The State of Our Democracy

A Vision For A More Muscular Democracy

by John B. Anderson
January 26, 2000 at the National Press Club
Washington, D.C.

Tomorrow evening, President Bill Clinton will deliver his final "State of the Union" speech. For all of the successes he is sure to tout in his management of the economy, he is sure to be much more sparing in his report on the health of our electoral democracy. I come before you this morning, ladies and gentleman, with a disturbing assessment: the state of our democracy is not good, and it is deteriorating at an alarming rate. Years of non-competitive elections that leave most Americans choice-less and voice-less are driving them away from participation. And the greatest impact is on our young people.

Monday night I watched the coverage of the Iowa caucuses. Much was said about the political implications of the results, but little was said about the latest indication of problems in our system: turnout in these caucuses was at best 10% of eligible voters.

Talk about deja vu. Earlier this month I was in New Hampshire on a cold January day in an election year. Before that I was in Des Moines, Iowa listening to talk of the caucuses. And I've been a guest on Brian Lamb's show on C-Span. He even asked me point blank if I am running for the presidency -- once again.

I told him that I am campaigning hard. But I have not declared any candidacy for the presidency. I am campaigning hard for the issues I believe in, as I have been for decades: global government and fundamental political reform. Although I enjoy sketching out a progressive vision of a global government that solves global problems, built on the same federal structure as our own American system, so we could enjoy a global Bill of Rights and world peace through world law, today I will focus on domestic issues -- in particular the disturbing state of our democracy. I'd like to talk about the four basic themes of my vision of fundamental political reform.

Proportional Representation: Giving All Voters A Voice:

How to open up the two-party system to political minorities, like third parties.

Why is it that we seem to be stuck with two parties? Why is it that most elections seem so off-putting? More than 40 percent of all state legislative races were uncontested in 1998 and more than 20 percent of U.S. House races. Why isn't there more competition in our elections? Why aren't there strong third parties in Congress and state legislatures across the nation?

I'll tell you why. We're stuck with our moribund two-party system because of our winner-take-all voting system.

Electing one person from a district is the reason why third parties and independents are locked out of legislatures, even though in states like New Hampshire, more people are registered as independents than as a Democrat or Republican. Let me say that again: even though the biggest political group in New Hampshire is the group of Independents, there are no independents from New Hampshire in Congress or in the state legislature. That's because of our winner-take-all voting system.

Single-member districts are inherently winner-take-all, leaving no voice for political minorities.

For example, nearly 20% of the electorate voted for Ross Perot in the 1992 presidential race. One might think that 20% of the Congress might then belong to third parties, but no. Not a single Member of Congress represents the 1 in 5 American voters who rejected both major parties by casting a vote for Ross Perot for president in 1992. Not one!

Does the Constitution require a two-party system with winner-take-all elections from single-member districts? Could it be like the Electoral College -- an outdated relic that needs to be abolished but is unfortunately enshrined in the Supreme Law of the Land? No!

The only mandate for single-member districts for congressional elections comes from a federal law passed in 1967. This law is not anything in the Constitution, but a simple law passed by a simple majority in Congress. It is the central reason why we have a two-party system that denies other voices a chance to be heard.

That is wrong. And it must be reformed. I call for the repeal of that federal law which creates the exclusionary two-party voting system.

In its place, I propose a new federal law to bring in proportional representation. Instead of electing one person from a district, the reformed system would use super-districts that elect at least three people each.

Each state will use a proportional voting system, so that if a candidate can earn the vote of 1 out of every 3 voters, she has the right to be 1 of 3 elected representatives from that super-district. That's proportional representation.

Under my proposal, if the Reform Party of Minnesota can earn a third of the vote statewide, as it did in the governor's race, then one-third of the congressional delegation from Minnesota will represent the Reform Party.

If a state doesn't have three representatives, then it does not have to use proportional representation for federal election. Big states like California will break up into several super-districts under my proposal.

This simple change will have a profound effect on our politics. Instead of the lesser-of-two-evils, voters will get to choose from several candidates, including those candidates with fresh ideas that speak to political minorities. Instead of a winner-take-all system where most elections are uncontested, as everybody knows which party is going to win in most districts anyway, we'd have vigorous contests where most votes matter.

Proportional voting creates accurate representation: the political majority gets a majority of seats, as they should, but the political minority gets a voice as well. This will bring real choices and new voices to our politics -- and give third parties a seat at the table.

Most of the world's democracies use proportional representation to elect their legislatures; that's why most other countries have healthier, more vigorous multi-party systems with higher voter turnout and more issue-based campaigns. We're stuck with our winner-take-all voting system that produces low voter turnout and uncontested elections.

There are other side benefits to using proportional voting. First, it virtually eliminates gerrymandering. Gerrymandering only works when the political minority is denied any representation at all -- but in a proportional system, the lines of the districts do not matter as much precisely because the political minority gets its fair share of representation.

Another positive benefit that flows from proportional voting are more racially diverse legislatures. Blacks and Latinos are under-represented in most parts of the country, especially in rural areas. The Supreme Court has struck down gerrymandered districts designed to elect racial minorities -- a proportional voting system gives all political minorities, including racial minorities, a fair chance to elect one of their own, in a race-neutral method. A modest move to three-seat congressional districts would resolve nearly every contentions dispute over "racial gerrymandering" -- and likely increase representation of blacks, Latinos and women in many states.

I'm struck by the racial disconnect between the composition of the United States Senate and the people of our nation as we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday this month. 25% of the country is either black or Latino and yet there is not a single U.S. Senator that is either black or Latino. What would Martin Luther King say when the highest legislature in the land doesn't include even one African-American or Hispanic in its ranks? There is no better picture of a legislature elected by winner-take-all voting than the U.S. Senate, and it is not pretty.

Just a word on history. Proportional representation wasn't invented in the late 18th century; otherwise the Framers very well might have included it for the House of Representatives. It is entirely consistent with the Framers' view of a House that mirrored the people, and would have been embraced by many of our Founding Fathers.

Changing our winner-take-all voting system is the only way to give third parties, as well as other political minorities like Chicago Republicans and Utah Democrats their fair share of representation.

Any vision of political reform, especially one that includes a role for smaller parties, must concentrate on changing our exclusionary winner-take-all voting system to an inclusive proportional voting system.

Instant Runoff: Ending Wasted Votes:

Ranking candidates with a transferable vote gives voters freedom

How many times have you heard this one?
"I'd like to vote for a third party, but I don't want to waste my vote."

Or this one? "I can't vote for the third party; that will just help elect the candidate I least agree with."

This thinking -- with some logic -- stops people from voting their true preference, and puts them through the torture of ignoring the candidate they most support so they won't waste their vote.

What is the name of this outdated voting system? It is a plurality election. Not a majority election.

We don't require the winners of plurality elections to earn a majority of votes. Bill Clinton never earned a majority of votes. A third of the nation's governors haven't earned a majority. But in a plurality voting system (also called first-past-the-post), you don't have to earn a majority to win an election. You just have to get more votes than anybody else.

If three people run for one seat, two similar candidates can 'split the vote' allowing the third candidate to win with 35 or 40 percent of the vote -- even though a majority of voters might want someone else!

And what does this say for our political process? Third parties are encouraged not to run, not to participate, because it will spoil the election and end up with the worst possible outcome.

That is wrong. And it must be reformed. We should require the winner of an election to earn a majority of votes. That will let third parties and independents rack up as many votes as they can, confident that they won't spoil the election. If no one gets a majority of votes, you simply hold a runoff election.

Runoffs are an improvement over the current system, because they make it impossible for a third party candidate to spoil the election. That allows healthy vigorous campaigns by third parties because voters can choose their true favorite without fear of spoiling the election. After all, if their favorite candidate does well, then no one will get a majority of votes, and they can choose their second-choice candidate in the runoff election.

There's an even better way. It's called the Instant Runoff. It's used in Ireland and Australia and soon will be used to elect the mayor of London. And it works just the way it sounds: it is an Instant Runoff.

Everybody votes for their favorite candidate by putting the number '1' by their name. This is the only vote that will be counted -- unless their favorite candidate is the one that gets eliminated in the runoff round. Then, the voter marks down who they want to vote for in the runoff round by putting the number '2' by their name.

If their favorite candidate marked with a '1' comes in last and gets eliminated, then their vote goes to their next-choice: marked with a '2'. Now, if some candidate has a majority of votes, he or she wins. If not, we eliminate the last-place candidate, and go to another runoff round.

Consider how much freedom we give to the voter with the Instant Runoff! Now the voter is free to vote for whomever he or she wants to, confident that his or her vote won't be wasted! We also ensure that the winner of the election has the broadest support among all the candidates.

The Reform Party will be using the Instant Runoff in its national primary election this August. That's why it is not a problem if several candidates run for the nomination: no one group will split their votes among like-minded candidates, and the eventual winner of the primary will be supported by a majority of voters in the Reform party primary.

With 5 or 6 candidates running for the Republican nomination, the Republican Party ought to use the Instant Runoff in the primaries as well. That would avoid declaring someone a 'winner' when they barely earn 30% of the vote -- as happened right here in New Hampshire in the 1996 Republican primary. I'll bet Alan Keyes and Steve Forbes and Gary Bauer and the other presidential candidates would appreciate the Instant Runoff just as much as independents and third party candidates would. The Republican Parties of Utah and Alaska have endorsed the Instant Runoff -- the national party should too.

I call for the use of the Instant Runoff in every local, state and federal election where only one person is to be elected. Mayors, governors, senators, even student government presidents -- all should be elected by the Instant Runoff.

Election-Day Voter Registration: Including Everyone:

30-day deadlines in 44 states cut off millions of young Americans

Young people in college live very transient lives. They move every 9 months or so. And they usually forget to register to vote at their new address when they do.

When Election Day comes rolling around, many college-age students get interested in the election for the first time. Perhaps the debates capture their attention, and in late October or early November they begin to decide whom to vote for.

Too late! They've missed the deadline to register to vote in 44 states! Even though they'd like to participate, the state won't let them because they missed the deadline to register.

That is wrong and it must be reformed. In 6 states, people can register to vote on election-day. Just bring some identification, show up to the local polling place, and you can register to vote.

Of course election-day voter registration is going to increase voter turnout -- particularly among young people. Every year, far too many college students walk into their campus polling place in November and are turned away from the polls because they didn't register under their new address. People who want to participate and vote are turned away. What a shame.

But not in Minnesota. Not in Wisconsin. Not in Maine. Not in Idaho. Not in North Dakota.

Election-day voter registration was crucial to the success of Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura. It is hugely popular on college campuses and essential to political reform in the next decade.

30 years ago, election-day voter registration might not have been possible. Everyone still used paper records. Today, with all the advances in computer technology at our disposal, surely we can handle registering to vote on election day. Our democracy demands it.

Publicly-Funded Campaigns: Ending Legalized Bribery:

Candidates for public office must not be beholden to private interests

Let's say you run a company. You make a lot of money and you pay a lot in taxes. And like any profit-seeking business person, you want to pay less in taxes. So what do you do?

Maybe you try to pass a special loophole in the tax code that only benefits you. If you can sneak in that change in the tax law, that could save your company 50 million dollars. Sure, it will cost the taxpayers an extra 50 million bucks that will have to be made up somewhere else, but hey, that's not your problem.

So how do you get that special loophole in there? Make friends with some Members of Congress. Give them money -- lots of it. Hey, you can spend a million dollars on this one little lobbying effort and still make back your money 50 times over. Let other taxpayers foot the bill. So why not? Don't call it a bribe, though. It's called, in polite company, a campaign contribution.

This is wrong and it must be reformed. Mixing up private money with the public interest leads to no good. The more we let powerful special interests spend their money to influence the outcomes of elections, the more the winners of those elections are beholden to the special interests, and not the public interest.

I remember well during my days in Congress when a vote was coming up on a milk price support program. And a colleague of mine from the other side of the aisle from New York City was so nervous, pacing back and forth in the back of the House, wringing his hands, furrowing his brow. And I asked him what he was so worried about. He told me that the Dairy Association had given him $5000 a few weeks ago, and that this vote would be a bonanza for them. He knew that if he voted for the bill, his constituents in New York City would pay an extra 2 cents a gallon for their milk, but he also knew that the Dairy Association wouldn't give him any more money if he voted against the bill. So he tossed and he turned and he hemmed and he hawed. And he finally voted for the bill. And I'm sure the Dairy Association gave him another $5000 for voting the 'right' way.

We need to get rid of all that legalized bribery, as a retired colleague of mine called our campaign finance system. We need public money to fund our campaigns, so our legislators can concentrate on the public interest instead of always trying to please the money interest.

And don't think for a minute that spending taxpayer money on campaigns for public office would be a waste. I've heard it all: 'this is just welfare for politicians.' Well let me tell you, this would be the greatest bargain in the history of the Republic! All these private contributions buy billions and billions worth of special interest tax breaks. I noticed John McCain listed $150 billion worth of them. That $150 billion was bought and paid for by campaign contributions. We could spend one-tenth of one percent of that money on publicly-financed campaigns and save all $150 billion. Now that's an investment.

Publicly-funded campaigns must be part of any meaningful reform of our political process. I encourage all of you to support candidates who will fight for publicly-funded campaigns.

Reform In The States:

An opportunity to reform our politics with issues, not candidates

We must aggressively seek to reform the state legislatures to make them again laboratories of democracy.

In our current winner-take-all voting system, it is very difficult for a third party that represents a political minority to ever win. Indeed, it is designed to be almost impossible. These campaigns should still be fought, but there are other areas of political reform besides campaigns for office that reformers should include in their arsenal.

In addition to campaigns for elected office, reformers of all types should look to the initiative and referendum to champion fundamental political reform.

Only half the states enjoy the right of the initiative: the ability of regular people like you and me to pass a petition and put a binding referendum on the ballot.

This is wrong and it must be reformed. All 50 states should allow their citizens to put issues on the ballot by initiative. This is how many successful political reforms come to be.

Publicly-funded campaigns have been enacted in four states, three of them by the initiative. Maine, Arizona, Massachusetts and Vermont all have created a statewide system of publicly-funded campaigns. They ought to be commended and copied.

Look at Minnesota. Governor Jesse Ventura is advocating for a unicameral referendum: a vote on whether to implement a single-house legislature instead of the current two-house legislature. Only Nebraska currently has a unicameral system. This is a great idea, as state legislatures don't need two governing bodies any more than city councils or corporations as long as their one house if fully representative, as results from use of proportional representation. I fully support the effort in Minnesota, particularly in tandem with the efforts of FairVote Minnesota to advocate proportional representation.

Unfortunately, Minnesotans do not have the right of initiative. They must ask the legislature to put an issue of political reform on the ballot: an uphill battle. Minnesota would enjoy a more muscular democracy if the people could petition to put issues like unicameralism on the ballot themselves.

Their neighbor to the south, Illinois, is in the midst of a petition drive as we speak. There, reform activists are attempting to put a proportional voting system on the 2000 ballot -- the same three-member super-district voting system Illinois used to elect her House of Representatives from 1870 to 1980. Illinois used cumulative voting in their three-member super-districts, and that is a model for other states to follow. The state's Republican governor George Ryan, Congressman John Porter and leading Democrats like Abner Mikva and senate minority leader Emil Jones are among those supporting the "drive to revive." This reform impulse to make our legislatures more representative should be embraced by reformers of all parties. I fully support the effort in Illinois as well.


A campaign as a third party candidate is about more than just the position that the winner fills.

A campaign is about direction and vision; a chance to articulate a better future and inspire people to make that future real.

I hope that reformers of all parties embrace the fundamental political reform I've talked about today to make our democracy more muscular and vibrant.