I had a strange idea last night while lying in bed. It was particularly strange because I try to avoid thinking about anything political as much as possible. The idea was for a way to begin a transition to make third-party candidates more viable in the future. Here's the idea:
The winner of an election (I'm specifically thinking of the "important" ones, president and governor, but this could potentially work for any election) would need to get 100% of the votes that did not go to a candidate with fewer than some X number of votes... say, 100. This filters out the less practical candidates like Mickey Mouse. Here's the catch: once the votes are counted—nationwide, with none of this electoral college nonsense—the candidates are ranked by the number of votes they received. Then, starting with the most-losing candidate at the very bottom, the candidates must reassign their votes to a different candidate still in the running. Then we go to the next person, and they reassign their votes as well. Finally, it comes down to the Republican and Democrat candidates, and the #2 has to reassign their votes to the other, giving them 100%.
I think that the disadvantages of the system are clear. First, it gets rid of the electoral college and brings it back in a creative way all at once... the candidates themselves become the electoral college. But, best of all, someone could vote for, say, Howard Dean, knowing that they finally weren't just throwing their vote away, because now they're voting for a candidate to either become president, or reassign their vote so as to best match what they want from a president. This seemed silly even to me at first, but then I realized that it's not really a shift in thinking. When you vote for president, you're voting for that person to get into an office and make decisions that you generally would agree with. This plan extends the "and make decisions that you generally would agree with" to election results as well.
Of course, the plan isn't perfect. First, it requires a change in the election system, a fundamental part of our democracy that people are going to be understandably hesitant to change. It also requires all of the candidates to be available at the same time so as to finalize the results. Finally, some particularly insane candidates might refuse to pick another person for their votes to go to. I've got a couple workarounds for those too.
The candidates wouldn't have to be available all at the same time because they could choose their vote transfer ahead of time. Like, Dean could say on his "I want to be president" form that all of his votes should automatically go to the Democratic candidate if he didn't win. The candidates would only have to be around if they didn't pre-decide this, or if their failover candidate were already out of the running.
Then we get to the scenario where the particularly insane candidate might refuse to pick another person. I could maybe see Ross Perot being that way. In that case, votes for Perot would just cease to exist once he was out of the running. This would suck for people who voted for him, but not any more than it already sucks to vote for a third-party candidate today, and a candidate's preferred failover candidate (generally Republican, Democrat, or none) would be something that people could take into account when voting.
Suddenly, voting for party X isn't so crazy, because your votes will just get converted to Democrat in the end anyway. The initial benefits of this system are mainly just that the ancient electoral system we use today goes away. It won't mean that we'll see a non-Republican, non-Democrat president any time soon; perhaps not even in my lifetime. However, I think that, at least on the surface, it seems like it would have a positive impact in making third-party candidates a lot more viable voting option.
So, there's the idea. I haven't put more than a half hour of thought into it, but I already like it a heck of a lot better than the current system. I'm sure there are downsides I haven't considered, so feel free to tear it apart in the comments box.