The Uninvited

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 federal office.

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." -Walter Cronkite

But clean money alone will not solve all of our electoral problems. We need to try other creative ways to make real our democracy.

* 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.

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