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Last week’s article by John Halle highlighted the growing strength of left-wing candidates for municipal office in the United States. As of writing, Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant has pulled ahead by a slim margin in Seattle, while Howie Hawkins, Green and Socialist, received 40% of the vote in his race for City Council in Syracuse, NY. My own campaign for city council in Albany, NY – I am a Green and ideological socialist – saw me come in second to a Democrat. I agree with Halle that the objective conditions for the left’s electoral success in the United States especially at the municipal level are more promising than they have been in decades.
In much of the country gerrymandering and the decay of old party machines have left towns virtual one party fiefdoms for generations. I know when Greens run serious campaigns in upstate New York, we are the second party behind the Democrats. A great deal of potential exists for left campaigns in towns and cities with no Republican presence; the capitulation of Democrats to the ruling class and its policies of austerity, privatization, and economic decay should be a constant theme for all left candidates.
Given the unlikelihood of revolutionary workers’ councils springing up in the not-too-distant future, the real left in the United States must make a cross-party push for serious electoral reform at the local level if it wants to see campaigns like Sawant’s become more than anomalies. Barriers to continued electoral success by alternative parties in the United States are structural, endemic, and onerous. To overcome them, we need an honest effort by the real left outside the Democratic Party to commit to a joint platform on electoral reform. The first test will come in states and municipalities with referendum and initiative, but should be fought anywhere a left grouping can do so. My humble suggestions:
1. Proportional representation: this is the lynchpin of continuing left-wing electoral success in the rest of the world. This reform is actually easier to achieve at local levels, where many officials are elected at-large and city councils could easily convert from multi-member plurality elections to party-list. For areas which prefer some form of geographical representation, mixed-member proportional provides the solution.
2. Ballot access barriers: The left needs to fight for one simple ballot-access standard for all parties across the United States and District of Columbia: 1% of voter registration or the vote for a statewide candidate confers permanent ballot access, and standard, low signature requirements for non-ballot access parties. Alternative party candidates often need to collect staggering amounts of signatures compared to ballot-status parties just to qualify. In New York, prior to 2010 the Green Party needed to collect 15,000 valid signatures from voters in 6 weeks for our statewide candidates, which meant at least 25,000 to ensure we made the ballot. At the local level prior to 2010 we often needed hundreds of signatures just to run for local office. Ballot status has conveyed a much easier procedure.
3. Public Campaign Funding: Campaigns can be expensive even at the local level. Clean money, clean elections block grants to candidates after they raise a small amount of money are still the best way to minimize funding disparities and increase the chance the left has to win. There is no reason to think this could not happen at the municipal level.
4. Permanent Voter Registration: The left needs to demand an end to opt-in voter registration, and instead push for permanent registration kept by the board of election via your address on tax returns, DMV records, etc. Making everyone permanently registered would benefit the left as it is often the poor, young, and transient who have a hard time remaining on the voter rolls.
This isn’t a comprehensive list, nor is it likely to be enacted in the near future. Clearly the real left in the United States needs to learn to embed itself in communities and raise demands that resonate with the population if it is to succeed at the polls.
Yet a serious drive by parties of the real left to win these battles would invigorate left-electoral campaigns and point the way forward to a more radical confrontation with the state and capitalism in the future as the parties grow based on their activist and electoral success.
Peter A. LaVenia, PhD. – Peter has a PhD in Political Science from the University at Albany, SUNY. He is currently the Secretary of the New York State Green Party and is a researcher and organizer for the civic activist Ralph Nader.