The Hightower Lowdown

Reprinted from The Hightower Lowdown (January 2001); Copyright 2001 Public Intelligence Inc.

The time is ripe for real electoral reform. Why not try democracy in America?

It took more than a month, but the Powers That Be finally tallied the presidential vote: Bush 5, Gore 4. Never mind that more than 100 million people voted, five authoritarian Supreme Court justices usurped the peopleís sovereign power and named the new president themselves.

By inexplicably seizing Floridaís vote-counting process from that stateís people, courts, and legislature, the five Supremes stripped off their robes of judicial impartiality, abandoned their pretense of strict Constitutional conservatism, and turned to raw partisanship as the basis for forklifting their boy George, like the sack of rocks that he is, from the Texas governorship up to the White House. He is not the President-elect so much as he is the President-designate. Yet there he will sit for four years. God Bless America . . . and please hurry!

With Bush enthroned, the puffheads of the media have rushed forth to tell us that we Americans should give ourselves a big pat on the back because ìThe Systemî worked. After all, there were no tanks in the streets! Weíre assured that an orderly transfer of power (from one corporate party to the other) is underway, that our wondrous democracy has performed its magic, that birds of happiness are singing, that pink fluffy clouds fill our skies, and that all is well in the land of the free.

Hogwash. If there is anything that Election 2000 taught us, itís that our political system deliberately stacks the deck against the democratic will of the people. The candidates themselves were products of a skewed nominating process that guaranteed success for the two guys who sacked up the largest amounts of corrupt corporate money and had the backing of their partiesí power elites; the two establishment parties and their nominees spent some $300 million in special interest funds to misinform the public and avoid the issues that people care most about; the parties conspired to rig the presidential debates so that no third-party voices could intrude and challenge the corporate orthodoxy; then Election Day itself revealed the dirty little secret about our process: ìOne person, one voteî is a hoax.

Far from being a shining example to the rest of the world, the U.S. political system restricts voter choice, entices only half of the people to bother voting, crudely impedes and intimidates people from exercising their voting rights, doesnít even count millions of votes, and does not necessarily elect the person who gets the most votes. As weíve now learned, if five members of the Supreme Court donít like the outcome, they can alter it by political fiat. You donít have to be Mr. Fix-It to sense some serious structural problems here.

These problems arenít new, and many activists have been howling in the wilderness for years about the need for major reform. What is new is that the flaws are now exposed for all to see, and a huge swath of the citizenry has learned for the first time that the sanctity of the vote is hokum.

The establishment, grinning like a cat with feathers on its whiskers, has on the one hand tried to pretend that nothing is amiss, while on the other itís attempted to placate startled voters with vague talk of electoral reform. Even Brother-in-Chief Jeb Bush, along with the notorious Katherine Harris, the Florida secretary of state who became the Cruella De Vil of vote-counting, felt compelled by public disgust with their blatant chicanery to announce that they were creating an ìelection reform commissionî in their state.

As Ernest Hemingway once admonished, however, ìNever mistake motion for action.î Tongues will wag, bills will be introducedóbut neither party really wants democratic reform or, for that matter, democracy.

But the anti-democratic excesses of this last election have opened so many eyes that there is now a majority constituency for reform. Here are half dozen steps that would help Americaís democratic voice ring true:

1. Adopt IRV

IRV isnít a person, but a simple, sensible, cost-effective, and much more democratic method of voting. Instant Runoff Voting itís called, and itís a form of preferential balloting that allows us to be both principled and pragmatic when we go into the voting booth.

Instead of having to choose only one candidate in, say, a GoreñBushñNader presidential race, IRV lets each voter rank the candidates in order of preference: 1st choice, 2nd, 3rd, etc. When the ballots are tallied on election night, all the 1st choices are counted.

Say it comes out Bush 40%, Gore 38%, and Nader 22%. Since no one got a majority, an ìinstant runoffî occurs by eliminating the candidate who came in lastóin this case Nader.

But Nader voters donít just get ignored, for now their 2nd choices are tallied and allocated proportionately. Say that 70% of Nader voters put Gore as their second choice, with 30% ranking Bush second. Proportionately, then, the second choices of Naderís 22% of the national vote would add roughly 15% more to Goreís total and 7% to Bush, for a final result of: Gore 53%, Bush 47%.

IRV would put an end to presidents being ìelectedî by only a minority of those votingóas has been the case with the last three presidential elections. With IRV, youíd have to command majority support to become president (or senator, state legislator, city council member, etc.). IRV makes every voter count even if your first choice doesnít win, which means that weíre liberated to vote our consciences, which means that more people would be inclined to participate.

All of this would help bring governance closer to the public will, since it would be clearer where an elected officialís votes came from. In the hypothetical case above, for example, if Goreís winning margin came from Nader backers, he would have less weasel-room in kowtowing to his corporate backers.

IRV is already used to elect the president of Ireland, the mayor of London, and all top officials in Australia and Malta (interestingly, Australia and Malta have the highest voter turnouts in the world). IRV has also come to the USAóAmarillo, Texas, uses it for school board elections; Oakland and San Leandro, California, just approved it for city council races; and both Alaska and Vermont are considering it for state elections. The beauty of IRV is that we need not wait on Washington to institute it for usóit can be adopted right where you live for any governmental body.

2. Scrap the Electoral College

Until this year, most Americans were only vaguely aware that this Constitutional dinosaur even existed. The more they hear, the more they agree (61% in a recent poll) that itís time to tell the Electoral College that class is dismissed for good.

We the People donít actually get to vote for president. Instead, we vote for a bunch of electors weíve never heard of who, six weeks later, get to choose the president for us. Not only can these electors go their own way, ignoring the will of the people as expressed in the popular vote, but there is no democratic equity from state to state in the allocation of electors. Wyomingís electors, for example, represent 71,000 voters each, while Floridaís electors each represent 238,000 voters.

The official rationale for the College is that it protects small-population states from being ignored by presidential campaigns; in fact, the framers adopted it to assure that the white, male, propertied class would be protected from any democratic exuberance by the unruly, unwashed masses who might choose an ìinappropriateî president.

Even accepting the official rationale, however, the Electoral College has failed, for small states were virtually shunned in the 2000 run. States that did not receive a single campaign visit by either Bush or Gore after April 1 (when the nominations were locked up) include Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, and Vermont.

3. Why not proportional representation?

Our current winner-take-all system is a major factor in destroying peopleís sense that their voice matters in making public policy. Even if a candidate wins by a razor-thin margin, his or her backers get 100% of the governmental representation, while the backers of all the other candidates get stiffed.

In New Hampshire, for example, this yearís presidential totals were Bush 48%, Gore 47%, Nader 5%óyet our ìdemocracyî gave all of the stateís electoral votes to Bush, negating the votes of more than half of the electorate.

Nationally, the presidential race actually was won by a 52% center-left vote of GoreñNader backers, yet the winner-take-all system gives Bushís corporate-right 48% minority the victory.

Under a proportional system, power would be shared based on the percentage of votes a partyís candidate receives. This is what is done in practically every other democracy in the world, and it means that each personís vote carries weight. This leads to far greater turnouts, for votes really do matter in the fundamental sense that they translate directly into some medium of governmental power.

Ours is now a country so large and so diverse that it no longer fits comfortably under the umbrella of a two-party, winner-take-all system that leaves out the majority. People are readyóespecially that vast number who feel excluded or marginalized by the present political processóto consider structural, Constitutional reform.

Thereís a Mexican dicho that applies here: A males grandes, remedios grandes. Big problems require big remedies. If we are to have a modern political process that measures up to Americaís democratic pretensions and ideals, we must fight for proportional representation.

4. Get out of the votersí way

Another ugly truth of todayís electoral game is that it aggressively puts up barriers to keep workaday people from voting. Here are a few simple remedies:

Make Election Day a holiday. Better yet, make it a week. The general election is now held on Tuesday, a work day, in which most folks have to vote before the sun comes up, rush out on lunch break, or race to pick up the kids at day care, then get to the polls before they close at the end of the day. Come on! If we truly value civic participation, make it easy.

Register when you vote. In the great majority of states, by the time the media and the candidates really turn up the heat to attract public attention, the deadline for registering to vote has already passed. Millions who want to vote are turned away simply because they didnít follow an arbitrary dictum to register a month ahead of time.

If youíre caught speeding, a computer in the patrol car can pull up your entire life history instantaneously. So why not adapt this kind of technology to the polls, letting people register when they show up to vote?

Only six states now allow thisóyet these six have voter turnouts 15% higher than the national average. One of these is Minnesota, and Gov. Jesse Ventura says he wouldnít have been elected on his third-party bid without same-day registration.

Stop the harassment. The ugliest aspect of our system is that there is a systematic effort to prevent people from voting, especially minorities, legal immigrants, and the poor. Republicans are notorious for dispatching loud-mouthed white guys in suits to polling places in poor or minority precincts to accost would-be voters, demanding to see IDs and threatening jail time for anyone who violates a technicality of U.S. election laws. (Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist himself reportedly acted as a Republican goon at Arizona polling stations on Election Day in 1964.)

Then thereís the matter of ex-cons. In 13 states, if youíve ever been convicted of a felony, youíre permanently banned from voting, even after youíve paid your debt to society. Texas is one of these statesóif youíre convicted of simple drug use here, you canít ever vote. Yet G.W. Bush, who says he might or might not have committed this very felony, is going to sit piously in the Oval Office. In Florida, where W. grabbed his 537-vote victory, more than 400,000 ex-felons (mostly black drug offenders) were not allowed to vote. Chances are, they were not Bush backers.

Invest in elections. Why canít America count its election returns? Because the two-party system refuses to fund adequate election machinery and personnel. Why do we use antiquated ìbutterflyî punch-card ballots that weíve known for years are grossly inaccurate, leading to the Florida phenomenon of Elderly Jews for Buchanan? Why do many polling placesóoverwhelmingly the ones in poor and minority precinctsórun out of ballots, disqualifying people who are in line to vote? Itís not like America is broke. We have more than enough money to provide accurate ballots and adequate personnel for every voting place in the country.

5. End the bribery

The Lowdown has written about this at length and will continue to do so, because corrupt campaign contributions are the single biggest obstacle to government of, for, and by the people.

Incumbents dole out political favors in exchange for contributions, and the campaign cash they receiveóin a vicious cycleókeeps them in power. Hereís the most startling statistic of Election 2000: 99% of congressional incumbents were re-elected. Less than 5% were even seriously challenged, thanks mostly to the huge money advantage they enjoy.

To end the bribery and increase political competition, all elections should be publicly financed. Four states already have instituted this Clean Election option, providing public campaign funds for candidates who agree not to accept any private money from corporations, unions, and others. In 2000, in the midst of the muck and mire of the money-soaked presidential race, the Clean Election flower blossomed in Maine and Arizona, the first two states to implement the system.

It was a terrific (and largely unreported) success. In Maine, for example, there was a 40% increase in contested primaries for the state legislature, more first-time candidates (especially women) ran than ever before, and Clean Election victories, after only one election cycle, have altered the money dynamic in state government: A third of Maineís incoming House members and half of its state senators were elected without corporate money ties.

Public financing of elections is a reform that enjoys broad political support and produces immediate gains, and it is another change that requires no waiting on Washingtonóit can (and must) come from the grassroots and can be applied to any office from city council to the governorship.

6. Make-your-own reform

The present political system is so skewed against democracy that thereís no limit to ideas for making it a little less corrupt, a little more open to regular people.

Letís require profiteering broadcast companies to provide free air time to every qualified candidateóthe airwaves are public property. Letís dump the fraudulent, corporate-financed, two-party Commission on Presidential Debates. And how about NOTAóa None Of The Above option for every office on the ballot? Or, letís [INSERT YOUR IDEA HERE].