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The Oregonian

Ron Bell: True representation in a democracy
November 18, 2002

Maybe now the Democratic Party can empathize with the rest of us. As Republicans celebrate, as Democrats mourn the elections of 2002, third parties and independents shake our heads and say, "Same old same old." For more than a century, the Republican and Democratic parties have dominated the American political landscape. Now the Republicans have control of the White House and both houses of Congress. If they stick together for the next two years, the Republicans can run the tables, pass whatever legislation they please, hand out tax cuts regardless of how they effect the economy, invade whichever countries they deem expedient enemies and roll back environmental legislation to the early 1960s.

How does it feel, democrats, to know that for at least the next two years, your ideas don't count? No one has to listen to a word you say. You're completely powerless. All because our constitution allows for a winner-take-all electoral college which ignored Al Gore's victory in the popular vote. But even Mr. Gore did not receive a popular majority. Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan made sure of that. Oh democrats, how you wish that Ralph had just heeded your pleas to drop out of the race and hand the Green vote to your candidate. How different might the world seem now with Al Gore as our sensationally popular (read: wartime) president? Imagine your party riding his coattails to victory in both house and senate. Imagine receiving a mandate from the American people to tax and spend all you like? Pour money into education and social programs without oversight or checks and balances?

You know, Democrats, you're not a bad party. But when all you care about is winning, when you do your coercive best to beat down third party challengers who arguable better reflect democratic values than your own candidate, the differences between the donkeys and the elephants begin to fade. But fear not, I come not to bury the Democratic Party, nor to praise the republicans. I have an idea I hope you can embrace along with all the rest of us standing on the sidelines.

Imagine if you will, a government that represents all the people, not just a contrived majority. After all, do you really feel you had a say in the nomination of Bush or Gore, Kulongoski? Mannix? Smith? Bradbury? How often have you felt yourself choosing between "the lesser of two evils"? Wouldn't it feel good to know that your vote at least put someone in position to challenge a trigger-happy president? Give pause to a tax and spend Congress? Debate the best forms of domestic and foreign policy?

OK, quick quiz: When does 10 million equal zero?

In 1968, almost 10 million Americans exercised their right to vote but received zero representation in their government. They voted for George Wallace of the American Independent Party. While I disagree with most of what Mr. Wallace stood for, it distresses me to think that the 14 percent of Americans who voted for him were denied any part in a congressional forum to express and debate their dissenting ideas.

In 1992, another 19 million Americans were similarly disenfranchised when they voted for Ross Perot's Reform Party. Although Perot garnered 19 percent of the national vote, the reform party and the beliefs of 19 million Americans went without representation in any of the three branches of government.

Now imagine a world in which the 13 currently registered political parties in America all sent representatives to Congress based upon the percentage of voters who supported their ideas and their candidates. As a result of the 2000 election, we would have had between nine and 25 Green Party members joining Congress. While this is far from a majority, this group would certainly be courted by both Democrats and Republicans to support their legislation and could win important concessions related to the philosophic concerns of Green Americans. If the 19 percent who voted Reform party in 1992 had received their fair share of Congressional representation, that would have meant 19 senators and/or 82 representatives. With that kind of voting block, some real reform would have occurred instead of the always promised, never delivered reform of major party candidates. And who knows, with the kind of media attention and lobbying dollars that pour into Congressional coffers, the Reformists might have built their congressional base to become a third "national party."

This is, of course, the reason why Democrats will not support the True Representation Plan. But think of it, democrats, wouldn't you rather compromise with the liberal Greens than with ultra-conservative Republicans to get your legislation passed?

There are many models for the kind of True Representational government I'm suggesting, but they all start with the idea that the make up of Congress should reflect all the ideologies supported by citizens in the proportion in which candidates espousing those ideologies received votes. Because so many people don't vote, the average candidate vying for a seat in Congress needs to attract a scant 19 percent of eligible voters to gain election. And why don't people vote? Because the "major" parties don't represent their views and because they don't believe their vote will have any impact.

Days before the 2000 presidential election, Ralph Nader was polling at 5 percent. But when the votes were cast, a full half of his supporters had defected - not because they believed in the Gore message - but in a desperate attempt to head off a Bush victory. They lost on both fronts. Bush was elected despite losing the popular vote, and Nader's numbers were artificially reduced, making it appear that he hadn't mounted a serious campaign. Once again, in dramatic fashion, voters were shown that only by voting for a "major" party candidate could their vote have meaning.

But imagine that we conducted congressional elections in two stages. First would be the registration process. Everyone would have a chance to change or renew one's party affiliation. Each party would then be guaranteed a percentage of representation in Congress proportional to the number of voters registering for that party. So if the Green Party could register 20 percent of Oregon voters, they would automatically receive one seat in Oregon's five-person delegation to Congress. If their registrations fell below a certain threshold, they would not receive an automatic seat and those registrants would be free to vote for another party. On election day, candidates would run only against members of their own party. Twenty Green Party candidates could run against each other for the one guaranteed seat. If Democrats had registered 40 percent of Oregon voters, they'd be guaranteed two members of Oregon's delegation. Their top two vote-getters on election day would win seats.

So how about it, Oregonians? Would you like to make turn the concept of "one person, one vote" into a reality? Would you like the issues to be debated continuously in a True Representation Congress or just once every two, four or six years in that media blitz we call an election?

Ron Bell is a faculty member at Southwestern Oregon Community College in Coos Bay. Persons interested in supporting an initiative on the 2004 ballot can contact him at [email protected].

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