Tim for Trouble

I am a believer in the two-party system of government. This belief was formed during a long-ago political science class which proposed the premise that in order to be legitimate, elected officials had to receive over 50% of the vote. This bedrock principle could be violated when you have a viable third-party candidate and the system allows someone to win when they have a plurality but not a majority. Electing candidates without majority support is fraught with danger for democracy.

Our current political system strongly discourages third-party candidates, and that is a good thing. You don't want "the state" to decide who can run; on the other hand, if you allow third-party candidates an easy path to the ballot box, you can have an unstable government with multiple parties and leaders who do not have majority support.

Political parties continue to change and evolve because otherwise members would leave, so the parties need to be somewhat responsive. Contrast that to (say) a "green party" where there is no compromise and no accomodation. At least in our system, either party can choose to align themselves or distance themselves from anything.

That brings us to Treasurer Tim Cahill. Cahill was elected as a Democrat but recently decided to run for governor as an independent. He resigned from the Democratic party.

"Tim for Treasurer" won his post with a catchy slogan and has been a fairly visible elected official. But he needs to be marginalized so that our next governor, whether it's Deval Patrick or Charlie Baker, enjoys clear majority support.

I don't know if Tim will take more votes from Republicans or Democrats, but this is a wild card where we should not be playing with jokers.

Candidates like Ross Perot have enlivened the debate and contributed to the understanding of issues, but they should not be helping to elect politicians that do not have majority support. From what I remember, Bill Clinton won with just 43% of the vote because of Perot. Now, we didn't appear to suffer harm from this, but democracy is too important to be playing roulette every time there is a marginally viable third-party candidate.

In a strong two-party system, Treasurer Tim Cahill would need to decide which party more closely reflects his views and perhaps change parties if he so chooses. If he really feels that the Democrats have left him behind, then complain and get them to move toward his position. If that doesn't work, switch parties.

But if Cahill continues to run as an independent, we need a mechanism to make sure that the eventual winner receives over 50% of voters' support. Assuming that Cahill will not be able to achieve that as an independent, we should let him run and let him contribute to the debate, but not allow him to violate the principle that the winning candidate must receive over 50% of the votes.

During the Scott Brown - Martha Coakley race, we had a third-party candidate by the name of Joe Kennedy. He only received 1% of the vote so he didn't turn into a factor in the final analysis, and his contribution to the debate was actually beneficial. But if his vote total had given Brown (or Coakley) a plurality instead of a majority, it would have made a difference in the legitimacy of the election and the end result might have been different.

I am obviously very pleased that Scott Brown won. But if Brown had gotten 48.5% of the vote, and Coakley 48%, and Kennedy 3.5%, then I think people would be much more upset about Brown's victory, and rightfully so.

Much as I disagree with Obama's policies, he was elected fair and square. He has three more years before he faces re-election and until that time, there is no question that he is our President. But if there had been a Ross Perot-like spoiler, and Obama had gotten only 43% of the vote, I'm sure the country's mood would be much different these days.

So how do we allow the contributions of third-party candidates without skewing the results or maiming the winner?

Some have suggested that we should allow "second-place" votes on the ballot. Under this sytem, if there are three or more candidates and no one gets a majority, the lowest-ranking candidate would be dropped off and the votes would be retabulated for those ballots who had voted for the lowest-ranking candidate, but using their second place selections instead. (The ballots for the top candidates would not change.)

So to use the recent U.S. Senate race as an example, whoever voted for Joe Kennedy would have their ballots counted as either Brown or Coakley, depending on their second-place pick.

This might work but also suffers a flaw. It would encourage quixotic, "protest" candidates who might sneak in because voters are upset and want change, and they don't care who it is. But perhaps in an age when many think the parties are too close together and incumbents are re-elected over 95% of the time, we need something to shake things up and make sure the parties are listening and don't get too comfortable. And if people start voting for third-party candidates, it would be strong encouragement for the major parties to adapt. And still, no third-party candidate would get elected unless they received over 50% of the vote.

The alternative is a run-off election which is expensive and time-consuming, but is better than having what I believe would be an illegitimate officeholder who can get elected without majority support.

So until the system is changed, I hope people listen to Tim Cahill but decide to vote for either Patrick or Baker, depending on their inclination.