by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
December 15-17, 2000
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The first step in finding asolution to a problem is admitting there is a problem.
As the events of the past few weeks have demonstrated, this nation's electoral system is a mess. But regardless of your feelings about the outcome, this whole experience will have been a waste of our time and energy if we don't learn from the mistakes and work on correcting them.
Before we get to the mechanics of holding an election, let's begin with the way we select and nominate our candidates. Why did we end up this year with a choice between Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush? Because of a process that rewards the candidate that raises money fastest while promoting an agenda designed to offend the fewest people.
Do you want to run for President in 2004? Start shaking down people now, because you will have to have at least $25 million in hand by the Fall of 2003 so you can be in a position to run in your party's primary. Running for Congress, the U.S. Senate or governor can cost anywhere between $1 million and $50 million, depending on where you live.
That's why campaign finance reform and public funding of election campaigns ought to be a priority. When big money is removed from politics, other voices can be heard. When big money dominates politics, you get candidates like Gore and Bush that pander to their political patrons.
Give the voters a choice between two dismal and uninspiring candidates, and combine that with a winner-take-all system that doesn't give third parties any electoral standing, and what you end up with is pathetically low voter turnouts.
About 49 percent of the registered voters nationwide didn't vote this year. Many didn't because they're disgusted with politics, or because they're lazy or can't be bothered with the process.
But there are millions in that 49 percent who wanted to vote, but can't. There are about five million Americans - many of them black or Hispanic - who are permanently barred from voting because of felony convictions, mostly for drug offenses. There are millions more who are discouraged from voting due to arcane and selectively enforced election laws.
Most politicians won't admit it, but they prefer low voter turnouts. Every action taken the last 100 years to expand the electorate - women's suffrage, the Voting Rights Act, lowering the voting age to 18 - had been vehemently opposed by those in power. They're happy with a system that is archaic, restrictive and easily manipulated.
It shouldn't be that difficult to vote. The rules should be as non-restrictive as possible, starting with same-day voter registration. If you show up at a polling place and can prove you live in that town, you should be able to vote. As for banning felons from voting, I ask this simple question: How are you going to bring someone back into society to become a productive citizen if you permanently take away one of his most important rights?
The ballot itself could use some tweaking. Canada held a national election last month. It took only four hours to count 13 million paper ballots that were cast at 50,000 polling stations across that vast nation. There were no confusing punch cards or balky voting machines in Canada. Their election went smoothly because there is one standard paper ballot design that is used by every province. There should be one standard paper ballot design in this country too.
The last change that's needed is an end to the winner-take-all rules that favor the two major parties. This means using proportional representation in legislative races and instant runoff voting (IRV)for executive races.
Most of the world's democracies use some form of proportional representation. This means that a political party that wins 10 percent of the vote wins 10 percent of the legislative seats. Doing this makes voting for a third-party candidate more than just an act of protest. Instead, it would give third parties a voice in the legislative process and get more voters involved in the democratic process.
Australia, England and Ireland all use IRV. Here's how it works. Voters pick their first choice on their ballot plus their second and third choices. If a candidate gets a majority of the first choices, the election ends. If not, the candidate that gets the fewest votes is eliminated and a runoff round begins. In this second count, each ballot counts for the top-ranked candidates still in the race. If there still isn't a winner, the counts continue until there is a majority winner.
As with proportional representation, IRV gives third parties a greater role in elections and enables them to form coalitions with established political parties. For example, if IRV were used in this year's election, progressives wouldn't have had to agonize over choosing between Gore and Ralph Nader. Nader voters could picked Gore as their second choice, and Gore would've have won in a runoff vote in many states. Instead of a vote "thrown away," IRV would have created a Green-Democratic coalition and helped Democrats to retake Congress.
The chances of all these things happening on the federal level seem remote with a Republican-controlled Congress. The winners always love a system that allows them to win. On the state level, there is a greater chance of seeing reform.
All 50 states could implement IRV for every election, including the presidency, without changing any federal laws or the U.S. Constitution, and several states are considering IRV. As for public financing of elections, several states have approved some sort of system and others are considering it.
If we truly want a democracy where every person has a voice, changes are needed. Without change, you can guarantee that the 2004 election will be even worse than this year's dismal and depressing contest. Change starts with making our electoral process fair, open and accessible to all.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years, and recently graduated from the Kennedy School of Government. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).