for a day, reformer for life
John B. Anderson
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
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
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.