Signs of voting reform
By John Nichols
July 19, 2001
Now that Republican leaders in the U.S. House have
stalled the only serious chance for federal campaign finance reform
before the 2002 election, it is easy to despair over the prospect of
ever creating a fair and functional election system in this country.
If a measure as mild as the House version of the
McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill is too radical, what
hope could there possibly be for broad reform not merely of campaign
financing but of election systems that are as destructive to
democracy as special interest dollars?
Oddly enough, backers of trickier structural reforms
appear to be having more success than the campaign finance fixers.
Even as the McCain-Feingold march toward campaign finance reform was
being halted in Washington, there came encouraging news from the
"laboratories of democracy" - states and communities where real
reform always begins.
In San Francisco, the Board of Supervisors voted 10 to
1 in July to hold a March 2002 referendum on adopting instant runoff
voting for mayor, city attorney, board of supervisors and other
local elective offices. Instant runoff voting allows voters to rank
candidates for an office and then, if the first-choice candidate of
a voter is eliminated, the vote is transferred to the voter's No. 2
Long promoted by the nonpartisan Center for Voting and
Democracy as an alternative to anti-democratic winner-take-all
elections - which allow candidates with support only by a minority
of the electorate, such as George W. Bush, to prevail - instant
runoff voting has drawn strong support from Green and New Party
activists and is now under serious consideration by legislatures in
Vermont and Alaska as a possible reform for statewide elections.
But if San Francisco backs the reform next spring, it
would likely become the first major U.S. jurisdiction to do so.
"This really has the potential to put instant runoff voting on the
radar of people across the country," says Rob Richie of the Center
for Democracy and Voting.
In Illinois this summer, the campaign for another
alternative voting system reform - cumulative voting - has
picked up steam with an unexpectedly enthusiastic endorsement from a
blue-ribbon task force on electoral reform. Until 1980, Illinois
legislators were elected from multimember districts that each sent
three legislators to the state Capitol.
Each party placed only two candidates on the ballot,
thus ensuring that even in overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican
districts there was minority party representation. Voters could cast
one vote each for three candidates, 1 votes for each of two
candidates, or a single vote for a single candidate - allowing
minority groups to achieve representation by "accumulating" their
The commission called for a return to cumulative
voting, noting that, since the elimination of cumulative voting,
Illinois has seen dramatic declines in the number of contested races
for the legislature, sinking voter turnout, a squeezing of
opportunities for women and minority candidates and concentration of
power in the hands of a few powerful legislative leaders.
The recommendation of the commission, which was
chaired by former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar and former U.S. Rep.
Abner Mikva, had improved the chances of a bill to make the change,
which is sponsored by state House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn
Currie, D-Chicago. Still, she says, "It's a hard sell. People are
not much focused on the intricacies of how electoral systems
Dan Johnson-Weinberger, a task force member and
executive director of the Midwest Democracy Center, says his group
will step up the campaign for the change, however, arguing that,
"When half of all legislative races were uncontested in the last
general election, and when half of the eligible voters don't even
bother to participate, it is not that hard to make the case that the
current system is failing by most basic measures of democracy."
Some of the stronger support for the change, says
Johnson-Weinberger, is coming from progressives and third-party
activists who see cumulative voting as a tool to reduce the power of
major parties, entrenched pols and special interest groups.
Mikva, who started his career as an Illinois
legislator under the old cumulative-voting system, thinks they're
right to be on board. "You could win without a party base,"
"My base was the University of Chicago, and I was able
to beat the party candidate."
John Nichols is associate editor for The Capital