Taking Back the Vote

Florida Fiasco Puts Radical Reforms on the Table

"Every vote counts!" the demonstrators chant, over and over, at rallies from New York to Fresno, from Anchorage to Tallahassee, as they protest the electoral debacle that was the November 7 election. Such entreaties from mainstream citizens—broadcast to thousands, even millions, through a flurry of e-mails—have turned the Florida fiasco into a public debate on the depth of American democracy.

"On TV I saw a group of elderly Jewish women in Florida upset to realize that they'd mistakenly voted for Buchanan," said Christopher Costa, a newly minted political activist, as he joined the throngs at Times Square on Saturday. "Then the pundits came on and made fun of those women. I was so offended that I organized another demonstration for Monday. You can't have democracy if you don't trust the people."

The outpouring of decentralized, nonpartisan action signals a new opening for reforms to a system, voting-rights advocates say, that has flaws far beyond flighty butterfly ballots and antediluvian apparatuses. Even with a modern, standardized method of casting and counting votes, and even if violations—such as Black voters allegedly being turned away from the polls—were eliminated, "our system still wouldn't fully be serving democracy," says Eric Olson, deputy director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a national, nonpartisan organization pressing for an array of alternatives, including instant runoff voting, proportional representation, and cumulative voting.

Courting coalition: Jesse Jackson leads a voter rally in West Palm Beach.
photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Aurora
Courting coalition: Jesse Jackson leads a voter rally in West Palm Beach.

Until recently, such ideas have been relegated to political purgatory. During the uproar over her 1993 nomination to be assistant attorney general for civil rights, for instance, legal scholar and activist Lani Guinier was lambasted for having written articles arguing that such reforms would more fully enfranchise African Americans and other minorities. But now that the every-vote-counts myth has been blown open, "everything can be on the table," Guinier says. "Hope is on the way when whites in this country begin to realize that they are also disenfranchised and start examining more closely the experience of Blacks, Latinos, and other people of color to see how these problems, which often converge around visible minorities, actually affect us all."

Even Congress is starting to wake up. New York representative Jerrold Nadler said last week that he will introduce legislation to create a commission to look into making registration and voting easier; Senator Charles Schumer promised a bill to fund studies of online voting and expanded polling hours, not to mention updated equipment. And most far-reaching, last Tuesday, Representative Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon, and Representative Jim Leach, a Republican from Iowa, introduced the "Federal Elections Review Commission Act," which calls for a nonpartisan 12-member commission to contemplate a full range of reforms. These run the gamut, from opening presidential debates to more candidates to reconsidering the electoral college, in order to "ensure the integrity of, and public confidence in, Federal elections."

In a section on "impact on voter turnout and expanding political dialog," the DeFazio-Leach bill nods to progressives by including two particular alternatives, the very devices deemed beyond the pale when Guinier championed them: cumulative voting and proportional representation. The first of these, cumulative voting (CV), gives voters as many votes as there are seats up for election to distribute as they choose. If, say, there are seven seats on a district school board, a voter may give all seven to one candidate, one to each of seven candidates, or three to one and two each to two others, and so on.

Proponents argue that cumulative voting offers the surest way to give voice to minorities—whether that means African Americans in white-majority districts, or Republicans in heavily Democratic ones—and many have proposed promising schemes to apply such systems to U.S. congressional voting. One plan is to expand congressional districts so that each will elect three or more representatives, rather than the existing one, and then let voters use CV to choose them. In addition to forestalling the incumbent-favoring gerrymandering that upcoming redistricting is certain to promote, such a format allows for what Guinier calls "self-districting"—the ability of like-minded voters to pool their power by concentrating their votes on a favored candidate. A significant minority of, say, passionate Green Party voters might be too small to elect a representative under the method in place today, but could win a seat under CV by spending all their chits on the Green candidate.

That's exactly the system Illinois used from 1870 to 1980, and that some politicos there are pushing to revive—and with good chances of success, says Dan Johnson-Weinberger, the Chicago-based national field director for the Center for Voting and Democracy. "By helping to elect Republicans from the cities and Democrats from the suburbs or rural areas, CV kept those parts of the state from always being pitted against each other. That meant that Illinois could move on such things as public transportation for downtown Chicago as well as the suburbs. Government was much more responsive and a lot less corrupt," he notes, adding that Illinois voters threw out the system only because its abolition was part of a popular cut-back amendment in the inflationary year of 1980, which reduced the size of the State House from 177 members to 118. "Classic baby-with-the-bathwater situation," he says.

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