Election Lessons

by Michael Albert

Z Magazine, December 2000


What happened? Amazingly, as we go to press, still no president. But we do know that of all potential voters those Not Voting got roughly 50 percent. Gore got 24 percent. Bush got 24 percent. Nader got 2 percent. Salient facts: Twice as many folks did not vote as supported either candidate. The Greens wound up the third largest party in the U.S. Voter anomalies and tampering came out of the shadows.

Non-voters saw their choice as being screwed by Gore or being screwed by Bush. To avoid self abuse, they stayed home. Those who own capital or hold highly empowered jobs assessed impact on their bounty. They preferred Bush, but voted significantly for Gore as well. Those who occupy disempowered social positions and who voted at all, were often moved by media-distorted misperceptions of welfare costs, defense issues, job possibilities, and the relative power of government as compared to business, and often wound up voting for (spin-doctored) personality, since nothing else seemed compelling. Virtually everyone took for granted that society's defining features would go unaltered. We don't know how many would prefer systemic changes were that option freely available. Then, the important part, there was also Nader/LaDuke.

For a serious leftist, it should be second nature that the U. S. electoral system is utterly compromised by lobby, party, and candidate money, and even more by the structure of our government. We have little popular impact on who runs for office. We lack honest knowledge of what candidates intend to do. We lack contextual knowledge of the issues. We lack the power to impact candidates once in office. More broadly, the two main parties exist to ensure that society's haves retain dominance over society's have-nots.

In Election 2000 we also saw that the path of some to the polls was made easy. The path of others was burdened or even blocked. Bumbling tricks impede some voters' preferences being registered or counted. Viewed from abroad, we have the son of an ex-ruler (president) who also ran the country's secret police (CIA) losing the popular vote but hanging on due to a colonial artifact institution plus a ridiculously close vote in a state that his brother rules (governor) and in which oddball ballots and state police intimidation of minority voters were ubiquitous. If the U.S. were a third world country and Florida a third world province, what would everyone think? We should criticize the election's operational corruption, of course, but we should also clarify that these excesses bear the same relation to the election's more basic structural problems as corporate fraud bears to capitalism's more basic structural problems. Electoral corruption might swing an election, as market fraud might enlarge corporate bounty, but underneath the electoral corruption, the two-party system, the government's structure, and the media control of what we know, are what truly ensure our society's perpetual deviation from true democracy.

Elections and Activism

The Nader campaign showed that for getting votes, money matters. Money determines how many people even know you exist; much less know what you favor. It determines whether you are sufficiently visible to inspire belief you can win, which is crucial for holding votes, and whether you can get supporters to the voting booths. Nader got 2.6 million votes. To run well in 2004, the Greens need to get $10 or more from each of those 2.6 million voters for the period from now to the next election. That's the grass roots alternative to government funding.

The Nader campaign showed that for communicating content, media matters. Shutting Nader out of the debates locked the door on the visibility needed to win 5 percent. Pathetic media coverage guaranteed low support, low hope, and thus low votes. Any future campaign must more effectively galvanize alternative media and Internet options and must also mount a far more powerful campaign of visible pressure on mainstream media and on the debate authorities. Why not have rallies of 10,000 and 15,000 people outside NBC, or inside NBC, for that matter?

The explanation for Nader not reaching 5 percent rests partly with money, partly with media, and partly, for that matter, with Gore having run such a pathetic campaign that the lesser evil issue arose so prominently. But there were other reasons as well for a lower than optimal tally, more within our power to correct.

For example, why was Nader's support so low in Black communities and among working people?

In California, the exit polls indicate that Nader did half as well among Blacks as he did among whites. Similarly bad results show up for Nader's tally among union members. If Nader had done better with the blacks and organized workers who went to the polls, it would have easily given him well over 5 percent of the vote.

What about non-voters? Approximately half of all eligible voters didn't vote. If Nader had attracted just a hair over 4 out of every 100 of the non-voters, he would have made 5 percent nationally. If the Nader campaign was in the trenches doing that kind of outreach, 5 percent should have been quite attainable. Left candidates cannot do well if they aren't aggressive about gender and race as well as about class. Even more, they cannot do well without reaching out to those who are disaffected from politics, as compared to those who are already leaning their way. To his great credit, Nader seemed to learn that lesson as the campaign unfolded. Next time, the insight should inform strategy from the outset.

Election reforms?

Is the Electoral College an anachronism? Of course it is. Is the Electoral College reactionary? Well, it was created to insulate the election of the president from the rabble public via a layer of electors who would be properly civilized and wealthy. But that was a long time ago, and now the electors are overwhelmingly bound by a direct vote for the candidates. On the other hand, because the electoral votes allotted to a state are one for each Representative and Senator, the number of electors for small states is even now disproportionately high compared to its population. This is a real problem that warrants getting rid of the whole Electoral College system, or at least changing the votes apportioned to each state. For example, if each state had only as many electoral votes as it had Representatives-that is, if its number of electoral votes were proportional to its population- Gore would have won the Electoral College even without winning Florida.

What is perhaps more interesting, is that the Electoral College causes campaign efforts to be poured into close swing states and away from large states in one camp or the other. If the vote was just one-person one-vote and the most votes wins, election strategy would focus overwhelmingly on the most populated areas without regard for differentials in them.

So the bottom line is that getting rid of the Electoral college would remove an elitist (but barely operational) firewall between the voters and the candidates, would eliminate the disproportionate overvaluing of the populations of small states, and would significantly impact how campaigns are run. On the other hand, eliminating the Electoral College wouldn't enlarge the public's sense of involvement or participation, much less its capacity to affect results, nor would it significantly aid progressive and left aspirations. The Electoral College is important mostly because worries about it open the door to considering other reforms. So once the door is open to election reform, what other reforms should we work for?

(1) Instant Run-off Voting. Under instant runoff voting, voters rank candidates in order of preference. You could vote Nader/Gore/Bush, or any other pattern that represents your true preferences. Ballots are counted in a series of rounds. If a candidate wins a majority of first choices right off, then that candidate immediately wins. If no candidate receives a majority of first choices right off, then the last-place candidate is eliminated. On his or her ballots, second choices are distributed among the remaining candidates. If that fails to produce a winner, eliminating last-place candidates and recounting continues until someone goes over 50 percent. In this way, the lesser evil phenomenon is minimized. In Election 2000, for example, after the first count, Pat Buchanan, who came in last, would have his second place votes distributed upward. Even if all those votes went to Bush, this would not put Bush over the top. Next, Nader's second place votes, as well as any votes he received from Buchanan supporters, would be distributed among remaining candidates. This would win for Gore. Even if Nader had gotten 20 percent of first place votes, supposing those voters had all placed Gore second, Gore would still be the winner.

(2) Proportional Representation. Nearly all elections in the United States are based on the winner-take-all principle. As a result, voters for the candidate who receives the most votes win representation, but voters for the other candidates win nothing. Proportional representation (PR) guarantees that any group of like-minded voters can win legislative seats in proportion to its share of the popular vote. With winner-take-all, 100 percent of the representation goes to a 50.1 percent majority. With proportional representation voters in a minority win their fair share of representation. All the many possible variants of proportional representation promote more accurate input from the spectrum of political opinion in a given electorate, than our current winner take all approach.

(3) Campaign Financing. Everyone knows that having a system in which only the rich can win is a disaster for anything but the interests of the rich. It isn't just that only folks with access to money can win. Nor that only parties with means can win. It is also that incumbents incessantly raise money, becoming beholden to those who give it to them. An interesting alternative might be federal funding of all elections, with a special tax on corporations to foot the bill.

What Now?

Roughly 2.5 million people voted for Nader/LaDuke. Perhaps another 2.5 million would have liked to. Plausibly, another 5 million or more were interested and thinking, "well, maybe." This is a lot of people. How should we retain their interest, enlist their energies, inspire their hopes, and fuel their aspirations? This already receptive audience is large enough to generate more money than federal funding would have. It is large enough to do more effective outreach than the mass media. One approach to eliciting lasting involvement is to form a shadow government (see Z November) and create a continuous arena for participation, creativity, learning, and struggle. Whether with this approach or some other, the measure of the Nader campaign will be whether it creates a clear and powerful way forward that unites diverse constituencies and single-issue movements, that promotes creative and even joyous participation, that produces powerful political priorities, and links to local grassroots organizing, with the national effort helping local efforts and being helped by them. There is a real opportunity in the land. The task is to grab it.

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