Media coverage of PR during campaign
A Duke University law professor writes a commentary in USA Today that plugs proportioanal representation at the end, and Professor Manning Marable, a Ralph Nader supporter, argues for proportional representation and instant runoff voting to promote the interests of African-Americans.
Phil Tajitsu Nash, a columist for Asian Week, writes perceptively about politics and frequently comments upon the merits of voting system reform. See a recent example that discusses the role of Asian Americans in the 2000 elections.
Class-skewed voters: Illness
in the body politic
When our nation was founded, the right to vote generally was restricted to adult men who owned property or paid taxes. Those who did not were deemed to lack the requisite independence of mind and stake in society to be entrusted with the franchise.
Benjamin Franklin, the oldest and wittiest Founding Father, lampooned this logic. He told of a man who could vote in one election because he owned a $50 jackass, but afterward the animal died. The man continued to gain experience, making him a more qualified voter, but because the jackass was dead, he could not vote again.
''Now gentlemen,'' asked Franklin, ''pray inform me, in whom is the right of suffrage? In the man or in the jackass?''
Property requirements for voting have disappeared, but wealth and class continue to play a role in shaping our electorate. If recent trends prevail -- and there is no reason to think they will not -- turnout on Nov. 7 will not only be low, but seriously class-skewed.
In 1996, only 40% of eligible citizens in families with incomes of less than $15,000 voted; in contrast, for families with incomes over $75,000, the figure was 76%. Similarly, professionals and managers were almost twice as likely to vote as blue-collar operators and laborers. In 1998's congressional elections, turnout was smaller, but the class gap just as pronounced.
Tradition of exclusion
The current pattern's roots reach far into our history. Our political culture and many of our political institutions were shaped when the least-advantaged citizens often were barred from the polls -- not only back when many states had formal property requirements, but also in the early 20th century, when the electorate was winnowed by laws imposing English-literacy requirements, poll taxes and the like. In the South, nearly all blacks and many poor whites could not vote for much of the past century. In Rhode Island, only property owners were fully enfranchised until the late 1920s; in New York, prospective voters had to pass an English literacy test until 1970.
Such exclusions helped create a modern party system that pays relatively little attention to the needs of the poor and the lower strata of the working class, thereby discouraging their participation in elections. Turnout was highest in American elections during the decades after the Civil War, when now-forgotten dissident parties that appealed to working people flourished.
And the most pronounced 20th century upturn in working-class voting occurred in the 1930s, when the differences between Democrats and Republicans were most sharply defined.
No stake in election
But now the ideological and program differences between the two major parties have narrowed, and electoral laws make it extremely difficult for third parties to build support. Rightly or wrongly, our less well-off citizens -- far more numerous than the current celebration of prosperity suggests ñ do not think they will be much affected by election outcomes.
On Nov. 7, a very non-random sample of Americans will march to the polls. Property owners will vote in large numbers, while most who lack the modern equivalent of Franklin's jackass will stay home. This is a sign of illness in the body politic for which there is no immediate cure. But some rather easy steps could help:
In the longer run, we also might replace our winner-take-all election system with a version of proportional representation. Under such schemes, a political party that won 10% or 20% of the vote would gain a similar percentage of the votes in Congress or the state legislature or city council. That would energize political groups with fresh and unorthodox ideas and draw to the polls those who now feel resigned to a dispiriting choice between a ''wasted vote'' and the ''lesser of two evils.''
(Alex Keyssar, a Duke University professor of history and public policy, is the author of The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. )
Vote Strategically: For
The vast majority of African Americans who vote in the November 2000 presidential election will undoubtedly support the Democratic ticket of Al Gore and Joseph Lieberman. The national black political establishment including more than ten thousand elected officials, the Congressional Black Caucus, key black leaders of the AFL-CIO, and paid operatives within the Democratic National Committee - have for months spoken with one voice, unanimously praising Al Gore.
The black establishment's behavior and motivations are understandable. Big city mayors rely on federal dollars to address urban problems, and a Gore administration would certainly be preferable to the conservative policies of Bush. A strong black voter turnout for Gore could also contribute to Democratic majorities in Congress, which in turn would elevate a number of African Americans like Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel into powerful House chairmanships. Thousands of black professionals, managers and attorneys who are connected to the Clinton administration through networks of patronage and power, see Gore's victory as being essential to their own career advancement. Any private misgivings they still feel about Gore's embrace of the death penalty, or the anti-affirmative action positions of Joe Lieberman, are now effectively suppressed. Like loyal foot soldiers in a grand army on the battlefield, they are ready to hurl themselves against the ramparts of their political enemies.
Yet blind loyalty is rarely rewarded, whether on the battlefield or in politics. Those who declare their allegiances first rarely sit at the table when the spoils of victory are divided. Those who make up their minds last exercise the greatest power in politics, because they can leverage all parties into making valuable concessions. This is the strategic explanation why Gore and Bush are spending millions of dollars and the majority of their campaign efforts to appeal to so-called "swing voters," especially senior citizens and suburban middle class white women. Bush completely ignores the African-American electorate because he knows he'll receive few black votes, probably under 10 percent. Gore can also safely ignore us, because he knows we have nowhere else to go. Many black elected officials are only working just hard enough to have a decent black voter turnout, but privately don't want the overwhelming masses to go to the polls. If millions of poor, unemployed and working class African Americans were actually mobilized to participate in the electoral process, the outcome would be entirely unpredictable. Thus all too many black elected politicians and Democratic Party officials have become silent partners in the suppression of black electoral political power.
Since Bush represents no alternative, the real debate that ought to exist within the African-American community is whether we should vote for Gore or Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader. Black mainstream Democrats, most trade union organizers and many progressives are now resorting to a wide variety of explanations why black folk must remain doggedly loyal to Gore and the Democrats. Briefly, let's examine three of their main arguments.
Argument One: "Gore's a positive good, not a necessary evil." This position strains credibility, even among members of the Congressional Black Caucus like Representatives Maxine Waters and Jesse Jackson, Jr. Gore has a long track record of hostility to black people's interests, especially on issues related to criminal justice and poor women's rights. It was Gore who pushed for the passage of the 1994 Crime Act, that broadly expanded the federal death penalty. It was Gore earlier this year who promised to cover America in "a blanket of blue" with the hiring of 50,000 more police nationwide. It was Gore, according to journalist Alexander Cockburn, who "has pushed for block grants for prison expansion in the states, with the proviso that such federal grants will be issued only if each state insures that prisoners serve at least 85 percent of their sentences." It was Gore as a Congressman who voted to ban federal funding of abortions for poor women, even in cases of rape. It was Gore who finally convinced Clinton to sign the destructive 1996 Welfare Act. It was Gore who almost single-handedly pushed Clinton's administration to the right, by hiring Reagan stooge David Gergen and sleazy political consultant Dick Morris.
Argument Two: "Gore's not great, but he's all we've got to defeat the Far Right." This argument does make sense, but only because Bush and Company represent repressive politics and policies that are both "bad" and "ugly." Liberal journalist Tom Wicker has recently posed a critical question in the Nation that must be answered seriously, even by Nader's supporters: "Whom do you want to nominate Justices for the Supreme Court in the next four years?" The next president will probably nominate three new justices to the Supreme Court. As Wicker suggests, "three more Scalia & Thomas- style votes would transform what's now a back-and-forth Court into a (conservative) bastion that could last for generations." Row v. Wade would probably be reversed, and the remnants of affirmative action destroyed forever. Gun control and campaign finance reform would be impossible. Wicker concludes that the best guarantee against any such outcomes is a big Democratic victory across the board in November.
Wicker, the well-meaning white liberal, is wrong here. The best way to defeat the Right is to build powerful democratic movements within black and brown communities, within labor, gay and lesbian, women's rights and environmental constituencies. Tactically, the black freedom movement and the progressive left should mobilize to defeat the Republican Right, especially in those local, state and national races where there is a clear and unambiguous distinction between the agendas of the candidates. One prominent example that immediately comes to mind is that of conservative Republican "Little Rickie" Lazio, the baby-faced reactionary masquerading as a moderate, who is challenging Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Senate in New York.
Argument Three: "Nader's no real alternative, and actually could be worse than Gore." In recent weeks, Nader has become the object of considerable attack from various feminist, gay/lesbian and minority constituencies. Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization of Women, denounced Nader as "ill-informed about abortion rights, and accusing him of "ignorance" and "indifference" on women's issues. A San Francisco-based minority coalition of African Americans, Latinos and Asians described Nader as being "oblivious" to people of color and women. David Smith, the spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest lesbian, gay and transgender rights group has dismissed Nader as homophobic and heterosexist.
One can, and should seriously question Nader's views about racially oppressed groups, lesbians, gays and women. We must set that same high standard in judging any candidate. Yet what is also true is that most of Nader's liberal-left critics are privately in Gore's back pocket. The Human Rights Campaign, for example, endorsed Gore and is campaigning vigorously on his behalf. How and when did Al Gore become a fighter for black liberation? By what "magic" did Gore transform himself as a defender of gay and lesbian rights? What I find particularly offensive is the cynical manipulation of racial and gendered attacks against the Nader campaign, while saying virtually nothing about the devastating political hit poor and working class women of color have taken from the Clinton-Gore administration after the implementation of welfare reform.
In the 2000 election, our overall objective should not be to elect Democrats per se, but to mobilize working class and the poor, to enhance African-American and Latino political clout, and to defeat the Far Right. Voting for Nader in most states actually accomplishes these goals better than by supporting Gore-Lieberman. In the long run, we cannot rely on the Democratic Party to defend the people's interests, against the right. Only an independent, progressive people's movement challenging racism and corporate power can accomplish this.
The chief argument against voting for Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader from black Democrats, organized labor, white liberals and even Marxists, is that he cannot possibly win, and that he could "give" the White House to Bush. For example, former United Auto Workers President Doug Fraser helped to block a UAW endorsement of Nader by declaring that "every vote Nader gets is a vote he takes away from Al Gore, not George Bush."
Jesse Jackson, Jr., possibly the most intelligent and consistently progressive Congressman, makes the same point. After flirting with public opposition to the selection of Lieberman as Gore's vice presidential running mate at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles this summer, he pushed back from the political brink. White liberals, Jackson warned, may have the "luxury" of voting for Nader, a courageous and principled man who nevertheless cannot win, because they don't have to live with the practical consequences of a Bush victory.
Until several weeks ago, Nader's general approach was not to take this question seriously. In fact, he frequently has derided Gore as a "coward," and described the White House as "a corporate prison." A more effective and persuasive position would have been to say that on many public policy positions, especially on civil rights, women's and reproductive rights, on the Supreme Court and most labor issues, Gore is clearly superior to Bush. But on a number of other crucial issues, such as the immoral embargo against Cuba, military spending, trade and globalization, civil liberties, ending the mass incarceration of over a million African Americans and the vast expansion of the prison industrial complex, Gore is at least as bad as Bush.
Some honest liberals who are planning to vote for Gore have admitted that on some important issues, the Democratic presidential candidate may be worse than Bush. In a recent Nation article, Eric Alterman observed that "on trade and globalization issues, a Democratic President can turn out to be even worse than a Republican one. A Democrat carries sufficient clout to pass most agreements against both public opinion and the public interest, but lacks the power to force Republicans to accept the kinds of restrictions that genuinely protect the environment and workers' rights." As a result, the Clinton-Gore administration embraced global trade policies that the overwhelming majority of American workers and core Democratic voters opposed. Ironically, a Republican president might "result in a more unified opposition party" to globalization. Similarly, Gore completely supports the showering of the military with mountains of unneeded funds as well as a truly idiotic missile defense program that can only do untold harm to the nation's security along with its budget.
There are several clear-cut reasons why it is in the interests of black people, working people and progressives to vote for Nader over Gore. The first is the reality that the national election is really fifty separate state elections, based on the winner-take-all principle. Whoever wins a majority or even plurality of a state's popular vote wins 100 percent of that state's electoral votes. The Electoral College technically selects the president, not the people. And in several instances in U.S. history, candidates who lost the popular vote won the Electoral College vote and became president - for example, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, and Benjamin Harrison in 1888.
In practical terms, this means that as of this writing, the presidential election is already over in about 40 states. Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, and Washington, D.C. will be carried by Gore by margins of two or three to one. Gore has absolutely no chance in Texas, in most of the west except for the Pacific states, and the bulk of the South. In any state where there is today at least a ten point margin between Gore and Bush, every voter who is sympathetic to Nader can and should vote for him. Gore doesn't need your vote, and by supporting Nader, we can send a powerful, progressive protest message to the Democrats.
Nevertheless, many people who are afraid of voting for Nader because they might throw the election to Bush, the "greater evil," do have a valid point. A few months ago, I asked Lani Guinier whether she intended to vote for either Gore or Nader, and she astutely replied that the fundamental problem with U.S. politics transcends personalities. Our undemocratic winner-take-all voting system aggressively blocks real alternatives.
What we need ultimately is a voting system based on proportional representation, where minority groups could actually have real access to decision-making. Short of that goal, progressives should push for instant runoff voting or IRV. Adopted in Australia, Ireland and the United Kingdom, IRV permits voters to choose their "favorite" candidate first, and then to select their second and subsequent preferences. If one candidate has a majority of all first choice votes cast, she or he is declared the winner. If no one has a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, with the votes distributed to whomever was designated as the "second preference." The IRV procedure is still winner-take-all, but it would permit minority groups to effectively mobilize and run for public office, without the fear of throwing the election to their opponents. Comprehensive campaign finance reform, with the elimination of billions of dollars of "soft money" from the system, would also improve the political process.
Perhaps with the adoption of IRV and other electoral reforms, a Nader candidacy could be considered on its own merits. Right now, however, more than one half of all Americans consistently don't vote, and those of us who do vote feel completely disempowered by candidates and parties that rarely reflect our interests. This is the practical reason that African Americans should explore coalitions and joint activities with the Green Party. Any democratic structural reforms within the political process, or progressive changes in voter eligibility requirements (such as permitting ex-felons to vote in elections), is in black people's collective interests.
Second, a vote for Nader is essentially a vote against America's corrupt two party system. If Nader achieves at least 5 percent of the popular vote, the Green Party would receive $12 million in federal matching funds. Black progressives in Washington, D.C., New York, Connecticut, South Carolina and several other states have developed tactical alliances with the Greens. An independent progressive political party will never be built simply by voting for Democrats, no matter how "progressive" some of them may be.
A word about Ralph Nader himself: he is a dedicated, anti-corporate activist, the country's leading progressive voice for environmentalism, consumer rights, and against sweatshops and globalization - but he is hardly perfect. The movement around Nader is nearly lily white, and mostly middle class. Nader is personally and deeply committed to racial justice and women's rights, but doesn't adequately or clearly spell out his positions. The campaign's literature and staged public events make few efforts to reach urban black, Latino and poor people's communities. These are, after all, the greatest victims of corporate power, and they potentially represent the core constituencies for fundamental progressive change in the country. As long as the Greens are overwhelmingly white, they will lack the capacity to build or even to maintain a truly democratic movement.
In those few remaining battleground states like Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Florida, black, Latino and progressive activists admittedly have a difficult decision to make: do you vote for the politics you want, or the lesser evil? Noted black intellectual Cornel West, Transafrica executive director Randall Robinson, actor Danny Glover, Massachusetts activist Mel King, and dozens of prominent African-American progressives, including myself, are voting for Ralph Nader. Considering all the alternatives, we're convinced it's the best option we can take.
Dr. Manning Marable is Professor of History and Political Science, and the Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, Columbia University. "Along the Color Line" is distributed free of charge to over 350 publications throughout the U.S. and internationally. Dr. Marable's column is also available on the Internet at http://www.manningmarable.net.
Asian Americans and Election
Can Asian Americans make a difference in Election 2000? Absolutely. Everyone who follows this newspaper has seen the blossoming of Asian American political power in California, the Pacific Northwest, and other parts of this country.
Our candidates are being taken seriously by mainstream voters and party power brokers alike. Our ability to deliver dollars and votes has meant that our views are being solicited when decisions are being made that might offend us (such as closing the door to immigration or reducing work visas for Asian technical workers).
We must try to make an immediate impact in the short run, but also build for the future so that we ultimately can have a bigger impact. Between now and Nov. 7, the best way to participate is to support API candidates, support all candidates who support our issues, and support organizations that support our issues. Long-term strategies include running for office ourselves, urging others to run, creating PACs and other political organizations, and ultimately joining the growing movement to completely overhaul our electoral system and join the vast majority of the worldís democracies that have proportional representation voting schemes.
Supporting candidates can be done in several ways. Younger voters and those new to the electoral process should read the positions of local candidates, find one whose views you can support enthusiastically, and go to their campaign office and volunteer. As someone who has created Web sites and done fund raising for many candidates, and who has talked with many more, I can assure you that every candidate needs more volunteers. This is doubly true for non-incumbent candidates and those whose views are not the majority opinion in a given electoral district.
Getting involved in the electoral process in a hands-on way allows you to see first hand how democracy really works. It can be frustrating, time consuming, and labor intensiveóbut so are raising a family, teaching students, and almost all meaningful and important activities in life. Social change does not take place in a vacuum, and laws are not made in a sanitary chamber. To paraphrase Rev. Jesse Jackson, if you are not there helping to make the bread, you canít complain about the lack of food coming out of the oven.
Supporting candidates can also involve giving financial contributions, but this should be done in a way that maximizes your impact. Sending in $25 gets you a thank-you letter, but convincing 30 of your friends to each send in $100 gets you a chance to meet the candidate and let your thoughts be known. Better yet, volunteering to host a house party can give you the chance to meet the candidate, introduce your friends and family to the candidate, and raise the visibility of Asian Americans in your local political arena. Before doing anything financial, however, be sure you check with applicable campaign finance laws so that, for example, you do not make an in-kind donation from your business that might not be allowed under local campaign finance laws. Some people think that they do not have time to get involved in politics. To them I say, ìYou do not have time to NOT get involved in politics.î
Decisions about your job, your school, your library, and your roads are being made by someone who has been given the power to spend your tax dollars on your behalf. This person is not necessarily smarter, more dedicated, more compassionate, or more visionary than you are. The only thing this person definitely has over you, the non-political person, is the decision to get involved in politics. The future of Asian American political involvement has already arrived, with groups such as 80-20, the Asian American Action Fund (AAA-Fund), the APAICS-UCLA Leadership Academy and others, creating a non-partisan Asian American presence that is more than just another Asian American Republican or Democratic club.
These organizations are encouraging and nurturing Asian Americans who want to run for office, making their presence felt by mainstream politicians, and, in the process, are helping our community and our entire society envision a greater political role for Asian Americans. In the meantime, they seem to be having fun and raising important issues along the way.
Ultimately, being a swing vote and a political wild card could allow Asian Americans to play an important role in the dialogue to truly widen the democratic process beyond the control of the two major parties and the limiting winner-take-all system in place in most parts of this country. Most of the worldís democracies, as well as many corporate shareholder meetings and local U.S. elections, take place using the tools of proportional representation. If you have not heard about it, be sure to check out the Center for Voting and Democracyís website at www.fairvote.org. And be sure to get involved in some way in the political arena as we enter the home stretch of this countryís first major campaign of this millennium.