* board officer

Democrat for a day, reformer for life

By John B. Anderson
Published October 27th 2004
Almost 50 years ago, Robert A. Dahl, one of the leading exponents of Democratic pluralism, wrote that the U.S. had developed a political system in which all the active and legitimate groups in the population can make themselves heard at some crucial state in the process of decision.

Later, Dahl would cite this system and its winner-take-all elections as a principal reason why such optimism was not only premature but had blinded him and his fellow champions of Democratic pluralism to the failure of our society to reach a nirvana where all groups would be heard and their opinions truly represented.

As an Independent candidate for president in 1980, I learned the bitter truth that a challenger to the two-party system is almost immediately branded a "spoiler." Independents represent almost a third of the American electorate. The number of voters who choose not to register as either Republican or Democrat is increasing, particularly among those 18 to 30 years old. However, notwithstanding these facts an Independent or third-party candidate has no chance in a presidential race of succeeding or even getting a hearing because of our first-past-the-post system where a plurality rather than a majority determines a winner.

As a registered Independent in a "swing state," I am confronted, therefore, with the necessity in 2004 of deciding between the two major-party candidates if I want my vote to be decisive. The issues in this election are too grave, and as I write, the race between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry is too close to permit me to vote for Ralph Nader, the Independent, or David Cobb, the Green Party candidate--this, despite the fact that their stands on the war in Iraq, the environment and a wide range of other economic and social issues are much more compatible with my own publicly declared positions. I shall vote for John Kerry in Florida because of the demonstrated unfitness of his Republican opponent in the conduct of his office as president and as a protest to the tawdry tactics used in his re-election campaign, which he has failed to disavow.

However, having made that decision, I am still confronted with and will continue to raise the following questions. Why in this extended and expensive campaign is neither candidate demonstrating the slightest awareness of the need for fundamental reform of our electoral process? Why such little talk of direct election of the president, public financing of elections and a national system of running elections?

Given the ongoing vitriol directed at Nader, why not propose eliminating the spoiler debate by encouraging states to institute an instant runoff where voters would indicate their first choice and also a second or runoff choice? In this well-tested, eminently sensible system, if no candidate has received a majority, the one with the fewest first choices is eliminated, but those ballots are recounted and recorded for each voter's second choice--a process for determining majority support easily handled by modern technology.

Following the suggestion of Dahl, multimember state legislative and congressional districts should be drawn and elected by proportional representation in place of our single-member districting that inescapably leads to gerrymandering, entrenched incumbents, distorted representation of our racial diversity, geographic polarization and denial of voter choice.

To cite just one example of our impoverished politics: Since 1996, incumbents did not even face token opponents in nearly 40 percent of contests for state legislature.

This is just a starter for re-engaging an apathetic electorate by energizing our electoral process.

Yes, I will vote this year, even if I must compromise my status as an Independent. That compromise should not have to be so, and I don't expect it to be in the future. I plan to be part of a movement to support an Independent candidate in 2008, ready to carry an aggressive reform agenda to the American electorate.

The major parties can either prepare for that effort by supporting reforms like instant runoff voting or wring their hands and complain about spoilers. But I assure you it is not Independent voters who are spoiling American democracy.