What is the best electoral process? Universal suffrage and 'one person, one vote' seems like a good start. But granting that, there's a further question, namely, what to do with all those votes. Our present 'majoritarian' system simply tallies the votes, and awards the election to whoever receives the most. Consider an alternative that Jack and I have been thinking about: use the votes as the basis of a lottery. A randomly chosen vote then determines the outcome of the election.
As stated, this sounds too risky. (If 1% of the population votes for fringe nutters, we wouldn't want to be landed with a 1% chance of a fringe nutter becoming president.) But, as Jack pointed out to me, there's an easy solution: let each vote transform into n lottery tickets, and keep randomly drawing tickets until we have n for a single candidate, who is thereby declared the winner. As n increases, this exponentially reduces the risk of any single voter's (or small minority's) preferences deciding the outcome. That is, for large n, this lottery system comes to approximate our present system of guaranteeing the election to whoever receives more votes. Of course, that would defeat the whole purpose of the proposal. But we can ask what an appropriate balance of randomness would be. Let me now argue the case for introducing some degree of chance (and so perhaps preferring a low-to-moderate n -- maybe just n=2, even).
The current system exhibits a sharp 'critical level' (e.g. "50% +1", for a two-party race). Everything hangs on increasing one's vote share to this critical level, e.g. from 49.9 to 50.1. Further increases -- e.g. from 50.1% to 60% -- don't matter in the slightest for determining the election's outcome. Nor do increases that fall short of this mark: third party candidates have no real chance, and even if they increase their vote share from 1% to 10%, this doesn't do them any good. This system thus gives candidates a strong incentive to gamble: 30% of the vote share is worthless (in a 2-way race), so if an irresponsible gimmick offers some non-zero chance of doubling their popularity, this may well be worth it for them, even if they're far more likely to end up (deservedly) losing their base of support. This seems undesirable: better to have risky elections than risky candidates, we may think.
Chancy elections would mean that every vote makes a difference. Even if a candidate is way ahead (or behind) in the polls, a mere majority is no guarantee: each extra vote would contribute to making their victory more likely still. Incumbents and popular politicians could no longer risk complacency, but would instead have an incentive to pursue every single extra vote that they possibly can (without writing off those that they already have). Third party candidates could no longer be written off. A major source of voter apathy and low turnout would be averted. In sum, elections would be made more competitive.
The risk, of course, is that misfortune may deliver an election to a less popular candidate. But it may be worth tolerating some (slight) risk of this in order to obtain the benefits listed above. What do you think? (Any political theorists out there know whether this has been discussed much before?)