What is Necessary Now
a tepid manifesto for electoral reform.

by Michael Barthel


Some first-draft disclaimers:
1) At one point I inexplicably say that primaries only matter in Presidential races. Don't know what I was thinking.
2) I also mention the idea of Independent primaries. I have since discovered that this is already policy in some places, but my form would be distinctly different (from what I know).
3) I'm aware that I'm fairly vague in my hope that this will spur electoral reform, which is problematic, since that's the whole point. Any ideas on that front would be appreciated.
4) I also need to think about how a campaign could be practically carried out with a candidate only taking his own positions on many issues.

I. Introduction

 

Let's talk about John McCain for a second.

I'm always hesitant to talk about Mr. McCain, because if you talk about him to a conservative, it's a good idea to lay some plastic down beforehand lest your carpet be soggy for days afterwards. When the rumor was floated that he might run with Bush, they went into hysterics. As well they might--he was one of the most electable candidates to be considered in years. The primary reason for which, of course, was his cross-spectrum support.

It was a very sensible registered Republican who voted for McCain in the primaries. As a matter of fact, it is a measure of just how corrupt the system is that McCain did not get nominated; he was, by far, the best Republican candidate. Had he been nominated, I have little doubt that he would have won in a landslide. While Bush largely serves moneyed interests, McCain stands strong for traditional Republican positions--pro-life, anti-gun control, and so on, almost right down the typical party line.

And it is for this reason that I have no respect for leftists who voted for McCain. They compromised their beliefs in favor of a man whose style they admired. For leftists to complain about the shallowness of the political system and then vote for McCain is pure hypocracy. The only actual policy position of McCain's they could reasonably say they agreed with was campaign finance reform.

This, to me, suggest both a problem and a possible solution. I (certainly a leftist by any objective standard) have found myself talking with a number of rightists this summer, and I've generally had a certain degree of respect for what they had to say. While we disagree on certain policy issues we do seem to share fairly specific views on what and how structural aspects of the system should be reformed--that there should be reform, there is no longer any doubt, in anyone I talk to. Essentially, this comes down to campaign finance reform, primary reform, and encouragement of third parties.

I'll start with the last one first, because it is through this last one that I hope to show a hope for real reform.

I think it's a big problem that the primary third-party candidate this year is Ralph Nader with the Green Party. The media is finally recognizing his legitimacy, which is good, but running for the "Green Party" is pretty limiting, to me. The enviroment receives more widespread support than most leftists issues, but it's still identifiably a liberal position. Of course I fully support almost all of Nader's positions, but given that we can pretty much agree he has no chance to actually get elected, we should shape our goals more towards reform and long-term encouragement of third party participation than policy issues. How can this be done? I'll get to it in a second.

In 1992, Ross Perot got nineteen percent of the popular vote, and came within a few thousand votes of winning some states (and indeed, had Bush not been running, I think Perot very well could have won Texas). Had he taken only a single state the political landscape would be much different today. Primarily in three ways:

1) By sending the election to the Senate, the ridiculousness of the electoral college would hopefully have been exposed, and an overhaul of the electoral system would have begun, if not immediately, then at some point in the last 8 years. I may be wrong about this, but I think the college is hanging by a thread. I see this as not a crucial issue (sure, it's theoretically unfair, but in practice it really doesn't make much difference), but as a springboard to other things.

2) Third parties would now be seen as a major political force, rather than as a simple election-year curiousity. If room was not made for them in the two-party system, they would be able to muster much more clout to force themselves in.

3) Because the Reform party was cross-spectrum in its policies with widespread popular support, this would have greatly facilitated its implimentation into the political mainstream, and could have then dragged other more tradtionally partisan groups with them, unlike the Green party, which I think turns off rightist voters who would like to vote for a third party but don't want to deal with Buchanan (or the Libertarians--but maybe I'm biased here).

But the Reform party didn't win, and now we are stuck with what we have, for this election at least. In practical terms I would have been somewhat disappointed had the '92 contest been sent to Congress, since while Clinton would have won (assuming straight party-line votes) his support would have been greatly eroded and he might not have lasted two terms. In retrospect this could have made things better or worse, depending on whether you'd prefer more of the Contract With America to be implemented or to have avoided "welfare reform," the debasement of hopes for health care reform, and sneak attacks on pharmacutical plants in Africa. But it would have undoubtedly helped electoral reform along as well as boosted the legitimacy of third parties, even if Perot or someone else in the party blew Reform's image (er, which they have).

So what I'm going to propose is hardly an ideal solution; in fact, it's very much a political compromise. But short of armed rebellion, that's the game we have to play if we want to bring in the kind of structural changes that can actually affect the "radical" (in today's narrowly centrist climate) policy changes that you might want, whether rightist or leftist. Unless you think some sort of old-school Marxist "well if things get really bad then they'll have to change things" wait-and-see approach is a better idea, well, we disagree. But if you do want real reform in 4-8 years, I think my solution may be worth considering.

 

I. a) Name

 

This, does, regretfully, requre (as far as I can see) the forming of a new political party. There are many difficulties traditionally associated with this task, including getting on the ballot, building popular support, recruiting legitimate candidates, and attracting mainstream media attention. But by far the hardest task is picking a name. So while I hope someone will come up with something much better, I will tentatively name it the Electoral Reform party, or the ER (to pull in that crucial George Clooney voting bloc!).

 

II. Initial Conditions: Reasons and Limits

The reason for having a new party focued solely on electoral reform is because, realistically, real electoral reform will never be enacted without broad, cross-spectrum support. You can't really blame the Democrats and Republicans for not enacting campaign finance reform, let alone to dismantle the two-party system. I mean, really, what level of altruism are we going to ascribe to human beings? In some ways, they're trapped in the system as much as the system blocks out the rest of us. Sure, they created it, but that was decades ago, and now there's no way out without the (ahem) generous intervention of outside parties.

So I propose that the ER party take no positions (as a party) on any issues of policy not related to electoral reform. The individual candidates would be free to say whatever they want on their issues of choice (since they would, naturally, have to vote on these matters were they elected to office), but they would be required to not propose any legislation besides that related to electoral reform, lest they be expelled from the party. Multi-party membership would be allowed, even encouraged, but it would be required that the few positions that the ER party takes be strictly held to. The ER party would nominate one candidate from those applying who is both the most electable and the most dedicated (in past practice and current rhetoric) to ER policies.

Thus the ER would take no position on the following issues:

Gun control, abortion, heath care, Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, public schools, immagration, labor relations, Internet copyright controls, terrorism, gay rights, the military, the ATF, Iraq, Iran, China, Israel, "Africa," Peru, Britain, Russia, parental leave, sexual harassment, the marriage tax, the estate tax, capital gains taxes, inflationary policy at the Fed, deficit spending, day trading, Internet taxes, "decency acts," the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, environmental protection, Native American casinos and land claims, legalization of drugs, the draft, public service, impeachment, and Congressional pay raises, among other things.

The ER might have policies on the following issues (if they relate to electoral reform):

Media ownership, mergers, and other issues that bias press coverage of elections (such as single-newspaper cities, "synergistic" reporting, and "right-to-respond" policies; indeed, an immediate ER policy would probably be to greatly widen and empower the FCC); the census and redistricting; and other things.

The ER is against the following policies of electoral reform:

Term limits (nice idea, but it only goes halfway, and experience is crucial to good governance. Were Congressional advisory committes both more stressed and held publically responsible, we would not have to worry about the level of experience in our representatives, but as it stands, term limits are harmful to good government); a return to patronage (which some have indeed suggested. It's actually a better idea than you'd think--party unity is much more important than we'd like to believe, and if we are going to demolish the two-party system this will become a concern--and while I think it's important that the ER consider these arguements before proceding on its policies, I don't think we should support it); the line-item veto (well, at least I think it's a bad idea; while it seems to make rational sense, I think the Constitutional system of checks and balances is very important, and while the executive is certainly the weakest branch in strict construction, it has gained much power over the centuries and this would, I fear, tip the balance); and other things.

The ER's main policies are covered below.

 

II. a) Brief Disclaimer

 

I know it is dangerous to be a single-issue party (though I don't think the ER would be). I also know it is dangerous to be seen as nominating a candidate who did not actually expect to be elected; this is certainly where the "you're throwing your vote away" argument against third parties comes in. But I would hope that our focus would be so attractive that we would be seen as electable, and if not, that we could explain our motives (as explained in IV, below) clearly enough so that voters would see they would be making a difference by voting for us. I'm relying on the growing legitimacy of third parties as well as the seemingly overwhelming public support for electoral reform to make the ER a viable political force.

But really, all of this is irrelevant. It is vital that we don't let the mainstream success and efforts of Nader, McCain, Perot, et al go to waste. You know as well as I do that the mainstream parties will happily co-opt and water down the issue as soon as they figure out a way. We have an advantage--we can keep it pure, and we don't have to work it into a bunch of other policy positions. There can't be any hesitation here.

 

III. Policies

 

So what policies would the ER propose? Well, I'm well aware that I'm no expert in this field, but I think I can give a number of starting points based on what I've read and thought about, from which I have every hope that there would be vigorous debate and improvement. They can be broadly divided up into three catagories, as they were above: campaign finance, primaries, and third-party support.

It should be mentioned before we begin that there is a possibly major obstacle facing electoral reform: most of the laws are made on the state level. I think that in the interim we can work on that level to try and effect reform, but I also hope that a system can be instituting normalizing, to some degree, electoral practices from state to state.

 

1) Campaign finance

 

My weakest area, I put it first and hope to fill in more with some research and input. What's clear is: a) it requires a lot of money, in the millions of dollars, to run a campaign for a federal office; b) generally in an election , the candidate that has raised the most money is victorious; c) almost all of this money comes from interest groups; d) while bribery is difficult to prove, it does seem likely that a politician who has won office using the money of an interest group will vote as that interest group would like him or her to, unless the group in question has not given him or her much money, or another, competing, group has given him or her more money, as he or she understandably wants to get.

In other words, policiticans have become reliant on private investment to win office, and the investors naturally want to see a return on their investment. As the human becomes a corporation, he naturally takes on the moral code of the corporation, which says that that which is in the interests of the investors (note: this is no longer "the constituents") is that which is right. In other words, if it makes money (or "acheives the desired policy," if you prefer, though in the current climate of corporate control, I think there's little difference), it gets the vote.

You've heard all this before, I'm sure; it's both encouraging and discouraging that we know so much about the problems of campaign finance and yet can do so little. So how can it be fixed?

The answer, I and most commentators seem to believe, is in having purely government-funded elections. This will understandably make some people nervous: "Isn't it dangerous to have the government control the election of the new government? Won't it favor the party in power?"

Well, the idea is to set the system up so that each party/candidate gets an equal amount of money, airtime, and exposure. This is, of course, impossible to do perfectly, since the media is allowed to freely choose which candidates to cover, and certainly much easier in countries where the state controls some or all of the TV channels. But what can be done is to limit the candidates' spending to only that which they receive from the government, which will be quite small in relation to today's war chests. Will there be complaints that this is limiting their ability to campaign effectively? Of course. What will be the response? "Fuck you," of course.

Each candidate from a party meeting the requirements (which will be much less strict than they are in terms of number of signatures required and so on--I'd share some horror stories about the Reform Party's experiences here, had I the space) will get a certain number of 15-minute slots on primetime TV, a certain number (quite low) of ads they can run, and all candidates will be included in televised debates. The FCC will strictly enforce regulations banning interest-group ads during election season (which will be defined as the nine months preceding a Congressional or Presidential election).

Speaking of which: the time allowed to campaign in will be much, much shorter. This will be discussed more fully under the primaries section, but it will no longer be the 9-12 months it currently is for Presidential elections. At most, it will be three, or probably two, months between primaries and election. This will greatly lessen the need for large war chests and will lessen the burden on taxpayers.

The fact of the matter is that this is really no hinderance on anyone. It'll be hard for the major parties to make a legitimate argument that leveling the playing field and giving the voter more choice is really unfair. If everyone has the same opportunities, there can't be any complaints.

I know I've left out quite a bit here, but this is the starting point. Oh, though I might note that apparently the Libertarian Party, who we're ostensibly trying to help, would completely disagree with this position, saying instead that candidates should pay for elections out of their own pockets. Shrug.

 

2) Primaries

 

I never saw this as a very big issue until I talked with some conservatives who related the travesty with McCain to electoral reform (which, you'll note, is where we started out). Now I think it needs to be a central part of electoral reform, although it only deals with Presidential elections--which I'd like to point out are a very small part of the story. Still, it deserves attention.

First, there are a number of pretty obvious things wrong with the current primary system (which was originally quite the electoral reform itself, giving power to actual citizens rather than party dons--many credit the primary system with killing off the old patronage/party boss arrangement) which can be generally grouped under the heading "timing." That is to say, they happen too early, are too spread out, and can quickly become irrelevant, making some states more "important" than others. This facet did not come about because of some political conspiracy, but rather fairly naturally, through a kind of "electoral inflation" wherein New Hampshire (who, as you doubtless know, have their primary required to be the first in the state constitution), Iowa, and the other traditionally "early" states sought to keep a hold on their brief period of importance in national elections by pushing their primary dates further and further back, as other states pushed theirs back to try and even up the system. Unlike most, I don't think it's a bad thing that small states have a larger-than-normal influence in certain stages of Presidential elections--they deserve representation too, and we should be careful to safeguard the interests of smaller states in electoral reform. However, it also clearly needs to be regulated at the federal level (since it really is a federal concern) to ensure elections that are just and reasonable.

So it would seem to make sense that we have all primaries on the same day. They are then much like a national election, and the best candidates will come out, right? Well, I think there is some value in our current arrangement of spread-out primaries. Dark-horse candidates have sometimes received a boost from an early victory in New Hamshire or Iowa (certainly the ascendencies of McCain, Forbes, and Buchanan in recent years has helped put their issues on the agenda), and it seems valuable to allow candidates to "gain momentum." Here's a better idea.

Each party's primary season will last 3 weeks, with one group of primaries in each week. It will be constructed so that no candidate can "clinch" the nomination in the first week--which means small states will have prominence. This will rotate year by year (by random draw, I might add) so that large states get an early crack at different times, and so that no one small state gets to always hog the attention. This three week period must begin, at the earliest, 5 weeks before the party's convention. The primaries will all start and end at the same actual moment, no matter the time zone, so California's primary won't be rendered meaningless by New Hampshire's, if the two take place in the same week.

What will this produce? 1) It will further help to shorten the electoral season and reduce the need for campaign funds. 2) It will ensure that no valid candidate is eliminated too quickly, which would make most of the primaries meaningless. With this system, at least 2/3 of the states will have a decisive vote. 3) Candidates still have time to build their popularity through good showings in certain states.

The possible downside is triggered by #3. The reason outsider candidates could win surprise victories in early elections was that they only had to campaign in one state at a time. With the new system, this opportunity would seem to be eliminated. However, I hope to balance this new disadvantage with the other proposals I'm putting forth for primary reform.

In truth, the second, and more complicated, half of this section pertains more to third-party issues than general elections, but it also pertains to all elections, not just Presidential ones, as the "timing" reforms, above, would seem to. So I'm putting the idea here.

McCain is again a main instigator. The fact that he is not available as a choice for President this year (aside from write-in votes) speaks against the level of democracy in our current electoral system. Some would say that it's a difficult decision he faced--whether to stay with his party and probably not be nominated, or switch to a third party and lose all his structural support--but that's the way it goes, and it's not really an unfair outcome, just an unfortunate one.

I think otherwise. We all know that the fastest-growing (or largest, I can never remember which) registered group of voters are those who choose to be independant. The problem, then, is that this fairly large section of the electorate has no voice in the primary stage, excepting those states (very few) which have open primaries. Fun as these are (and they did give a big boost to McCain) I can't help thinking that people actually dedicated to a specific party do have a right to choose their own candidate without outside voters.

But just because someone doesn't agree with any of the current political parties doesn't mean that they should have no say in who their choices are, does it? Some might say that yes, that is the sacrafice you make, but I think primaries are more important than that; not being able to vote in a primary is nearly as bad as not being able to vote in the general election.

What I'm proposing, then, is a framework in which independants can pick candidates for office; this system, as we will see, is not unlike proportional representation, which we'll get to in the next section. Here's how I, and I'd hope the ER, think a system for including independants in the primary season should work:

Voters registered as Independants will be allowed to vote in primary elections, which will be held commensurate with the requirements described above. Anyone will be allowed to run for an independant nomination, provided they are not also running for the nomination of a party that received fifteen percent or more of the popular vote in the last major-office election at whatever level the election itself is taking place (i.e. President, Governor, or Mayor). Alternately, candidates from the "major parties" would be allowed, but would be dropped from the independant ticket if they did indeed win the nomination of their party. I worry that, while this step would include major-party "mavericks" like McCain, it would also make the independent primary seem to be a "consolation round." So this is definitely an area that needs to be debated.

Each voter registered as an independant will get two or three votes--but definitely not one--to select two or three--but again, definitely not one--candidates. This is because ut wouldn't work to run just one independant candidate, as that candidate would inevitably be partisan and by definition not broadly inclusive of the electorate he or she supposedly represents. But two or three presents much more opportunity for balance. This problem would be lessened if every voter got only one vote and the top two or three vote-getters were then nominated, but I think it's crucial to encourage third-party health (although this would be an election likely involving only third-party candidates) by allowing people to "throw away their vote" on an ideologically appealing but seemingly unelectable choice.

The hope here is to allow the inclusion of candidates not able to secure the nomination from their own party, or to give greater visibility and support to "minor" candidates who might present a viable alternative to the mainstream candidates but would otherwise not receive too much support. The danger here is that the most visible third-party alternative, Nader in this year's case, will dominate, but I hope by putting forth two or three candidates, at least one new candidate will come to public attention, and even if this person isn't elected, his or her views and party will gain entry to the mainstream discourse.

A brief note, before we move on: as I write this, the Republican convention is in full swing, and on the radio the other day I heard a delegate talking about how McCain's brief candidacy was useful because it "got people interested in politics." Lord knows I hate getting self-righteous and angry, but...come on! He was essentially saying that it was good that other positions got brought up in the primaries, not because they could provoke a useful dialogue on the platform (that and the candidate already having been decided), but because it would focus more attention on the "real" candidate. Did he actually think that once McCain was essentially bashed into compliance, his supporters would be "good losers" and turn to Bush? And if so, is that good for democracy?

One of the prime benefits of everything being mentioned here, although I don't think it's such a big point that I need to keep reiterating it, is that electoral reform will increase voter turnout. It has in other countries, and it will here. Oh, I won't deny the essential laziness of Americans--it's one of our national gifts--but I think it could be better than the 50% or so we manage in Presidential elections, and let's not even talk about off-years. More choice means more power means more participation means more democracy. If there's a higher voter turnout, it means there's more agreement between voters and politicians, because if 50% of the populace votes for a contest that's a "landslide" (say 60%-40%) more people will have voted for the winner in a close election that goes 52%-37%-11% with 80% of the populace voting.

Studies have shown that one of the causes of low turnout is decreased partisanship. Why? Because without partisanship, there is no sense of contest, of choice. Why less partisanship? The current two-party setup doesn't let there be real conflict, though this is counterintuitive. While of course each party should, in theory, take up opposing positions on an issue (although this implies that there are only two positions you could take on any given issue), you would have to agree with every one of these positions to whoelheartedly support the party, and with the number of issues America faces today, there is no way one party could take morally and philosophically consistant stances on everything. Thus, within each party interest groups demand compromise towards the positions of the opposing party, because they want to both remain in the party and have their interests reflected. So we end up, naturally enough, with to very similar parties.

But, why, for instance, should the GOP be pro-choice, as some within it have suggested? Is pro-life not a somewhat defensible position? It is. It's like saying the Catholic church shouldn't oppose premarital sex. They're the Catholic church! That's what they do! If we lived in a one-party system, then it would make more sense to argue for positional change within a party. But as it is, if abortion is that big of an issue for you, vote for the Democrats. Otherwise, vote Republican and argue against pro-life policies while they're in office.

It's understandable why this happens, though. There's too few parties, and there's no real choice. There's no conflict besides the most superficial kind, and without real political conflict there can't be positive change. There can only be negative change, and negative conlflict--physical violence. Think low voter turnout isn't a big deal? Just apathetic Americans? Think again. I think there's only so long a populace can go on feeling impotant. If you want change, then the ER party is a way to go.

 

3) Third-Party Support

 

Two words: proportional representation.

Now, I'm well aware there's a danger here, as has been abundantly illustrated by certain European countries who change governments like old socks. But. I'd like to think: a) this is the exception rather than the rule; b) our lengthy experience with a two-party system will mitigate the effects; and c) we can find some practical way to limit the confusion and chaos sometimes brought on by the multi-multi-multi-party system that proportional representation sometimes ushers in.

The thing about proportional representation, for me, is that it is both a very easy solution and a very dangerous one. That it is easy is not the reason it has not yet been tried in America, nor is the danger. It is simply because we are locked into a two-party system and to break free of that would likely reduce, though hardly eliminate, the power of those two existing parties.

It is the obvious solution, but it is also a difficult one. The danger here is to party loyalty and identification, party unity, and societal bonds, in that order of increasing hyperbole and lessening likelihood.

Why should allowing greater power to more parties decrease party identification and loyalty? It seems counterintuitive. But one could also ask: are people more likely to shift their loyalty between two opposed things, or many much less differentiated things? I think it's clearly the latter. While, of course, our two current parties offer us real little choice and are not all that different, they are still opposed, and voters rarely switch from Democrat to Republican, or vice versa. But what would prevent someone from switching between the Green and Progressive party, say, or a Libertarian and Objectivist party, because of some minor shift in policy that they found personally objectable? It could have a damning effect on parties' abilities to retain members, as well as a popular sense of membership in a party as helping to define one's personal identity. Granted, there is little of that now (and I do think it's a good thing for the health of a democracy), but it is possible that proportional representation would exacerbate the problem, making the party system into little more than a consumer marketplace where voters pick and choose based on what they temporarily want, rather than what is good in the long term.

And yes, this is important, because politics is temporal but not transient. That is to say, it is a time-based activity (legacy is for the historians) but it is not something that fades, or that it can be played moment-to-moment. One of the great faults of our modern democracy is that it does little planning for the long-term. We rarely think in terms of what's good for the whole. And since decreased party loyalty and identification hampers parties' ability to form a coherant platform and build support, this greatly lessens party unity, which is crucial to getting a coherant set of policies enacted into law.

Again, not everyone will agree that party unity is a good thing. And I myself am certainly not sure that we need to put in place structural supports to increase solidarity and bloc voting, as some have proposed. But I also think that unity can't really get much less than it is now and still have a functioning system. The value a government made up of two or three major parties whose members generally all vote together is huge in terms of a functional society than can enact real change, despite the dangers to democracy and representation. I don't think we need to go towards the British or Japanese model, but neither do we need to head towards Italy.

The danger here is that, when attempting to empower parties, we will actually create a system where the coalition rules, with no party able to govern without making concessions and including other parties in the government. Now, this is much less likely to happen here (as it has happened in European countries) because we don't have a parliamentary system, but can you imagine a Congress containing 18 parties, none of which has a majority? You think we have gridlock now!

The big "bullshit sociological" worry I have is that proportional representation could greatly increase the pace of splintering we see in American society. Interest groups could get very important if they each get their own party, and this would only encourage Americans to think in terms of (often very visible and itentity-defined) group identification rather than common interest. I differ from many proposing proportional representation in that I have grave doubts about "multiculturalism" as it is currently espoused and practiced, though of course not about diversity in general, which is more a foregone conclusion than a political movement. Though there's no space to discuss it here, I worry that we might get a government very much like that propsoed by Iris Marion Young, in which each "interest group" (she does not explain how these would be defined) gets one vote on bills. (My full critique on Young can be found in my "Overculture and the Similarity of Difference.")

So proportional representational is the easy solution, but a very difficult one to actually implement. It is obvious by itself, but far less obvious how it could be effectively implemented without the result being political chaos. Nevertheless, I sincerely believe that it is the best answer for effective reform of our current two-party system into a multi-party system--but I also think that it is going to require much debate before being implemented.

All right; disclaimer over. Now let's look at what I think is the best way to encourage third-party participation in government:

First, of course, proportional representation. It wouldn't make much difference in Presidential elections, but it would drastically change any election where there is more than one position in a body up for grabs, be that multiple Congressional seats, school board seats, or county judges. Essentially, voters would get as many votes, perhaps plus one, as there were seats, and the top vote-getters would get the seats. This is already the way school board and other local elections work, but it would notably change state senates and the federal Congress.

The most superficially radical part of proportional representation comes here: local districting would be largely eliminated. In large states (those with, say, more than 7 House seats), the population would be divided in half geographically for Representative but not Senatorial elections. For the purposes of state senates, each district would now elect five senators, with redisctricting done as this condition dictates.

I'm aware that this would make campaigning more difficult (then again, see the new proposed structure for campaign finance), but I don't think it would eliminate governmental sensitivity to local concerns. Town, city, and county governments would continue largely unchanged, for one thing. For another, the relevence of truly local concerns on the state and national level has decreased significantly since 1787, due to both an expansion in the country's size and the development of transportation and communication networks. While I'm not denying the relevence of local concerns, I don't think they need to be (or, at present, are) micromanaged by "hands-on" representatives serving small (relatively) districts.

All this aside, I think few would argue against the contention that proportional representation would greatly empower third parties, largely because it would counteract the most persistant and, in many ways, accurate arguement against them under the current system--that you're "throwing your vote away" by supporting someone other than a Democrat or Republican. Some liberal commentators like to deride this belief--"But you're sending a message!"--but if it weren't true, we wouldn't need to reform the electoral system.

The way proportional representation does this (and all of this is heavily recycled reasoning on my part, so much so that I can't even quote an original source) is by giving people multiple votes. This might not seem like much, but think of the two possible situations.

a) As is common these days, no one candidate is particularly exciting. But in a two-party system, you're going to vote for the Democrat if you're leftist or the Republican if you're rightist not out of convictions, but out of fear. Fear that the Democrat is going to take away your right to own a handgun or that the Republican is going to take away your right to have an abortion, for instance. The reasoning is that you could vote for, say, the Green party candidate, because he or she has positions closest to your interests, but if many people do that the leftist vote will be split, and the Republican will win. But in a multi-party system, you have the option of voting for both a Democratic and Green candidate--and if most leftists do so, then while Republicans will certainly make it into office, so will an almost equal number of combined Greens and Democrats (depending on the demographic breakdown of the district).

b) One or more of the candidates is exciting. If it's a major-party candidate, then proportional representation hardly limits your choices. But if it's a third-party candidate--or multiple candidates--then PR is a great help. It negates the "wasted vote" quandary by allowing voters to choose both a candidate who opposes those views they support, as well as a candidate who supports those views--and we all know those are rarely found in the same candidate.

I should pause here for a brief but important note. Because, again, we're not in a parliamentary system (though this is an option that deserves discussion), PR as it is most likely to be enacted in America would be different from that seen in European States. In Germany, for instance, thirty percent of the popular vote for a certain party gets you thirty percent of the seats in the legislature. I don't think the party system is strong enough in America (or could be made strong enough, or should be) to support this system, which has its merits. Instead, I think keeping things somewhat local and allowing candidates to express their own views is a better idea.

The other, less exciting part of third-party support is ballot initiatives. It is extremely, extremely difficult to get a candidate on a ballot if that candidate is not from one of the established parties. Remember the suggestion above that candidates could only run for an independent nomination if they came from a party that got less than 15% in the last Presidential election? Well, that's a direct response to the current policy that any party that gets five percent of the popular vote is guaranteed a slot--and this is the only really fair way to get in.

Everything else involves getting a lot of signatures in a short amount of time, and say what you want about personal dedication and volunteerism, it simply takes a large amount of cash to get, say, 5,000 signatures from every county in every state in the country, which is what you need to do to have a chance in a Presidential election, or just every county in the state to get onto a Congressional ballot. This is not how we encourage third parties, and certainly not third parties that aren't fronted by billionaires or involve religious fanatics.

Certainly, standards should not be so low that any party can get on the ballot. I don't want a bunch of bored football players in the offseason to form a political party and get on the ballot just so they can have something to do on lonely Sunday afternoons. But again, the sense of localism that our current system purports to be encouraging is a moot point now. A party should only have to get a certain number of signatures from the entire state to get on the ballot. Just because a party has stronger support in, say, Westchester County than Oneida County (which is, er, upstate in New York) doesn't mean they shouldn't have the chance to get elected. There will always be regional divisions, right down to the town level. No one pretends that a state's Governor is there by a harmonious, natural, consensus-based vote. One of the reasons we can now have third parties is that we can agree that no one party can adequately represent a consensus-based set of issues.

 

IV. Strategy and Goals

 

The main goal of the ER is: instituting real electoral reform, as outlined in section III, above. This is the overriding objective. Not gaining power, or establishing itself as a mainstream party, or even fighting for "social justice." Electoral reform, and that's it.

While good political parties take positions on a variety of issues, we don't have room in the current system for this setup. So we must make room for it by not getting distracted. There are many other groups out there to fight the good fight, whatever you happen to think that is. We're fighting ours.

The secondary goal, which should only be abandoned if there can be a strong appeal made against it in favor of the above goal, is to win at least one state in the Presidential elections of 2004 or 2008, and thereby force the vote into Congress. This may be done by running the Presidential election as something of a "primary"--that is, by campaigning primarily in one or two states, though also showing some national attention.

To this end, it is probably desirable to pick a regionally attractive candidate. This is a very, very important point that I can't really address here because it would be fairly time-sensitive, and dependant on the area in which the ER built up enough support. Even if we could sign on, say, Bruce Springsteen, it would be stupid to try and use him to win New Jersey if the ER was strongest in the West. But no matter what, the candidate must be powerful and rousing enough to convince people to cast what is, essentially, a protest vote.

There is, again, the danger explained above of being seen as a "single-issue" party, or more specifically here, of have a state essentially take itself out of a Presidential election. Well, a state is not a homogenous entity, and I think there's enough people in many states that are left out of Presidential elections anyway to get the necessary majority.

It is also important to clearly indicate to voters why a third party winning at least one state would be as much of a victory as a major party winning the whole election. That is to say, so the fragility of the system would be revealed, forcing change and empowering citizens to advance reform. This will be explained in more detail below.

It is vitally important that the ER be the first third party to win at least one state in a Presidential election. While the ER should fully support other third parties and engage in lively debate, the focus and bipartisanship of the ER dictate that it is the best "first step" into the mainstream.

Another secondary goal, then, is to encourage broad, cross-spectrum support for the ER. This involves forging links with existing partisan organizations and incorporating other ideas about electoral reform into the existing ones. Because we will be dealing with left and right, compromise may be necessary. These compromises will be made, excepting that these compromises violate the two primary goals of electoral reform to the exclusion of other issues, and the winning of one state in a Presidential election. It is vital that the ER be a party representing all interests so that it can garner as much support as possible. When activists and voters want change in the structural supports of the political system, they should only think of the ER.

In the interim period between now and the Presidential elections, the ER will intitate alliences, generally at the local level, and if possible run candidates for office. It will make the necessary preparations for getting the party on the national ballot in most, if not all, of the fifty states. It will make its prescence known to politicians and activists who advocate any of the positions listed above, and work towards finding a candidate to run for national office.

It will relentlessly seek media attention. This is, of course, a mixed blessing, but it is vital for a new party. Results will not be realistically expected for 2-2.5 years, as it should not peak before the primary season.

The policies will be debated, revised, and (if possible) tested on real models. By the time the 2004 election rolls around (which will start in, er, late 2003), the ER should have the most comprehensive, workable, and attractive set of policies, clearly articulated, to enact real reform in the current political system.

The ER will disband 4 years after it wins at least one state in a Presidential election, unless 75% of the registered members (not just of those voting, but of the whole) vote to continue operating. In this case, the maximum period of extension will be another 4 years. This is vitally important; the ER cannot (we should live so long!) be a springboard to individual power. I know this won't sell very well in our current climate, but one can hope.

Here is why it is a big deal if a third-party candidate wins only one state in a Presidential election: the Constitution requires that a candidate win a majority of Electoral College votes in order to become President. In a two-party race, this is no big deal, since whoever gets the most votes has, by definition, greater than 50%. But if a third party candidate can take one state, that could easily lower the winner's percentage to 49% or lower. In this case, the election would be sent to Congress, where it can be safely assumed that the vote will go along party lines. So, for instance, should Nader or someone win 4% of the electoral (important note: not popular) vote in the general election, although Gore might have 49% to Bush's 47%, if it goes to the Republican-dominated Congress, Bush will win. How will the population react to that? With rage, one would hope. At any rate, we can rely on the media to do so. With luck, this would start a movement towards electoral reform, and no matter what, thrust it strongly into the public consciousness.

 

V. Conclusion Consisting of Questions With Answers

 

Is this, in many ways, an immoral strategy? No.

All right, but isn't it really cynical, and negative? I don't think it is negative (see below), and I also think that a certain degree of cynicism is necessary to bring about sincerity, if that's your game. The current system deserves cynicism. It deserves much worse than that.

But it's manipulative, isn't it? It's just playing a game. Well, that's politics. That's the game we are playing. If you think the system can be better changed from without, then go ahead. Violence is an option. This is, I can freely say, an attempt to avert violence. I think it's looming, and unlike some, I don't want that.

Isn't this a pluralist version of the "leninist vanguard" that has been shown to be intensely anti-democratic? Isn't the ER just a cultivated group of professional political revolutionaries? Well, I hope at this point I've stressed the inclusiveness I want the ER to exemplify so much that this question doesn't need to be asked. Broad support is one of the major reasons for the creation of the ER, and I hate the idea of an elitist vanguard. Hell, if the ER doesn't manage to get broad popular support, it should disband, because clearly the idea's not working.

It seems so destructive though--like sabotage. Isn't a plan to "smash the system" simply inviting a smashing of the resulting system? Positive options have been tried, and exhausted. The negative option of violence is still there. This is a middle step that does not seek to smash anything, but rather to demonstrate the weaknesses in the system and then fix them. We're not trying to start a revolution--we're just trying to make things work, and to bring about what we think is a fair arrangement. Justice, that forgotten quality.

I propose the ER because I think it is what is necessary right now. This is the best response to the problems posed by the current system. It's not pretty, and it's not as easy as one could hope for, but unless the political landscape changes drastically in the next few years to spontaneously allow room for third parties, this is what has to happen. One state in a Presidential election. No other issues. Broad support. That's it. It's all there.

 


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