as a marker for what the US could be.

The country known for Peter Jackson films and beautiful scenery also provides a model for a revamped U.S. Presidency.

Patrick Healy

New Zealand became a media darling during the pandemic for their streak of more than one hundred days without community transmission of COVID. Compared to most Americans, I’ve been a long-time fan of New Zealand. 

My interest began all the way back in 2019 when I ran across a video of the island nation’s leader, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who has recently garnered international attention for New Zealand’s stunning COVID successes. 

Being a relatively young progressive woman, Ardern is somewhat of a unicorn among world leaders, and I wanted to know about any country so different from mine. This led me to discover that New Zealand’s system of government isn’t particularly close to the United States’, and it coincidentally made a heck of a lot more sense. 

New Zealand has a parliamentary system of government, where the branches are not separate like ours are. The prime minister and other ministers are members of Parliament that wield similar powers to America’s president and cabinet. 

Because ministers are selected by Parliament, the same party or coalition of parties that controls the legislative branch also controls the executive branch. Importantly for this article, different parts of the executive branch are often held by different parties, whereas the U.S. executive branch is always led by just one party. 

Instead of electing a separate Congress and president, Kiwis, as New Zealanders call themselves, vote for parties to represent them in Parliament. Usually, no single party wins a majority of seats and a multi-party coalition must be created to “form a government.” New Zealand also has a proportional representation system which gives each party a share of Parliament roughly equal to their share of the vote. 

In New Zealand’s 2017 election, there were 120 seats in Parliament and 61 were needed for a majority. The center-left Labour party won 46 seats and allied with the left-wing Green (8 seats) and centrist NZ First (9 seats) parties to total 63 seats and thus secure a majority. 

In exchange for their support, the Greens and NZ First were given positions in the cabinet. For example, the leader of NZ First was made deputy prime minister and Greens headed the Conservation and Environment departments. 

In the United States, we take it for granted that one party has complete control over executive power. It’s assumed that Congress can’t control who the president is (excepting impeachment) and the President can appoint his cabinet (though secretaries do require near-automatic Senate approval). 

We’re obsessed with separating intra- and inter-governmental power, whether it’s between Congress and the President, the Senate and House of Representatives, or states and the federal government, but much of the world recognizes parties, not governmental bodies, as the entities in most need of separation. 

Each of these separations are a wee bit complicated to be rebuked in a few paragraphs, but it’s nevertheless instructive to think about potential Constitutional workarounds to change the separation of powers from between government entities, as Americans are accustomed to, to between political parties. In order to achieve this, third parties must have a role to play at each level of the U.S. government (state and federal) and especially in each branch of the federal government. This must be done through electoral reform. 

Last week, I proposed a state-led proposal to aid third parties in Congress, but this week I wanted to explore how third parties could have an actual impact on the presidency. I will use “vote sharing” to refer to this admittedly outlandish idea, even though I found that vote sharing means something different in Israeli elections and corporate boardrooms. 

One way to incentivize the two parties to take third parties seriously would be to allow the smaller parties to share presidential votes with the bigger ones. For all the pundits’ misguided angst over third party voters in 2016, third parties really did have the ability to influence the election. Third parties amount to protest votes in the U.S, but that would be completely changed if we had something like New Zealand’s parliamentary system that features bargaining between parties to dispense executive power. 

Imagine if Democrat Hillary Clinton had been able to entice the Green Party’s Jill Stein to trade votes in swing states for a position as secretary of energy, forcing Republican Donald Trump to counter by offering Libertarian Gary Johnson the secretaryship of the Department of Defense. Instead, Donald Trump won a minority of votes and is able to control 100% of the executive power of the U.S. 

Barring a miracle, third parties would never stand a chance of winning the Presidency outright, but they would be allowed some executive power proportionate to their support. Secretaries of departments, federal judges, specific executive orders, or certain military policies could all be used as leverage. Allowing vote sharing would encourage much greater third party participation and create a threat of replacement by third party coalitions that would give the big parties much needed competition. 

I imagine third party participation would spike to account for this newfound influence. According to 2018 Pew polling, 37% of American adults do not belong to either big party, and the 44% mark for millennials suggests that figure will only rise as my generation becomes a greater part of the electorate. 

About one in twenty American voters supported a third party for President in 2016 despite knowing that it was a protest vote. I don’t think it’s bold to estimate that third parties could account for at least 15% of Presidential votes under a vote sharing system. They would wield considerable power, though the Electoral College would ensure that only swing-state third parties would be courted by the large parties. 

Though I realize how difficult the U.S. makes even a little electoral reform, I think vote sharing would be a popular change that borrows New Zealand’s coalition-style government while leaving our precious separation of powers intact. An amendment might even be possible because the small states that threaten other amendments wouldn’t be sacrificing their power like they would with Senate or Electoral College reform. 

So take this with a grain of salt – if the U.S. can’t even change the bizarre Electoral College, I doubt even more aggressive reform would fly. Despite federal action being unlikely, state governments do have considerable leverage over federal elections in their state. Whether that power would cover vote sharing is above my nonexistent paygrade, but the Supreme Court might prove an ally. 

An amendment would be clearly superior to individual state action, and states acting alone would dilute the potential impact of vote sharing, but states that want to allow vote sharing on their own should be heartened by the Supreme Court’s recent Chiafalo v. Washington ruling that allows states to punish “faithless electors” that vote for a Presidential candidate other than the one voters in their constituency voted for. Though the Electoral College remains, the unanimous ruling potentially signaled the court’s general support for states’ ability to control their own electoral votes. 

Although others have undoubtedly pushed for something akin to vote sharing, I couldn’t find model bills that states could turn into law. Rules would need to be created to determine at what point after the votes are counted a party can share their votes, the deadline for sharing them, and how promises of department secretaryships or other executive powers would be fulfilled. 

For the latter, because formal deals might be legally troublesome, it would perhaps rely on an informal system where parties would be disincentivized from reneging on their promises lest they anger a potential future coalition partner. These are the types of considerations states would need to work out to allow national candidates and parties to trade votes in that state. 

Allowing parties to share their votes seems to be putting a lot of trust in them. However, if you don’t trust them to share their votes with another party as they see fit, you probably shouldn’t trust them with your vote to run the entire executive branch. Some voters might be worried about monetary bribes, but they should consider that these bribes would be illegal and impeachable, and the results of negotiations would be public.

Vote sharing attempts to represent more people in the executive branch, give voters more options at the ballot box, and force the main parties to compete for demographics that they currently take for granted. I’m just a random college kid – I don’t know for sure how any of this would actually work. I do know that any electoral reform must either be state-led or be so watered down as to pass the nearly impassable amendment process. 

Reform efforts are as old as the country, but never before have information about other countries and methods of contacting representatives been so accessible to the typical citizen. Wikipedia, online petitions, and social media campaigns combine to make people more aware of political issues and increase their ability to act on them. Ironically, it would take large-scale engagement to create a multi-party system that would, I believe, increase political participation. Though there’s many smaller issues that complicate my comparison of vote sharing to a parliamentary system, I’ll conclude by saying that while the U.S. Constitution precludes a true parliamentary republic à la New Zealand, ideas like vote sharing might allow us to mimic the coalition system that distributes executive power.

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