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Electoral Reform


There seems to be broad agreement – both on the left and the right – that the US faces a crisis of democracy. Americans simply don’t vote. Turn-out for off year elections averages between 25-33% of registered voters. In presidential years officials are thrilled to get a turn out of over 50%. Remember we are talking about registered voters. Half of eligible adults simply don’t register. Which means somewhere between 25 and 30 percent of potential voters are choosing the elected officials who run the most powerful country in the world. Our current “winner takes all” system also leads to a situation in which the major parties only seriously contest national elections in 15 “swing” states, leading residents in the other 35 states to conclude that their votes don’t really count.

Poll after poll shows that the people who don’t vote are under under thirty, live below the poverty line and/or represent disenfranchised minorities – for the obvious reason that they rarely see the middle aged white men in suits who run for office acting in their interests. In 2008 Obama convinced a large number of these historic non-voters that he could and would represent their interests – as well as capturing a large anti-war protest vote (people forget it was mainly opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that made George Bush the most unpopular president in American history).

Red State-Blue State: the Stalemate in Federal Governance

Now Obama’s own popularity is sinking fast, largely based to his failure to deliver on campaign promises to end the wars in the Middle East, close Guantanamo and deliver meaningful banking reform and economic stimulus legislation. This, in turn, is blamed on an impasse with Senate Republicans – owing to archaic filibuster rules that enable a minority party with more than 40 Senate seats to prevent passage of legislation they oppose. According to mainstream media pundits, the main reason for Obama’s impasse in Congress is that we are a deeply divided nation. Their simplistic analysis is that some of us live in red states and some in blue ones. There is really nothing that can be done about it. This is just the way things are. If you happen to be a Republican living in a blue state or a Democrat living in a red state, it’s just tough luck. If you want a voice in government, you will just have to move to another state – or simply not vote, since your vote doesn’t count.

Some of Us Like Other Colors (Such As Green)

I myself don’t buy the notion that the US is a deeply divided nation – or that American voters fall into two totally separate camps. I don’t believe Americans are substantially different from citizens of other western democracies in having a broad range of views on different political issues. I rarely find myself agreeing with other liberals/leftists on every issue. I am definitely socially progressive, in that I favor abortion and gay rights.

However I am also a fiscal conservative and agree with right wing libertarians about the need to reduce the soaring US deficit and to implement major banking reforms that include closer regulation of the Federal Reserve.

Is Electoral Reform a Reasonable Progressive Issue?

There seems to be agreement on all points on the political spectrum that our current elected government doesn’t really represent the American public. Whether this relates to the fact that they are elected by a mere 30% of eligible adults is hotly debated on the left.

Many progressives argue that electoral reform is a waste of time – that the only solution to our non-representative government is to extract corporate interests from the electoral (and legislative process) by organizing at the state level to revoke corporate charters and by mandating that all elections be publicly financed.

While I agree that these are possible solutions, I don’t believe they are the only ones.  In my view the US has reached a crisis of democracy in which declining voter turn-out produces a series of divided or minority governments incapable of passing legislation. For some reason they seem to be 15 years behind other western democracies, which for the most part were forced to confront the problem in the mid to late nineties. With the notable exception of the UK and Canada, they succeed in substantially increasing voter turn-out (and overall legislative efficiency) through a series of electoral reforms that encouraged the active participation of minor parties in government.

Moreover given the recent Supreme Court decision overturning federal campaign finance reform, I think it will be extremely difficult to mobilize grassroots support for publicly financed elections. In my mind it makes more sense strategically to nibble around the edges of electoral reform. For two reasons. First, the best way to build a movement is to inspire progressives that they can win small victories. Secondly, the experience in other western democracies is that any reform that improves participation by the disenfranchised reduces corporate interference in the political process.

A Worldwide Trend Towards Proportional Representation

The replacement of “winner takes all” voting systems with some form of “proportional representation” is one important reform that has improved both voter turn-out and legislative efficiency in other western democracies. Along with a number of other simple electoral reforms, such as scheduling elections on weekends or holidays and the move to postal ballots.

At present the US, Canada and the UK are the only western democracies that still conduct their national elections via an archaic “winner takes all” system, in which voters only have the option of voting for one of the two major, corporate sponsored candidates.  The ultimate outcome in such an election is that a vote for a third minority party candidate is generally considered a wasted vote.  And voters, believing they have less and less voice in a political system they know is funded and controlled by powerful corporations, turn out in smaller and smaller numbers.

Under the proportional representation voting used in other industrialized countries, instead of electing one representative in each small district or ward, multi-member districts (or wards) are established in which several candidates are elected at once. Under this system the candidates who win seats in these multi-member districts are determined by the total proportion of votes their party receives.

Proportional Representation Defined

There are several different types of proportional representation.  The two features they all share in common are 1) instead of electing one representative in each small district or ward, multi-member districts (or wards) are established in which several candidates are elected at once and 2) the candidates who win seats in these multi-member districts are determined by the total proportion of votes their party receives. For example if Democrats win 50 percent of the vote, they get 50 percent of the seats; if Republicans win 30 percent and a third party ten percent, they win 30 per cent and ten percent of the seats respectively.  Though strictly speaking 30 percent is a minority, it is a sizeable minority to end up with no voice at all in how a community (or state or country) will be governed.

The May 2010 British elections provide a dramatic example of how extremely unfair this winner take all system can be – and has led to strong voter support for electoral reform in the UK that incorporates proportional representation. Under the current system candidates can only win a seat in Parliament by winning an election in a small local electorate. The Conservatives with a total of 36.1% of the vote won 306 seats (because they won 30 electorates), Labour with 29% of the vote won 258 seats and the Liberal Democrats with 23% of the vote only got 57.

My Own Personal Experience with Proportional Representation

As a current resident of New Zealand (and enrolled voter) I have direct experience with local and national elections that employ proportional representation. After more than 20 years as an American grassroots organizer – where I practically sweated bullets for mostly invisible peace and justice issues (such as single payer health care and the Equal Rights Amendment – does anyone even remember the Equal Rights Amendment?), I can’t describe what a thrill it has been to work on two election campaigns (in 2005 and 2008) and both times see candidates representing my political views elected to national government.

Sadly the two major political parties (Labour and National) continue to dominate the New Zealand political landscape, owing to the disproportionate support they receive from both business and the (foreign controlled) media.

At the same time, when voters are given a real choice, it is actually quite rare for either Labour or National to receive a majority of votes. Which means they are forced to negotiate with minor parties for the support they need to form a government (under a Parliamentary system, any government that can’t command a majority of votes is forced to resign and call a new election).

What MMP Has Meant for the Green Party

Although the New Zealand Green Party has never been in formal coalition with either major party, both have needed our votes to pass their own bills – and in return have supported important Green Party legislation. In the last eight years, this has included legalization of prostitution, enactment of a national antibiotics surveillance program, a flexible working hours mandate, a school food and nutrition guide and a law allowing women to breast feed in prison; creation of a complementary health advisor position in the Ministry of Health; repeal of both the Sedition Law and a loophole that allowed parents to legally beat their children; and millions of dollars for government grants and guaranteed loans for solar water heaters and home insulation.

Perhaps even more important is the platform (and media attention) being in Parliament provides to advance Green issues and policies – and at the same time challenge the flagrantly pro-corporate policies and actions of the major parties

Tackling the Easiest Reforms First

The specific reform that seems easiest to achieve in the US (in part because there is already a bill in Congress) is Rep. Susan Davis (D-California) Universal Right to Vote by Mail Act (HR1604). HR1604 would amend the Help America Vote Act of 2002 to allow all US citizens the prerogative of voting my mail if they so choose. In other words it removes restrictions in 22 states that require specific reasons, such as doctors’ notes, for voting absentee by mail. The bill cleared the House Administration Committee on June 10th. The next step is a vote on the House floor.

At present there are thousands of Americans who have difficulty voting because of long or irregular work hours that make it hard to get to the polls on election day. Moreover HR1604 would also substantially reduce the cost of elections for cash strapped state and local governments. As well as restoring voting rights to inner city Americans who never seem to be allocated enough polling places or voting machines.

A second complementary reform is for activists to lobby their states to make election day a civic holiday, as it already is in most industrialized countries (and in Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and West Virginia.

Taking On the Winner Take All Voting System

Tackling our “winner take all” voting system will be more difficult. However, based on the experience of other western democracies which have done so, it will substantially alter the legislative bodies that represent us – a first important step in extricating multinational corporations from our political process.

Interestingly there is nothing in the US Constitution that would prevent states from choosing their Congressional delegation as a bloc by proportional representation or their senators by IRV or Single Transferable Voting (under STV, voters rank order their choices for two or more candidates). In fact until the passage of the 12th amendment in 1803, the President and Vice-President were chosen by STV. The Constitution merely stipulates that each state shall have two senators and that “representatives shall be apportioned among the several states by their apportioned numbers.”

STUART JEANNE BRAMHALL is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and author of The Most Revolutionary Act: Memoir of an American Refugee. She lives in New Zealand.






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