The Progressive magazine, November 2000
... The world's oldest constitutional democracy is about to
elect its next President. But, by many indications, our democracy
is seriously ill.
Our electoral process is unjust and undemocratic. It favors
the wealthy and those who cater to them. More than ever, people
feel locked out.
In 1960, 63 percent of the electorate voted in the Presidential
election. By 1996, that number dropped to 49 percent, and it may
drop again this year.
"A majority of Americans [believe] that a vote has not
only lost its actual value in terms of influencing the result
of an election . . . but also its symbolic value as a democratic
virtue," write Jack C. Doppelt and Ellen Shearer in Nonvoters:
Americas No Shows (Sage Publications, 1999). "The vast majority
of nonvoters are not turned off by a particular candidate or a
certain election. They opted out long ago and are beyond the reach
of conventional measures to bring them back."
According to several recent studies, America's young adults
are the least likely to vote of any group. "Today, fewer
and fewer young adults are voting- which raises a fundamental
question for our democracy," says the Aspen Institute, which
conducted one of the studies. "Their voting rate is disturbingly
low: Less than 33 percent of those aged eighteen to twenty-four
voted for President in 1996 and less than 20 percent voted in
the 1998 elections."
If we are to have a mature and functioning democracy in this
country, the electoral changes need to be broad and deep. They
need to take into consideration the reasons citizens think that
politics has nothing to do with them; that politicians don't care
about, or even consider, their lives; that politicians are untrustworthy,
deceptive, and manipulative; that campaigns are bought and sold;
and that people who are poor or from third parties are shut out.
The first and most important reform is fundamental campaign
finance reform. We need full public financing of all races for
The McCain-Feingold bill, which would close the soft money
loophole, would take some of the most egregious offenses out of
the system, but it would not do enough to clean up politics. The
rich and the corporate sector would still predominate in the giving
to political action committees. So-called independent groups would
also have a disproportionate influence.
A better idea is the clean money system, such as that advocated
by Public Campaign. Under such a system, candidates who reject
private contributions would receive money from public coffers.
And candidates ought to be able to get additional funding, as
they do in Maine, if their opponents are spending excessively
or if outside groups are spending large amounts of money to attack
them. Only by leveling the field of play can we ever hope to curb
the power of money in politics.
"The broadcasters don't own the airwaves. The public
does. We lend the industry billions of dollars worth of our airwaves,
tree of charge, in return for a pledge to serve the public interest.
Profiteering on democracy shouldn't be part of the deal."
But clean money alone will not solve all of our electoral
problems. We need to try other creative ways to make real our
* Open debates. The private Presidential Commission on Debates
deprived Ralph Nader and Reform Party candidate Patrick Buchanan
a spot. The commission is a plaything of the Democratic and Republican
parties and is funded by large corporations. Such a commission
should not be allowed to corner the market on debates. It should
be abolished immediately and be replaced by a public commission
that should set guidelines that allow real participation.
Any candidate who qualifies for the ballot in enough states
to be elected and whom the polls show as having 1 percent or more
of the vote should be entitled to a seat at the table.
* Free media access. Candidates this year are spending $1
billion on television advertising, according to PaineWebber Research.
Only well-heeled candidates can play the TV money game. Free air
time for candidates who clear a low threshold of support could
turn minority candidates into viable contenders.
The U.S. Congress has considered more than 160 pieces of legislation
since 1960 that would have granted candidates air time for free
or at reduced cost. It voted down every one of them.
The airwaves belong to the people. And we, the people, should
insist that Congress give candidates free air time.
* Ballot access. Nader had to file suit (with the help of
the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of
Law) in five states to try to gain access to the ballot because
they put such high hurdles in his way. Nader and the Brennan Center
argued that ballot access rules placed an unfair burden on minority
party candidates and were unconstitutional. In Illinois and South
Dakota, federal judges deemed early filing deadlines unconstitutional.
Ballot access hurdles must be lowered so that more candidates
can enter the contests.
* Mail-in and Internet voting and same-day voter registration.
In many states, people are unable to vote because they forget
to register ahead of time. Others are homebound or have trouble
making it to the polls because of difficulties with paying for
child care and transportation, or because their jobs keep them
away. These simple reforms would increase turnout.
We must make the act of voting as convenient as possible.
* Proportional representation. In this voting system, in a
district with ten seats, 20 percent of the votes would win two
seats, 30 percent of votes would win three seats, and so forth.
"Proportional representation is based on the principle that
any group of like-minded voters should win legislative seats in
proportion to its share of the popular vote," says the Center
for Voting and Democracy. "Whereas the winner-take-all principle
awards 100 percent of the representation to a 50.1 percent majority,
proportional representation allows voters in a minority to win
their fair share of representation. "
The United States should take note: Proportional representation
is used by most of the world's established democracies.
* Instant runoff voting. This method, which would replace
the drawn-out primary process, is designed to ensure a majority
in a winner-take-all election. Voters rank the candidates according
to preference. If, in the first round of voting, one candidate
has a clear majority, that candidate wins. If not, the candidate
with the least number of votes is eliminated and your vote counts
for your favorite candidate who is still running. The process
continues until there is a majority winner.
Instant runoff voting is currently used to elect the mayor
of London and the Australian House of Representatives. There is
no reason why we shouldn't give it a try here.
Revitalizing our electoral system is a top priority. We need
a democracy that works well, that encourages vigorous debate,
new ideas, and active participation by an informed, concerned
citizenry. We're a long way from that now.