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From dsteele@mdi.ca Thu Aug 10 13:37:48 2000
Date: Tue, 8 Aug 2000 23:30:28 -0500 (CDT)
From: Dave Steele <dsteele@mdi.ca>
Subject: It's Time For Electoral Reform
Organization: ITServices, University of British Columbia
Article: 102196
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
X-UIDL: a280995463f5af2d104efb054104c8b5


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 done.

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