Fiction: A Double Date

Carrey is alone in her bedroom. “I want something I’ve felt before but can’t feel now” she wrote this on a post-it note and stuck it to her computer monitor. It’s warm for February. So warm she had to open a window and take off her sweater. So warm that moths or beetles or whatever they are have flown in from outside. Her cat is staring at them flying around the bedroom light with a hungry look in his eyes. His head twitches as they move, his pupils get bigger and bigger.

Earlier that day Carrey was in her therapist’s office. The receptionist spoke too quietly. Carrey had to ask her to repeat every thing she said and it made her feel a little crazy. “I feel like I’m always off somewhere,” she says in her appointment. “What kind of person am I that basic interaction is so awkward for me,” she asks. “Am I just not paying enough attention?” When she talks for too long, she’s gets scared of the way her therapist clicks her pen. She’s got something bad on her mind, Carrey thinks. “Tell me what you’re struggling with,” the woman says. Carrey doesn’t know what to say.

Carrey looks at the sticky note again. She wrote it last night right after she turned off one of her favorite albums. She tried to remember what she was thinking. It felt like it came from somewhere in her mind she couldn’t reach right now.

Carrey was up late picking an outfit for her double date tomorrow. That was something she talked about with her therapist: she took forever to pick an outfit. She needed the significance of her appearance to be obvious. It needed to do most of the work expressing how she felt about what she was doing.

The date was with her boyfriend and his friend who happened to be dating a girl Carrey went to high school with. She just found out who the girl was today. She didn’t really remember her. She remembered the name, someone who had been in a few classes with Carrey, maybe they hung out in the same group a few times, went to a party together. She couldn’t pick her out of a crowd, but she probably signed her yearbook with something like “have a great time at college!”

Carrey wondered what her boyfriend was going to think of the girl. She was pretty, right? And she was probably normal too. She could probably remember someone’s name five minutes after being introduced to them. She probably didn’t write things down on post-it notes that she didn’t understand. She probably didn’t cry at commercials on Food Network.

The next night, Carrey and Ethan arrived early at the King street bar. Ethan decided to wear a down vest over his long sleeve shirt, as well as a teal baseball cap. Carrey wore a black skirt and a gray sweater. “We’re really early,” Ethan pointed out when they found a parking space. Carrey shrugged, “it’s hard to find a table once karaoke starts.” The other couple wasn’t there yet. Ethan and Carrey found table near the stage and ordered drinks.

` They finished their drinks, and a couple more rounds before the other couple showed up. A few people had sung already, but the night hadn’t really started. Carrey examined the other couple. The guy hugged Ethan and introduced the girl. Carrey smiled at them both. She was prettier than Carrey remembered. Maybe she didn’t wear makeup in high school or something. She was wearing a dress too. Carrey never wore dresses. She suddenly felt self conscious. She looked a lot like another boy. She imagined a stranger looking over at their table and seeing three dudes with one pretty girl. Ethan’s friend was giving her a weird look. She didn’t know him too well. Ethan was always over at his place playing video games, but she hadn’t met him that many times.

They ordered some more drinks. Some drunk girl went up on stage and sang “Love is a Battlefield.” She was doing well until the second verse when she forgot the words and started to look like she was going to cry.

The other couple went up next. The girl sort of dragged the guy up. They sang a duet that Carrey didn’t know. The guy got really into it, doing these cheesy hand gestures and putting on a Frank Sinatra voice. During the girl’s parts he made serious faces and added in harmonies. When they came back to the table, he had a huge smile on his face. “You should go guys,” he told Carrey and Ethan, “sing something dancey.”

Ethan shook his head. His friend shoved him a little bit “come on. It’s funny!” Ethan didn’t say anything, but he shook his head again and got busy checking his phone.

“I want to get another drink,” he mumbled, “want one Carrey?” He got up.

“Yeah,” she said. “Whatever looks good.” The other couple were laughing about something across the table. The date looks like it’s going well, Carrey thought.

The girl turned and looked at her, “you should sing something Carrey. You were in choir in school right?”

“For a couple weeks,” Carrey replied. She felt her face turn red.

She went up to the stage anyway. The guy running the show was telling some jokes about his life in the 1970’s, but he stopped when he saw Carrey walking over. “Looks like we’ve got another superstar, what track do you want dear?”

She hadn’t thought about this yet. She said the first one that came to her, ”You’re so Vain, please.” She couldn’t remember who sang it but he didn’t ask, thank God. The man got behind his computer and found the track. It started and Carrey waited for the lyrics to appear on the screen. Back at her table, she could see Ethan had come back with a fresh drink for her. He was saying something to his friend and laughing. The first line of the song came up and she started to sing. Ethan looked up and made eye contact with her for a second. She thought he looked confused.

Carrey listened to herself signing. Being up here on stage wasn’t like singing in the shower at home. It really wasn’t like singing at all. She felt like she was standing next to herself watching herself perform. The voice she heard was strange and alien. It was too deep for starters, and more than a little off key. Her throat was seizing up; she felt like she had to swallow but there was no time between lines to do it.

The audience clapped, she went back to the table and Ethan’s friend high-fiver her. Ethan smiled and told her she was great, and the girl agreed. She felt like she was going to throw up. She picked up the drink Ethan got her and took a big sip. Alright, she thought, I’m here. I’m back. 

 

 

Ethan drove her home of course. His car smelled like cigarettes and there were often bags of books or papers or trash stuffed in the back seat, but the passenger side seat was always clean enough for her to get comfortable. At first he forgot to turn his headlights on and Carrey was surprised at how fast everything was coming up to the car. When he realized, he swore and turned them on. Carrey could suddenly see a hundred yards down the road. The world seemed to slow down.

“What was up with you tonight?” Ethan asked.

“What do you mean?” Carrey replied. “I had fun.”

“Are you mad I didn’t sing with you? I didn’t feel like getting up on stage tonight. You sounded really good though. But you didn’t have to sing if you didn’t want to.”

“I liked it. It’s different seeing everyone from up there. But I just, I guess it was weird being on someone else’s first date. Do you ever feel weird around new couples?”

Ethan thought about it for a second. “Yeah, I guess so.”

 

 

Ethan dropped her off right at her building’s front door. She stumbled to the stairs and ran up them quicker than she needed to. She liked the feeling of her legs moving in a blur. The door was unlocked for some reason. She usually locks it. Oh well, she thought, everything looks like it’s in its place inside. The dishes are still there in the sink. Carrey laughed out loud; why wouldn’t they be in the sink? It’s not like a serial killer would do her dishes.

When they started dating, Ethan used to stay parked outside until he saw the light of her apartment come on. Tonight, he drove off as soon as he let her out on the curb. When Carrey was a kid, she saw a TV report about a girl who went missing right outside her house after being dropped off by the school bus. The girl was Carrey’s age then: maybe seven or eight. Her bicycle was found behind some bushes a few days later which was strange because she didn’t have time to ride it anywhere before she went missing. A police man on TV said he thought someone moved it to make it look like she went out on her own after she got home.

Carrey wasn’t supposed to be watching TV after dinner. Her mom had found her crying with the report on. She remembered asking what the girl did wrong, and whether she would disappear too if she was a bad girl. “Of course not honey.” her mom told her, “the angels are here to keep you safe.”

“Even when I’m alone?””

“You are never alone, Care. Even when you are walking by yourself, there’s an angel there looking out for you. They won’t let you get hurt.”

But sometimes she felt so alone. When her mom died, Carrey felt really alone for the first time. The loneliness went deeper than feeling like nobody liked her or understood her. It felt like there was nobody else on the planet. She felt alone as a human being. She never really got over it.

She put he kettle on. It took forever to heat up on this stove. Everything in her apartment was a little bit broken. The fridge hummed so loud on hot days that she couldn’t fall asleep, the windows whistled with cold air in winter forcing her to sleep in her clothes. Only half the burner worked. The water boiled eventually. Carrey stood next to the stove the entire time. She was paranoid that she would forget the kettle was on one day and wake up to the smell of smoke and find herself trapped. She imagined the firemen finding the melted metal of the kettle dripping down to the floor and tracing the fire from there to the curtains or the trashcan.

Was this the life her dad imagined her having when he worked weekends and nights to pay for her to take piano lessons? Carrey couldn’t even play Chopsticks. If tonight was any indication, she couldn’t even sing. The tea was ready. She poured herself a big mug and took it with her into the bedroom. She pulled off her bra and changed into shorts. The bed was the same as it had been in the morning: a mess of layers in all different states. She was a restless sleeper and would frequently push all but one sheet off the bed along with all the pillows. The blanket would become her pillow.

The silence in the house felt like a colony of tiny insects crawling over Carrey’s skin. The idea of music or a podcast was revolting. The idea of someone else’s voice in her head. I wonder what Connor and Jamie are doing right now, Carrey thought. She imagined where they lived. She imagined them taking an elevator up to their apartment and holding hands as they looked out over the city. She looked out her own window at the brick wall of a Chinese laundromat. She could see steam coming out of a vent which meant someone was in there working late.

“I want something I’ve felt before but can’t feel now.” The note on her computer was still there. Carrey tried to remember when she wrote it. She must have been drunk. She was drunk a lot these days. It wasn’t doing a lot for her though. She would write a lot when she was drunk, but most of it was crap. When she read over it, it seemed like someone else must have written it. Like that note. What did she mean? What state was she in when she wrote it? She couldn’t remember. What was the feeling?

Flicker, her black cat, came out from somewhere. He liked to stay under the bed for most of the day. When Carrey first brought him home, she opened his carrier and off he went. She couldn’t find him for a bit before she noticed the open window. Carrey panicked. She lived on the fourth floor. Even a cat would be seriously injured jumping out of there. But as she searched the apartment over and over she became more and more convinced that that is exactly what happened. The shelter was going to check in next week and she was going to have to tell them Flicker had run away, or worse. She slammed the window shut and reopened it, wondering if the cat was out on the fire escape. She didn’t want to lock him out. She thought again and shut it. Maybe he was inside after all. She was paralyzed with anxiety. She collapsed on the bed and cried. Everything came up at once. Her parents, her ex boyfriend, Flicker. She was face down in a pillow that was getting wetter and wetter. Then she felt the small furry weight on her back and knew that Flicker, at least, was okay. She lay there dry sobbing for another hour before she could find him a bowl of food and a dish of water.

She learned that he loved to hide. His favorite place was under the bed, but he would hide in the closet as well as the pantry and underneath the couch. Sometimes he would hide under the covers of the bed only to leap out and into a different room when she sat down to read.

Carrey invited him up to the bed and he accepted. He fit right in between her arm and her body. He curled up and began to purr, asking to be petted.

Travel: Lima

I’m laying in the bottom bunk in a dark dorm room at a hippie hostel in the Miraflores district of Lima, Peru. Some seafood I ate yesterday was a little off and I’ve been laid up in bed since then. I skipped breakfast this morning, and only made it out of bed to eat a light lunch. A piece of fruit or something. Everyone else in the room, maybe six or seven people, slept in until two in the afternoon and then left. It’s was either almost midnight now, or maybe it’s already early tomorrow morning, and they haven’t come back yet.

I’m listening to a podcast about unsolved murders. Luckily this series has a back catalogue, and I’ve been working my way through. I’m a little pissed at myself for being sick and stuck in bed listening to my iPod when I’m in a foreign country. This might be the only time I come here.

The door to the room opens and I can hear a couple people come in. They are whispering and muffling their laughter. I have the lights off because I want to sleep. I can’t tell if they know I’m there or not. They don’t turn the lights on so I figure they know someone’s here. They go across the room to the bunk in the far right corner. I’m in the far left. They go quiet like they are going to sleep.

I’ve been thinking about death in a new way in Peru. I went into this old Church for a couple dollars. There were a lot of people in the pews, pilgrims or locals or just tourists like me, I don’t know. They were mostly kneeling towards the altar and praying. This was a big place. One of the biggest churches I’ve been in. I don’t believe in God, but I enjoy going into churches. This one was special. Sometimes churches feel esoteric or aloof like they are meant for people who only think of higher things. Some, especially in America, are completely unadorned and all the action comes from the congregation itself. Not much point going in there during the off hours. This one felt different from ones I’ve been in before. There was a small room underneath the altar where every bishop of Lima since the 1700’s was entombed. They each had a stone plaque with a name and time of service. There were even some open graves waiting for the next guy and the guy after him. After you left that room and crossed a stone hallway decorated with indigenously styled Catholic icons, there was a two or three foot doorway into a catacomb. They had excavated most of the graves in there, and covered them with glass so you couldn’t steal souvenirs. Down a claustrophobic path and through an even smaller door was a fifty foot pit dug straight down into the earth. At the bottom I could see a single femur sitting on a pile of dirt. I got the impression that some time in the past this entire pit had been filled with human remains.

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I was struck by the closeness of worship and death. 

In the national gallery, I saw traditional death masks, conquistador icons of angels holding trumpets and muskets, Jesus Christ with the skin tone and facial features of an indigenous Peruvian, and a pre-Columbian urn depicting an orgy of the living and the dead. A boxy brunette woman throws her head back in anger or pleasure as she grasps at an aroused skeleton.

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Sex is, in a way, a means of escaping death. We are the shadows our dead ancestors still cast on this Earth. 

These scenes have been going through my head all day. I find it meaningful, therefore, that as I listen to the story of a young woman who was kidnapped and murdered through my earbuds, I come to realize the couple who tried so hard to be quiet coming into the room have been discreetly fucking the entire time they’ve been in here.

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I wondered whose bone this was, or if it even mattered. Maybe it was left by mistake. 

At some point they finish. It’s hard to tell when. Then the rest of them come in. These people in my room all seem to know each other, or else they just made friends really quickly. A couple are French, a couple some type of American. Some Australians too. Lima is different from the cities in Argentina I’ve spent the last month in. People come here for different reasons I guess. Surfing, partying. The people in this hostel are younger and whiter than the ones I stayed  with in Argentina. One of them is rolling on ecstasy. She takes a pill case out from her backpack on the bed next to mine and shows it to one of her friends. Her voice has this breathy quality to it that makes her sound far away.

“I’m fucking hungry,” one of the French girls says. She either turned on a lamp, or some of the overhead lights, because it’s light enough to see now. She and one of the guys leave to eat some leftovers in the hostel fridge. The group splits and reforms in different ways for the rest of the night. One of them gets mad when she finds a used condom in her shoe, they scream obscenities in French and English, eat more food, change clothes and finally leave. I don’t know when these people sleep. I’m not mad, I would have slept through all this if I wasn’t sick. As it is, it’s a new experience. I feel like I’m hidden inside one of the props on some stage somewhere.

The next day I force myself to get out of bed at noon. I wonder if anyone has even noticed that I’ve been laying in my bed for the last two days. If they noticed, I wonder what they think. I wish I could read their minds. Getting a glimpse into the life of another is the strangest feeling. What are the bars like that they all go out to at night? What do they order there? Pisco sours? Cusqueno? Bud Light or Heineken?

I missed breakfast but luckily there’s still coffee. That’s about all I feel like anyway. They use this thick sweet cream here instead of milk or half and half, so the coffee is close to a full meal.

I go out for a short walk to see the central square for the last time. My stomach is still killing me. But, it feels good to be outside and part of the world again. The last couple days felt like a fever dream.

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A white angel loads his musket

Whole blocks of this city are indoor markets selling the same souvenirs to tourists. Alpaca sweaters, coca infused liquor, pottery, toy llamas. On a quiet morning you can walk through one of these markets and someone will jump out of every stall to offer you something. Everyone wants you to look at what they’ve got, everyone calls you amigo and waves you over.

The most famous museum in Lima used to be the Gold Museum. It was full of all these ancient artifacts made out of Incan Gold. A few years ago, historians discovered they were nearly all forgeries. If there were ever such artifacts, they were long gone. Maybe they got melted down and sent back to Spain, or maybe they never existed at all. The museum is still there, in a corner of the city there’s no other reason to visit. Now it’s a museum about Incan forgeries.

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The Cliffs of Miraflores

Last, there’s a long promenade along the cliffs. You can run or bike or just walk past the parks and scenic overlooks of the Pacific ocean. If the sun is out it’s quite beautiful. Instead of seagulls or pigeons, flocks of green parrots sit in the trees and in the grass. They squawk at you and beg for scraps. What strikes me about the promenade is the enormous nets draped over the cliff faces to stop rocks from falling into the sea. Some day the nets won’t cut it anymore and pieces of Lima will start to break off. Rock by rock the city will disappear.

Fiction: The Breakdown

Toni’s car broke down about a quarter mile back. There was a sign that read “Gas Station Ten Miles” so she started walking. The sun was just starting to set. It was September still, so it wasn’t too cold yet. Toni was thankful for that.

A blue Chevrolet pickup drove by, the first vehicle she’d seen in while. Ahead, its brake lights lit up and the driver pulled over to the shoulder. “Hey there!” comes a man’s voice from the driver’s side. She sees his head leaning out the window. “You need a ride?” he asks. She’s still a way away and can’t make out his face. She sees he has a cap on, and a blue coat just like his truck.

Toni speeds up a little bit and comes up on the pickup. She can see the man now. He’s younger than she thought. The kind of guy you would see in line at the store and smile at if the line was moving slow. The bed of his truck is full of sandbags. “That your car a ways back?” the man asks. Toni said it was. “Dangerous to be out here alone at night,” he says. Toni agrees. He offers her a ride to the Mobil station. Toni gets in the passenger side. She has to push some magazines off the seat, but apart from that the cab is spotless. He has a coffee cup in the cupholder and the coffee is still fresh. The steam from it rises to the cab’s ceiling and then rolls along in all directions until it disappears.

“I’m Glenn”, the man says, holding out his hand.

“Toni.”

He starts the truck and pulls off the shoulder. She can see the bags under his eyes now. He looks barely thirty, yet his hair is visibly thinning underneath the baseball cap.

“What brings you out here?” he asks.

Toni tells him she was out at one of the farms back a bit. She saw an ad for a babysitter wanted on weekends for a family with five kids. The parents needed someone around while they went into the city to sell at the farmers’ market. It was a drive, but work’s hard to find for someone Toni’s age, she tells him. And she has a new baby sister coming as well, so money’s tight.

The man nods. “That’d be the Johnson farm?” he asks. “They got five kids.”

Toni tells him yes, it is the Johnson’s.

“I deliver feed over there on Mondays,” he continues. Toni nods.

“Nice folks.”

He falls silent for a minute.

“They tell you about the horse they had?”

“I saw some pigs running around. And a dog. They didn’t mention any horse.”

“Well, a couple years back they bought the Clappers’ spare draft horse,” he explained “I hauled the thing over there myself in a big trailer. Horse was taller an’ any I’d seen, and strong too. Good workhorse. Willful though. When I’d come round on Mondays, bringing the grain and hay and pellets for the animals, Mrs. Johnson would tell me all the trouble they’d been having with the big thing. He’d break tethers, or scare the pigs, and one time he got on the other side of this little creek they got out there on the property and wouldn’t come back over for anything. Like he realized he was scared of water.

When winter came, they would keep him in their barn. Only he would push open the bar holding the door closed and wander around outdoors. Would have died of cold many times over if Mister Johnson didn’t always notice and lead him back in. They started to keep a truck parked outside the barn door after that so he couldn’t open it. They kept the truck parked there and Mister Johnson would go in this small door in the back that was too small for the horse to fit through.” He paused and corrected himself, “Well, it wasn’t really a small door, but that horse was real big.

Well, one morning the family heard some strange noises coming from over at the barn. That horse had pulled down a rope from the loft and the rope had dragged a bale of hay down with it. Of course, he had spent the whole night chewing on that hay. This was some hay that I hauled over as part of a big load a few months ago. It was good hay, I check all my hay myself. Thing is, they left it up there and it must have got wet, because it was covered in mold and everything. That stupid horse ate near to the whole bale.”

Glenn looked over to Toni, his eyes searching her face for a reaction. She looked away. “Poor thing,” she said under her breath, loud enough she was sure Glenn heard.

“When Mister Johnson went over to investigate and he found that horse in a state of fright he had never seen before. It was like there was a ghost in that barn. The poor thing was swinging his head around nearly in a circle, his eyes bulging out of his head. As soon as Mister Johnson opened that little door the horse made a break for it, charging at that door full speed. He was too big of course, but it didn’t stop him. He had such a fear in him. He knocked Mr. Johnson right over and broke both of his front legs right there trying to force his way out. There was snow on the ground and there that poor animal was, thrashing around half in and half out of the barn, head in the snow, eyes still bulging out of his head, legs broken to pieces, blood starting to pool.

Poor Mister Johnson was in a state as well, I’ll tell you. Here was his only horse, sick to death on bad hay and injured as well. And he wasn’t in great shape himself either. He fell on his arm and twisted it pretty bad. Mrs. Johnson heard the commotion and was calling down from the house to see if everything was okay. When she headed down there and saw her husband nursing his arm and the draft horse flailing around in its own blood, she went into a panic. She was running back and forth between the house and the barn trying to help Mister Johnson put his arm right, asking him who she should call, asking to drive him to the hospital.”

Glenn chuckled and fell silent for a moment. “Picture that scene, won’t you. Imagine your father or your brother is screaming outside and you come out to see what that woman saw.”

“Was he alright?” Toni asked.

“They managed to pop his arm back in somehow, but he wasn’t able to use it very well for a few weeks after.

Lucky thing is, because it snowed, I was coming over the farm to plow and put down salt and sand on the driveway. I pulled up and saw the scene. Mrs. Johnson was in hysterics, Mister Johnson was crying in pain, and there was the horse bloody all over by now. I stood back a bit and looked in that animal’s eyes and I saw nothing but fear. I had never seen anything like it before. There was nothing there, no sadness, no want, nothing except fear. The thing would have been running on its own shattered legs if it hadn’t been wedged right in that door. It was trying even as it was. The creature would have run through a forest of barbed wire if it meant getting away from whatever it felt in that barn.

I went around back of the barn and found the shotgun in Mister Johnson’s truck and put the big creature out of its misery. Can’t fix broken legs on an old horse. Not if you want it to do work again anyway. We were all three quiet for a minute after that. Then I put the salt down and finished plowing a little bit, I moved Mister Johnson’s truck and opened the big barn door. I saw the hay lying strewn about, and the back end of the horse. I tied a chain to its back legs and put the other end on my trailer hitch, and we dragged him out the big door. The thing wasn’t even stuck, as far as I could tell. If he had tried to back up, he could of. He was only stuck as long as he was pushing forwards through that little door.”

Toni sat looking straight ahead as he talked, watching the lines on the road get eaten up by the pickup’s hood. There on the right was the Mobil station. Glenn slowed the truck and turned into the parking lot. There were no other cars there, but the light was on inside the station, and she thought she could see a man’s shape through a window.

“Well, thank you for the company miss”, Glenn says, “I hope you have a safe journey.” Toni turned to look at him one last time. Maybe he is older than she thought, after all, Toni thinks to herself. She sees a scar across his upper chest, in the opening of his plaid shirt. “And say hi to Mister Johnson for me if you see him again”

Without saying a word, she opens the door and steps out onto the concrete. The man reaches over and pulls her door closed. He turns away from her and starts the truck, slowly easing it back out onto the road.

Voting: A Better Alternative to First Past the Post?

This is part one in an ongoing series on voting in America. This article focuses on First past the Post voting; later articles will focus on gerrymandering, disenfranchisement, the electoral college, and voter participation. Stay tuned. 

In some countries, most notably the United States, Canada, the UK, elected representatives are chosen in a winner take all voting process called “First past the Post” (FPTP). When ballots are counted for a given race, the candidate at the end of the night with the most ballots in their box wins. This is a simple enough idea, but in recent years many constituencies have been pushing for a reformation. Most notably, the current Labour party of Canada ran on a platform of voting reform which swept them to victory in 2015. What are the problems with FPTP, and is there really a more fair way of holding elections?

Elections in the US are weird. Presidential elections are not won based on number of votes, but rather on winning individual states’ electoral votes. This system should not be confused with First past the Post; indeed, the Electoral College tends to favor candidates who receive fewer votes but who are broadly popular in less populous states. Elections are run by the individual states. While the winner of the presidential race might not be the candidate with the most overall votes country wide, he has to get the most votes in enough states to capture the majority of electoral votes.

To see FPTP in action, let’s examine the famous results of the presidential race in Florida in the 2000 election cycle including the top four candidates.

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Under the First past the Post system, George Bush, the winner of the most votes was declared winner of the State of Florida.

Critics of FPTP say that this result does not correctly represent the will of the people. One reason is vote splitting. In the example above, “conservative” candidates (Bush and Buchanan) represent 49.14% of the total votes, while “liberal” candidates (Gore and Nader) represent 50.48%. This implies that the state of Florida would prefer a liberal candidate overall, but because the liberal vote was split more than the conservative vote, a conservative won.

This leads to the second problem many people see with FPTP: it encourages tactical voting. It is likely that many voters would actually prefer Nader or Buchanan to Bush or Gore, but because those candidates were expected to receive a low vote share, many voters decided to vote for one of the two candidates who were likely to win.

There are certainly other critiques of First past the Post, but for now, I am only going to discuss these two issues. The question for today is, are vote splitting and tactical voting easily solvable problems like some anti-FPTP activists claim, or would any solution create a bigger problem?

Vote Splitting

Vote splitting comes in two forms. First, as in the Florida example, there are so called “spoiler candidates,” people who eek out just enough votes to deny a victory to an ideologically similar (enough) candidate. Second, there are cases where two or more viable parties compete for the same pool of voters allowing a third party, while less popular than the first two combined, to win because their vote is not split. An imperfect example can be seen in the 2006 Canadian federal elections where the conservative party, led by Stephen Harper, won control of parliament  by winning roughly 40% of seat races compared with 60% split between three center-left or left wing parties. Based on these results, one would expect Canada to have a left leaning government, but instead a conservative government was formed due to vote splitting.

To maintain clarity and continuity, I won’t be discussing election results on a country wide scale due to differing systems of governance (parliamentary vs federalist, etc), but rather on a race-specific basis. So, to illustrate vote splitting, imagine the Canadian result is played out in a single race. Candidate A receives 40%; B, 30%; C and D 15% each. B, C, and D are from different parties, but all are much more ideologically similar than any of them are to A. The spoiler situation will be as follows: A receives 49%; B, 48%; and C 3%. Again, B and C are of different parties but much more ideologically similar than either are to A.

The first way to solve this problem that has been proposed is a mandate that some candidate get 50% of the vote to win. One way to do this is call a runoff election between the top two candidates if nobody gets above 50% the first time. This would solve the spoiler candidate issue; the spoiler (Candidate C) would be eliminated and a new election would happen between A and B. Presumably B would win C’s voters, or at least they would stay home, and win a majority of votes.

This would also deal with the Contrived Canadian example I laid out above. C and D would be eliminated and their voters would presumably go to B. In these contrived cases, the result we would expect occurs. However, this system also delivers some strange results under different circumstances. If candidate B was, although ideologically similar to C and D, considered by everyone outside his 30% base of support to be eccentric and unfit for office, the results of the runoff might be that A would get 70% and B would get 30%. It might be that C or D would have won a runoff against A because they are better compromise candidates than B. In other words, if B’s voters would be fine with either C or D, but C and D’s voters would not be fine with B, maybe C or D should be chosen for the runoff instead of B.

Maybe a system of ranked choice could solve this problem. In the situation above, I can imagine ranked voting played out like this: A is ranked first by 40%, third by 30% and fourth by 30%. B is ranked first by 30% and fourth by 70%. C is ranked first by 16%, second by 60%, third by 25%. D is ranked first by 14%, second by 40%, third by 45%. In this case, it looks like the runoff should be between A and C, the consensus choice. Or maybe even between C and D, the only two candidates who over 50% consider to be either first or second. If we assign points to ranking, (let’s say three points for a first place choice, two for second, and one for third) and 100 voters, the point values look like this for the race:

Screen Shot 2018-02-15 at 12.08.20 PM

Indeed, on that scale, the runoff should be between C and D. That is a weird result though, because it totally excludes A, the candidate who differs most. Intuitively, it seems like the runoff should offer a more significant choice. And also intuitively, it seems like the runoff should not be between the candidates who were fewest people’s first choice.

Another way to do ranked voting is to eliminate the last place finisher and distribute their second place votes to the other candidates. How would this play out? D Gets eliminated and his 14% of voters get their votes distributes to their second choice. Everybody’s second choice was either C or D, so it follows that all D’s voters preferred C as their second choice. Now the numbers are as follows: A: 40%, B and C 30% each. Presumably, in a large election B and C would not actually tie, so one probably has a slight edge. If B is eliminated next, his votes go to C and C wins. If C is eliminated, her votes go to A and A wins. So, the widely unpopular B who has a strong base of support (a populist candidate) can’t win. This seems right. But, the winner will either be the one candidate most different from the majority opinion (A) or someone who was only 15% of people’s first choice. I will discuss these results after dealing with tactical voting.

Tactical Voting

Tactical voting is the strategy of voting for someone other than your ideal candidate in order to avoid a candidate you really dislike from winning. Let’s say there are three candidates: A, a left wing populist; B, a middle of the road establishment type; and C, a fiscal conservative. They are polling at 40%, 40%, and 20% respectively. If your main priority in voting is lowering the deficit, you should be in C’s camp. However, if A were to win it would be your nightmare. She would raise spending for all these new programs and blow up the deficit. So, seeing as A and B are so close in the polls, you decide to vote for B who isn’t really that bad.

This violates the idea that the candidate you vote for should be your favorite candidate. Ranked voting or a runoff system would deal with this issue. Nobody would get over 50% to start, and then C’s voters would all go to B, allowing him to win with 60%. C’s voters would still vote for their preference first. However, these systems still have issues with tactical voting in different circumstances.

In a system where the top two candidates have a runoff election (a system used in France as well as some US jurisdictions), voters who favor an unpopular candidate with a small base have an incentive to vote tactically. Let’s say there are three candidates in the first round of elections: A, who is a right wing populist; B, who is a conservative moderate; and C, a moderate liberal. They are polling at 35%, 25%, and 40%. A’s voters know their guy will never win a one-on-one election against the moderate liberal candidate, so they might decide to vote for B in round one so as to have a chance that someone they share some beliefs with will win the general.

Tactical voting occurs in ranked systems as well. In the above scenario, if ranked voting is used, B will be eliminated because he has the fewest first choice votes. His voters’ second choice is the moderate liberal who will then win. In this case, some of A’s voters might put B as their first choice so that A is eliminated first and B wins the election. In fact, this seems like the right result from this election. 60% of voters lean conservative, so it would make sense for a moderate conservative to win. Tactical voting seems to be the only way of producing that result here.

A Silver Bullet? 

Changing voting systems would solve at least one problem entirely: the “spoiler candidate” who earns just enough votes to deny a victory to an ideologically similar candidate. The Nader scenario would be solved by either ranked voting or a runoff. However, beyond that,it gets murkier. Some problems would be solved, but new ones would be created. Alternative systems produce winners who are less controversial. Ranking favors candidates who can build a coalition of voters who don’t particularly dislike them over candidates who have a devoted following. This can be seen as either a bug or a feature. Some of America’s most popular presidents today were incredibly divisive in their times. Abraham Lincoln and FDR come to mind. Would a compromise candidate have been preferable with the Civil War looming on the horizon?

Advocates for ending First past the Post often only look at half the picture, as do advocates for keeping it. Every system will sometimes deliver a result that seems wrong to someone. Our own beliefs about who should win are tied up in our beliefs about what criteria we should use to measure victory. Those who want big change might think FPTP is ideal because it allows a vocal minority of 35% to surge to victory. Those who want consensus and moderation might prefer ranking or a runoff system. There are good arguments for and against every voting system: if we are to change it, it should not just be because our guy lost in the current system. It should be because we have determined that the system is no longer in line with our values.

Sources and further reading:

http://aceproject.org/ace-en/topics/es/esd/esd01/esd01a/esd01a01

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/21/upshot/as-american-as-apple-pie-the-rural-votes-disproportionate-slice-of-power.html

www.cbc.ca/news/politics/the-pros-and-cons-of-canada-s-first-past-the-post-electoral-system-1.3116754

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_federal_election,_2006#Results

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_presidential_election_in_Florida,_2000

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Condorcet_criterion

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cardinal_voting

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrow%27s_impossibility_theorem

“Why Flip a Coin” by H.W. Lewis

Bonus: The idea that there is no perfect voting system actually has some mathematical validity. Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem says that no system can simultaneously fulfill all the criteria we want from a voting system if there are three or more candidates up for vote. There are a few caveats, of course, but they are too technical for me to go into here. But there is one interesting idea that gets brought up in response to Arrow that I want to mention. That is “cardinal voting.” Basically in a cardinal system, your ballot lists all the candidates who are running and asks you to check off all the ones you approve of. The one with the most check marks wins. If we decide we want the ideal consensus candidate, this would be a good way of running elections. It gives you the right answer 100% of the time if that’s what you’re looking for. Of course, it might be a boring bureaucrat, or even someone nobody’s ever heard of.

Welcome to the Eastern Condor

The Eastern Condor is a project intended to bring new and (hopefully) interesting analysis to discussions around politics and culture, as well as to publish and discuss works of art and fiction.

The Condor is created and managed by me, Ben. It is not for profit, and does not take money from anybody. The views expressed in posts hosted on the Condor website are the author’s views alone.

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