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Synthesis/Regeneration 36   (Winter 2005)

Time for a Campaign for Democracy

by Rob Richie and Steven Hill

Sifting through the results of the November 2 elections provides important lessons for Greens and others seeking to bring more democracy to our country. The first is that progressives are thwarted above all by our electoral system structures. The second is that instant runoff voting has real viability as a short-term reform.

We certainly should keep pressure on for meaningful campaign finance reform and for ways to boost voter turnout, but in a year in which Democrats were financially competitive and voter turnout was at its highest since 1968, George Bush won a majority of the vote and carried 31 states and the Republican House majority increased. The election wasn’t the Republican mandate some claim, yet it should be a clarion call to reformers.

The unprecedented level of non-competitiveness in a House where Republicans have a comfortable majority should be of particular concern to those who want progressive leadership in the House. More than 95% of seats were won by margins of more than 10%—a record. Only 7 incumbents lost, for a rate of more than 98%, and 4 of those incumbent only lost due to Tom Delay’s 2003 gerrymander in Texas. Almost all House districts were not competitive for 2 parties, let alone 3.

The lack of congressional competition is partly due to redistricting, partly due to incumbent advantages, partly due to campaign finance inequities, but primarily due to the fact of winner-take-all elections in single-seat districts.

Demographically, Democrats are more concentrated in urban areas, and even independent redistricting commissions will have difficulty creating more competition as long as we maintain winner-take-all rules.

Furthermore, progressive vote concentration means that if the nation continues in a roughly 50-50 political mode between Republicans and those challenging them, Republicans will win every time. If the 2000 presidential election results are layered onto the current House districts, for example, George Bush would have won 47 more districts than Al Gore even while losing the popular vote.

Full representation (i.e., proportional representation) voting methods in multi-seat districts are the one indispensable part of any reform package seeking to provide real choices and fair representation to all voters.

Greens have an obvious interest in tackling winner-take-all elections. Full representation has been essential to nearly every Green candidate success in other nations around the world. Now the constituency for their support is growing to include Democrats, moderate Republicans, independents, women and good government reformers concerned about lack of competition.

Many observers are suggesting that the election went smoothly. Although we applaud all the election officials and alert voters who tried to make our elections work, we would disagree that failing to register 50 million potential voters and making voters stand in lines as long as 11 hours are signs of a well-operating electoral process.

We have a patchwork of laws and practices that are an accident waiting to happen and an ongoing means to depress voter participation. Not only is their no uniformity among voting machines, but there is also too little uniformity among election procedures, or even civil service requirements for becoming an election administrator.

We need what other democratic nations have, a right to vote in our federal Constitution and a national elections commission that sets uniform standards, helps to develop the best voting equipment, and partners with the states and counties to run good, clean elections. The Elections Assistance Commission established recently by the Help America Vote Act could form the basis for such a national Elections commission.

Our Center is developing a series of recommendations for congressional action, starting with a right to vote in the Constitution and continuing through statutory changes such as universal voter registration, making Election Day a holiday to ensure both an adequate pool of poll workers and increased access for voters, and uniform standards for voting equipment.

All such changes would flow naturally from direct election of the president instead of the increasing bankrupt Electoral College.

Full representation has been essential to nearly every Green candidate success in other nations around the world.

Congressman Jesse Jackson has proposed a direct election amendment (HR 109) with a companion legislative bill (HR 5293) for instant runoff voting (IRV).

Full representation may be the Holy Grail for Greens, but IRV is a practical reform that completely reverses the “spoiler” dynamic that does so much to dampen serious consideration of third party candidates.

The Cobb campaign did a great job in introducing IRV to more Americans, and in a bright spot on the tumultuous electoral landscape, IRV supporters can take heart in three landslide wins during November’s ballot.

In Ferndale, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, 69% of voters amended the charter to provide for IRV election of the mayor and City Council pending the purchase of compatible equipment. The campaign was ably led by Ferndale IRV. Voters in 16 western Massachusetts towns approved by a 2 to 1 margin a non-binding motion in support of IRV, directing their state representative to vote in favor of requiring IRV for statewide elections.

In Burlington, Vermont, two-thirds of voters approved an advisory referendum led by the League of Women Voters on whether Burlington should use IRV to elect the mayor. A formal charter amendment is likely to advance in March. A statewide bill for IRV that has the backing of Democrats like Howard Dean will have new life in a legislature now controlled by Democrats.

The final good IRV news was San Francisco’s first IRV election.

Despite introducing the system to voters in the midst of a presidential year, the city experienced a smooth transition after a campaign that all acknowledged included many more efforts by candidates to use ranked ballots to build coalitions and reach out to more voters. Voters overwhelming reported to exit poll surveyors that they found the system easy; those expressing an opinion on its merits liked IRV by a margin of more than two-to-one.

2004 was a difficult election for progressives, but presents important lessons for the need for change and the opportunity to make it happen.

Let’s join together in working for a real democracy in America.

Rob Richie is executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy http://www.fairvote.org, and Steven Hill is the Center’s senior analyst and author of Fixing Elections: The Failure of America’s Winner Take All Politics (See www.FixingElections.com). Contact them at info@fairvote.org

[2 feb 05]

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