Taking Back the Vote


“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.

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.

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.

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.”

It’s a small step, though, he says, in a country where voter turnout hovers at the halfway mark, and is lowest among the poor and uneducated. “Proportional representation can have far more impact in serving to include many more voices in our democracy, but it’s a long battle. IRV is something I think we can pass in a year or two, and that will help us move to even better reforms, as it makes room for more parties.”

If such a battle will be joined, however, it will take massive grassroots, multiracial efforts. “Right now the slogan in Florida is ‘Let Granny Vote,’ ” says Ron Walters, “because, the feeling is, if granny’s vote counts, our votes may be counted, too. That’s why Jesse Jackson has been down there speaking in synagogues and holding hands with rabbis. What we don’t know now is how long that coalition can stay mobilized.”

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