From firstname.lastname@example.org Thu Aug 10 13:37:48 2000
Date: Tue, 8 Aug 2000 23:30:28 -0500 (CDT)
From: Dave Steele <email@example.com>
Subject: It's Time For Electoral Reform
Organization: ITServices, University of British Columbia
It's Time For Electoral Reform
By Dave Steele, Ithaca Today Editorial
7 August 2000
Sometimes you just have to speak plainly. The current electoral system
is undemocratic and corrupt. Undemocratic, because, by design, only two
parties have any real chance of seeing their candidates elected.
Undemocratic because those two parties differ only slightly in the
policies they advocate. Yes, on some issues---especially abortion
rights---the differences are significant and important, but on the great
majority of the issues that matter most, the two parties hold identical
positions. On welfare "reform", energy policy, the incredibly
anti-democratic WTO and NAFTA, enormous military spending, Gore and Bush
are virtually indistinguishable. Undemocratic because voting for a
third party is "throwing away" your vote or worse. Many people who
really want to vote for Ralph Nader are afraid --- afraid! --- to do so.
They don't want to throw the election to George W. Bush. And what
powers this undemocratic system? Money.
Money. According to the New York Times (August 2, 2000), two-thirds of
the $137,000,000 George W. Bush has raised so far has come from just 739
individuals and corporations. That's over 90 million dollars --- an
average of almost $124,000 per donor --- from far less than 1/1000 of 1%
of the population. Do you think these donors believe in one person, one
vote? More like one dollar, one vote. If that's not corrupt, I don't
know what corruption is. And Democratic fundraisers tap the same
sources. If you can't raise the money, you can't run in this system.
It doesn't have to be this way. Just two significant reforms could open
up the country to a more real democracy, a government of and by the
people. First, we absolutely need to get private money out of the
electoral system. Whatever the Supreme Court may say, money is not
speech. In a system where elected officials must raise enormous sums
just to get re-elected, money is the lever by which a few wealthy
interests take control of the government from the people. Money must be
taken out of the equation.
Therefore, elections should be funded entirely with taxpayer's money.
For democracy to flourish, candidates for every office need access to
sums equal to those of their opponents. The amounts available needn't
be exorbitant, but they should be sufficient to allow the candidates to
make their positions clearly known to the public. To keep the system
fair, distribution of funding should be under the control of something
like an independent election commission. Sound too expensive? Hardly.
Even the outrageously exoribitant spending of George W. Bush would cost
Americans less than $2 each if distributed across the whole population.
And spending really need be only a few percent of that. An annual tax of
less than $10 per person would take control of the political process out
of the hands of the rich and return it to the general electorate. A
pretty cheap price for a responsive government.
But money's only half of the problem. The other problem is that two
parties cannot possibly represent the diversity of views and values
among the American electorate. Voting to reflect one's views often
means voting for someone outside the Democratic and Republican parties.
How can we open up the system so that voting for a "third" party is a
viable, democratic alternative? So that voting your conscience doesn't
sometimes mean "throwing away" your vote?
Multiparty democracy, in any real sense of the word democracy, is
incompatible with our winner-take-all electoral system. Where there are
three or more viable political parties, candidates will win on mere
pluralities of the vote, leaving the majority of voters without real
representation. This happens all the time in Canada with their
winner-take-all 5-party parliamentary system. It happened in Minnesota
in 1998 when Jesse Ventura won the governorship with 38% of the vote.
Even Bill Clinton holds office on less than a majority of votes.
This problem can be eliminated by a system of proportional
representation and instant run-off voting. It's far more democratic and
we know it works. Most of the Western world already employs this sort
of electoral process. It would be ideal for state legislatures and the
House of Representatives.
Under proportional representation, the number of seats a party gets in
the House matches the percent of the overall vote that the party got in
the election. Just like today, one candidate would win in each
district. So you'd still have a local Representative. These local
winners would take half of the seats in the House. The remainder of the
seats would be divided so as to reflect the overall vote. A party that
gets 51% of the vote would get 51% of the total seats; 5% of the vote
would get it 5% of the seats---irrespective of whether that party
actually won any districts. No matter how a person voted, someone in
government would reflect that vote.
Proportional representation would be more difficult to institute in the
Senate. One possibility would be to increase the number of seats from
each state and assign them proportionally on the basis of votes within
each state. Less ideally, a system of instant run-off voting could be
instituted. Under instant run-off voting, voters rank candidates (1, 2,
3) in order of preference. If a candidate fails to get a clear
majority, the voters' second preferences are tallied and so on until a
majority appears. Instant run-off would be the obvious choice to further
democratize Presidential elections. Voters could rank Nader, Gore,
McReynolds or Bush, Buchanan, Browne or whatever. Ireland's President
is already elected in this way.
Winner-take-all is not mandated by the Constitution. A state could
change its electoral system, even for President, by simple statute. On
the federal level, Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) has more than once submitted
a bill to allow proportional representation in the House of
Representatives. It may take a lot of popular pressure, but these
reforms could be instituted. In New Zealand, less than ten years ago,
the people rose in disgust over the failings of their winner-take-all
system. They forced a referendum and for the last two elections they
have elected their governments on this proportional basis. Great
Britain, who with Canada are the only other Western hold-outs for
winner-take-all, has recently instituted proportional representation in
the Scottish and Welsh parliaments. Instant run-off voting is used to
elect the mayor of London.
With enough public pressure and agitation, the United States can move
from its current money-driven, largely undemocratic system to one in
which everyone's vote counts, in which everyone is represented and in
which big money plays little role. The time is long overdue for an
overhaul of the electoral system. It may take a constitutional
amendment here and there (to take big money out and put a few more
senate seats in), but the time is certainly ripe for fundamental
change. We may yet see a flowering of American democracy. It can be