By John B. Anderson
May 19, 1998
Believers in democracy, take note. The U.S. Supreme Court is not your friend.
The Court this week ruled that public broadcast stations have broad discretion to exclude ballot-qualified candidates from their debates.
In a 6-3 vote, the Court reversed a lower court that had ruled that the Arkansas Educational Television Network violated the free-speech rights of independent candidate Ralph Forbes by keeping him out of a 1992 congressional debate.
The ruling is deadly for nearly all those choosing to run outside the major parties. They already face near-certain electoral defeat because of our winner-take-all electoral system -- one where winning 25% of the vote just makes you a spoiler rather than worthy of representing one in four voters. Now they have no guarantee of even being heard.
In modern politics, television is the medium for the message. Door-knocking is a quaint relic, with congressional districts having more than a half million people. The private news media hardly is a trustworthy filter for giving candidates a fair shake, and few states produce election guides.
That leaves television and radio. The public has licensed much of the airwaves to private companies, but could require those companies to give a little bit back through free air-time for political candidates. But this week's ruling not only allows taxpayer-supported stations to exclude candidates it deems not worthy of public consideration; it would allow third party and independent candidates to be arbitrarily left out of any reform establishing access to the airwaves.
Let's be clear about what we have in the United States: a political monopoly of Democrats and Republicans. We have some eight thousand state legislative and congressional seats. There are a handful of independent representatives, but absolutely none are from ballot-qualified minor parties such as the Libertarians, Greens and Reform Party.
The "two-party system" of course has its advocates, but even they might acknowledge that these two particular parties -- Republicans and Democrats -- are not the only ones ever worthy of consideration. Surely Abraham Lincoln's Republican Party had the right to displace another party when it rose from minor party status in the mid-nineteenth century.
What makes our political monopoly particularly dangerous is that since World War II, the Democrats and Republicans often form a "grand coalition" to carry out policy. One party has typically held the presidency and the other Congress. Deals between Republicans and Democrats are necessary for almost all policy.
Such compromise can have merit, but it needs the check that only minor party and independent candidates can provide -- a true opposition voice to hold bi-partisan policy up to public scrutiny. The private media is a weak substitute for institutionalized opposition within our legislatures.
Just as importantly, we need to bring all Americans back into our democracy. There is a great, dangerous disconnection between the people and those that govern them.
The most obvious measure is voter turnout. In 1996 less than half of eligible voters cast a ballot in the presidential race. 1998 will be far worse. Even though every U.S. House seat is up for election, fewer than one in three eligible voters may participate.
Say what you will about the Reform Party's Ross Perot, but note that in 1992, turnout rose in 49 states after his high- profile participation in the 1992 presidential debates. The average rise was 8% in the 10 states where Perot ran most strongly, nearly double the national increase.
Perot's campaigns have been instructive for showing the public interest in new voices. After his temporary withdrawal from the 1992 race, few believed he could win. But he still gained the voters of nearly one in five voters in 1992 and one in eleven in 1996.
Although having a lower profile and generally much less money, independents and minor party candidacies are increasing at all levels of election. Nearly a third of our governors have been held to less than a majority of the vote in one of their gubernatorial elections -- meaning that a minor party or independent candidate won enough votes to possibly swing the election.
The Supreme Court has been making a true mess of political reform, interfering when it should have held back and holding back when it should have interfered. Given that legislators are hardly better at judging the rules that elected them, they should establish powerful, independent commissions to propose what political reforms will foster a truly participatory, accountable and representative democracy.
The Court's latest outrage should spur us to have this national conversation on reform as we move into a new century with an increasingly disappointed, disengaged, electorate.
(A former congressman and independent candidate for the presidency, John B. Anderson is president of The Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington, D.C.