Let’s capitalize on polarization and party politics

Assistant Opinion Editor Patrick Healy argues that “instead of cramming years of campaigning and hundreds of millions of votes into a few weeks of voting, we should decide the election by the number of members each party has.”

What if these things were open year-round? - Unsplash

Patrick Healy, Asst Opinion Editor

Not all votes have been counted, but early voting is projected to account for almost two-thirds of all voting this year. Coupled with record turnout overall, the boom in early voting has demonstrated Americans’ appetite to support their party. According to New York Times exit polling, 94% of Republicans voted for Donald Trump and 94% of Democrats voted for Joe Biden. Of those who voted in 2016, 93% voted for the same party in 2020. 

While I tried to avoid a data dump, it’s important to quantify polarization and underscore how much victory depends on turnout. Winning is less about convincing opponents to come to your side and more about getting your supporters to the polls. Modern elections are a test of turnout. Not dissimilar to the political machines of the 20th century, parties focus more on getting their base to vote than expanding it. 

Going back to Times exit polling, just 5% of voters decided their vote less than a week before they voted. Most voters could have, and probably would have, voted on Nov. 9, 2016, one day after the 2016 election and approximately 1,450 before the next. 

I very much doubt it mattered who the Democrats nominated, despite pundits and many voters believing that progressive Senator Bernie Sanders would scare away moderates and hand the election to Trump. That’s a reasonable worry, but Sanders polled nearly as well as Biden against Trump, and Republicans labeled Biden a socialist anyway. 

Trump’s approval rating among Republicans has barely budged since his inauguration, with Gallup actually seeing an increase from 90% to 95% before the election. When push came to shove (more apt, when poll came to vote), most voters ended up rallying around the party. I think this is natural. 

Without relying too much on amatuer psychology, I think people are generally fiercely protective of their group. People understand sports teams — my team good, your team bad. Sports teams get a lot of their meaning from their opposition to other teams. The Democrats gain much of their support from their opposition to the Republicans. Trump gets a lot of support from people who think starry-eyed liberals are turning us into a socialist nation. Hatred and fear are pretty strong emotions, and I think they drove more people to the ballot box than did any positive emotions for their candidate. 

It seems that most peoples’ political views crystallize around the time they graduate from high school, and their only movement along the political spectrum comes when they age and their views become more conservative. Because each generation, as I believe, is further left than the last, as a person ages their political views slide to the right on the political spectrum. People’s views don’t become more conservative, they just seem more conservative relative to the younger electorate. 

Because of Trump, some Republicans changed their registration to Democrat, not because they changed views, but because they perceived the Republicans to have changed their’s. This is a product of the unstable two-party system that forces parties to ping-pong between their moderate and radical wings, and it wouldn’t occur if third parties could be elected. So even if Democrats switch to Republicans and vice versa, it’s likely because of a system lacking nuance, not because they suddenly went from a liberal to a conservative. 

We should accept this static voting behavior. Pretending that candidates make a big impact on which party we vote for costs us flexibility. It prevents us from having a proportionate and multi-party system, and it flips focus from the general election to primary elections, where the ideology of each party is determined. Members of the same party should believe the same thing, and a multi-party system allows for this. 

There are rewards to be reaped if we do accept that voters are basically set in stone. For one, we could implement a multi-party system with the share of seats in the legislature determined by the share of votes each party gets — but that’s been discussed before. What I’m interested in is the ability to greatly expand suffrage. 

We take it for granted that we all head to the polls on the same day (or in the same two weeks with early voting), but this is avoidable. Instead of cramming years of campaigning and hundreds of millions of votes into a few weeks of voting, we should decide the election by the number of members each party has accumulated before the election.

Voters could register at any time before the election, greatly lessening lines in the last couple of weeks and making voting convenient as possible. If you’re going to vote for the Democrats regardless, you might as well be able to do it at a time convenient to you and without waiting hours outside in November weather. On-the-fence voters could switch party registration right before the deadline, so the 5% that decide a week before the election could still be convinced by either side, and the 95% that decide before then could get their vote in at their leisure. 

Voters can change their registration at any time so they wouldn’t be stuck with their vote. Maybe people would abuse this and actually increase the lines, but I really doubt many would care enough to flip-flop after every shift of the political map. Parties wouldn’t be able to “bank” votes any more than they already can based on polling, since voters could change if they didn’t like a decision by the party.
Right now, people (in New York at least) can register for a party online, but this could be changed to in-person to make it more secure. It’d cost a lot of money to staff boards of elections year-round, but it could potentially cause voter turnout and representation in government to skyrocket, and that borders on priceless. 

Parties shouldn’t have to focus so heavily on coaxing turnout from their base. They should focus more on governing. They also shouldn’t have to fight off primary challengers in their own party, since the parties should all believe in the same things, but that’s another problem with the two-party system. 

Anyway, turnout would be much less of a differentiator because the only people left to turn out would be the ones who couldn’t be bothered to vote once every four years or who conscientiously object to voting — two groups that wouldn’t vote regardless. The electorate should include as much of the general population as possible, and the views of the former should mirror those of the latter as much as possible. 

There should be as few barriers to voting as can be. These include time and effort. I think some, particularly of older generations, might object that voting doesn’t take that long and people shouldn’t be represented if they can’t put in that much effort anyway. I think we should try to represent as many people as possible since everybody, including non-voters, has to submit to the government whether they voted for it or not. Government should bend over backwards to be more inclusive. 

Plus, voting is inherently irrational. Any one vote is so spectacularly unlikely to change the outcome that both altruistic and self-interested individuals would be better off doing charity work or picking up a few shifts, respectively. There’s a mathematical function and theory called the Downs paradox to describe this phenomenon, but the point is that voting isn’t an efficient use of time, especially for people on shoe-string budgets. 

A definite worry is the possibility of dead people voting by registering before they die. Some possible solutions include merely accepting the existence of recently deceased voters or tying voter registration to the Social Security number, which already functions as a federal identification number. Relatives of the recently deceased are already required to report their loved one’s death, so the report of a death could discount their registration as well as discontinue their other benefits. 

Maybe linking the Social Security number to voting would prove a barrier to poorer Americans, a demographic that I think would otherwise benefit from party registration elections, but the Social Security Administration (SSA) is a pre-existing way to remedy what is probably my proposal’s biggest flaw. It would also be a symbolic connection between our individual monetary (SSA) and civil (voting) contributions to society. 

Increasing the amount of representation might give the government more legitimacy, and it might actually lead to more participation. It would be even better if we could implement a proportional multi-party system that would render primaries — another hoop that voters have to jump through to be represented — nonexistent or a contest to simply select the best messenger of the party platform. 

This glorified early voting would be severely handicapped by the two-party system, but it could still boost turnout with an attendant jump in government trust and legitimacy. 

I envision party registration voting might be most useful at the federal level, as local politics depend more on door-knocking and personal connections that can transcend party lines. The state level might be ripe for this system because representatives tend to have constituencies that are almost as large as their federal counterparts, and voters want to see their state legislatures and governorships controlled by their party.

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