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Capital Times

July 19, 2001

Madison, Wisconsin
Signs of voting reform encouraging
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 choice.

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 votes.

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 operate."

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," explained Mikva.

"My base was the University of Chicago, and I was able to beat the party candidate."

John Nichols is associate editor for The Capital Times.

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