Taking Back the Vote

Florida Fiasco Puts Radical Reforms on the Table

The other oft-recommended progressive reform, common to parliamentary systems around the world, is proportional representation (PR), which allocates seats to parties based on their proportion of the total vote. New York's own City Council was never so diverse as during its decade under this system. In 1936 New Yorkers voted by a margin of almost two-to-one to replace the Tammany Hall-dominated Board of Aldermen (where Democrats captured 95.3 percent of the seats with only 66.5 percent of the popular vote) with a City Council elected according to PR. That's what brought the first African American, Adam Clayton Powell, into New York office, as well as the first Labor and Communist representatives. At the same time, insurgent Democrats defeated machine candidates, against whom they formerly hadn't had a prayer.

The machine launched a virulent campaign against PR, using alarmist, red-baiting claims of foreign powers overthrowing democracy to stir the public into reverting to the old style of voting in 1947. The result was a full return to machine control, with the old Dems winning 96 percent of the seats. The Center for Voting and Democracy's Olson expects to see such models resurface in New York as voting-rights advocates gear up for the first post-Florida municipal elections next year.

The core principle guiding all these systems is a rejection of the winner-take-all approach to representative democracy. Giving all the power to the victor, no matter how slim the margin of victory, and silencing the loser, not only makes a mockery of democratic principles that are based on minority protections, advocates say, but also skews the campaign process by encouraging candidates to focus on small slivers of swing voters. Thus such bizarre spectacles as Hillary Clinton staking out positions on Israel to the right of that country's own government, and Al Gore neglecting to mention gun control in his bid for support in Wisconsin or Colorado. The most flagrant symptom of winner-take-all damage is the supercilious neglect of most of the states in the presidential campaign as candidates pour all their time and resources into the states where neither candidate has a significant lead.

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.

That, of course—along with Gore's apparent triumph in the popular vote—has opened the op-ed pages and Sunday-morning pundit parades to disquisitions about the electoral college. Progressives like Guinier and Olson agree for the most part that the antiquated, lopsided body needs profound reform, if not downright abolition, but, they warn, moving to a direct election of the president will not go far enough to redress the inequities in the system. At least for the moment, notes Ronald Walters, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, the electoral college's allowance for small states to have influence, "also ironically allows for the impact of cohesive minorities, like Black Americans. Because Blacks voted 90 percent for one candidate in this election, we had impact on the states, and thus on the electoral vote."

In some states, at least. The thin blue line snaking along the Mississippi delta amid a sea of Republican red on the voting-result maps demonstrates how meaningless even some concentrated votes are under winner-takes-all. Despite those 90 percent of African American votes being cast for Gore, the Southern states all went to Bush.

Senator-elect Hillary Clinton's instant promises notwithstanding, the electoral college is not likely to go anywhere soon, Walters contends. "Changing it takes a two-thirds majority, and the ones with more seats are the ones benefiting from it. How can anyone imagine that it's going to change?"

Some of its distortions, though, could be mitigated. One of the most promising ways—and the one getting the biggest push around the country—is instant runoff voting (IRV). On Election Day, voters in Oakland approved a charter amendment to use this technique in special elections to fill vacancies on their city council, and in nearby San Leandro, voters adopted a city charter amendment to use runoff elections for theirs. Meanwhile, New Mexico, Alaska, and Vermont have been seriously considering the mechanism for their statewide offices.

Under IRV—long in use in national elections in Australia and Ireland—instead of simply marking an X next to the most-desired candidate, voters would rank them according to preference. If no candidate emerges with a majority after all the first-choice votes are counted, then the candidates who received the fewest number of 1's are eliminated. The 2's on those ballots are then distributed among the remaining candidates until one achieves a majority. If IRV had been in place two weeks ago, the number-two choices on 96,837 ballots that favored Ralph Nader in Florida would have been turned over accordingly, and nobody would have heard of Katherine Harris. What's more, "IRV would mean that someone was winning a majority," points out Johnson-Weinberger. "It's not radical or crazy to say that a president should get one more vote than 50 percent to win. A runoff lets you do that, while also giving more meaningful participation to third parties, which can launch all-out campaigns without fear of being labeled spoilers."

According to five-term Vermont state representative Terry Bouricius, a member of the Progressive Party, IRV has good chances of passing in his state, where a bill favoring it will soon be introduced with tripartisan support. "Established politicians can recognize how it can benefit them, at least in the short term," he says, "even as in the long term, it opens up third-party participation."

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