Number 7 October 20, 1998

This Week:

Better Elections: Why and How


I know I said that this week would bring you the second part of my Social Security article for Z magazine, but it's not done yet, so get off my back. Besides, you need a break from Social Security, and this week's NN brings you something completely different.

First off, as part of a national "Day Against Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation," there is an important march here in Minneapolis this Thursday, October 22, at 5:30. For details, go to a very interesting website called "Protest Net" . For specific details on the Minneapolis march, click on "North America," then click on our region, and you'll see it under Oct 22. Thanks to my nephew Sam for alerting me about this. This is a good website to bookmark and look at regularly. You can post your own actions (marches, teach-ins, conferences, etc) there, too.

This week, I offer some thoughts about elections. Wait! Don't delete yet! I know U.S. elections seem irrelevant to some, and make others ill. But this week's essay addresses those very people about those very things. I actually wrote it about 3 years ago and couldn't get it published. (After this happens a few times, it's enough to make you start your own electronic subscription service, ain't it?)

Relevant to this essay, there is a local group called FairVote Minnesota that is working to get proportional representation to happen here in the Twin Cities. And they have a big conference coming up here in Minneapolis from Friday November 13 through Sunday November 15. They say that "anyone interested in better politics, especially activists in campaign finance, term limits, voting rights, civic renewal, and small party access issues" should come. For more info on the conference or on the organization, check out their website at:

Finally, if the whole idea of Proportional Representation is something that interests you, there is a national organization called the Center for Voting and Democracy. Their website has lots of important stuff. Check them out at:

‘Til next week,


Better Elections: Why and How

Since it's election time again, perhaps it's a good time to offer a few suggestions on how to make elections in the United States a bit more...well, meaningful. Or important. Or relevant. Or at least a little less depressing.

One can't fail to notice that almost two-thirds of eligible voters did not vote in the last national election. This year will probably be about the same. Rarely in the United States do much more than one-half of eligible voters take the time to register their opinion at the polls. This is pretty smart. Since the system we have brings out the worst in people, a negative response to it on the part of the majority reinforces my belief that the average American is far more intelligent than most politicians give them credit for.

The average American adult understands quite well that the most powerful political forces affecting his or her life exist outside of the electoral system. The most basic political decisions S such as what work we do, where we do it, how much of our earnings we need to devote to food, shelter, health, and so on S are commonly understood to be under the control of "the market". Considering that fewer than one in ten people in the United States are self-employed, and that only 1 in 4 Americans directly own stocks or bonds of any sort, "the market" is accurately understood to be separate from, and out of the control of, the average person. We certainly can't vote for the people who make the most basic decisions.

The people for whom we can vote (that is, politicians) are thus left with, at best, a limited role. There are a number of things they can do: They can give gifts ("incentives") to corporations to encourage them to put jobs "here" rather than "there." They can impose some limits on the behavior of corporate entities. They can force corporations to pay a certain minimum wage. These are all important things, but the deck is stacked: If the corporations don't like what they get, they can leave - the town, the state, the country. And they often do; in the 1990s this is no empty threat.

Why, then, is it surprising to anyone that a large number of voters feel powerless? Or that we are angry about this situation? And that we express our anger at the ballot box or, as most do, by not even going to the ballot box? Powerlessness breeds anger. And popular cynicism flows from the corporate cynicism that permeates our political environment. As Lily Tomlin put it, "No matter how cynical I get, I can't keep up."

So, what's the point in working to try and improve our electoral system? Can it make any difference? I think it can, for two reasons. The first is that it is true that the government does retain some capacity to address the injustices that are a part of our economic system. Things like minimum wage laws, environmental regulations, the availability of emergency medical care, food stamps, and Social Security come directly from the government, and they make a difference in the lives of real people. A popular lefty slogan says "Don't vote, it only encourages them." If this seems like a truism to you, you would probably benefit from examining your class background.

The second reason is this: In a winner-take-all system, politicians who want to win need to produce ideas that are immediately attractive to the majority. These, then, are the ideas that are reported on and talked about, and the boundaries of acceptable thought thus remain exceedingly narrow. In a more open political system, parties with ideas that currently have the support of only a minority of people would be able to present those ideas for the majority to consider. They wouldn't necessarily win, but the fact that these ideas would make it onto the table could only serve to broaden the public discourse and challenge the current "conventional wisdom". In short, if we want to give good ideas a chance to grow into politically viable ideas, we need to open up the system.

Any political movement in the U.S. needs an electoral component. The Civil Rights movement, for example, was not primarily an electoral movement, but it always had a legislative agenda as a part of the larger strategy.

Here, then, are seven simple proposals for reform of our system of elections. Please bear in mind that "simple" does not in this case mean "easy." While it is true that most of these steps could be taken by any Congress and could take effect more or less immediately upon passage, it's important to think about the context we're in when thinking about making any effort to enact significant changes in business as usual. And I do mean "business".

I do not offer these reforms as goals in themselves. They are mainly ideas which might usefully be included on the agendas of grassroots groups already working in the community.

  1. LIMIT THE LENGTH OF CAMPAIGNS. From three to six weeks should do it. Many other countries (England, for example, and all the Scandinavian countries) already limit their campaigns in this way.
  2. BAN PAID POLITICAL ADVERTISING. The problem with political advertising is not, as many have been saying, that it's too negative. The problem is that political ads do not and will not educate or inform potential voters because that's not what they're designed to do. The solution? Get rid of them.
  3. REQUIRE EQUAL COVERAGE OF ALL CANDIDATES. Any candidate who meets minimum registration requirements should be accorded equal exposure in the media. This would be easily accomplished by making such balance a requirement of the acquisition or renewal of a broadcasting license. I suggest that all licensed broadcast outlets be required to provide two prime-time hours daily, divided equally among all legal political parties, with this two-hour package broadcast simultaneously on all stations. This suggestion, by the way, is not original. It's lifted directly from recent election law in Brazil.
  4. CHANGE WHO MAKES THE RULES. Currently, the rules governing election campaigns are set legislatively. That is, by the victors of the most recent elections. It is unreasonable to expect the victors to change the rules under which they achieved their victories. So I propose an independent Election Commission, composed of people who have never run for elective office, and who agree not to do so for 10 years after being on the commission. Maybe these people would be elected directly, or maybe we could figure out a way to appoint them by someone who would not have a conflict of interest. Maybe just the fact that commission members cannot run for office would be sufficient.
  5. BAN DIRECT FINANCIAL SUPPORT OF INDIVIDUAL CANDIDATES. If people must give money for elections, allow them to give it directly to the Election Commission, which would be required to disburse it to the party you specify S anonymously. That way, everyone gets to support the party of their choice, and the party doesn't owe any individual a thing. I suggest a dollar limit for individuals, as well, to reduce unfair class advantage. Perhaps the equivalent of the wages that one full-time worker earns in a week at the minimum wage. Currently, that's $206.
  6. REQUIRE A TRUE MAJORITY TO WIN. Currently, a majority of the votes that are cast is sufficient to win an election. I propose that no one be allowed to take office with less than 50% of the votes of all possible voters. Not voting, under these rules, would amount to a vote for "none of the above". If an election fails to yield a majority for any candidate, another election is immediately held, either with the same or with different candidates. This system would do away with the so-called "mandates" often earned with 20% of the possible votes. Incidentally, I believe this would go a long way toward limiting the much-bemoaned "negativity" in campaigns, as successful candidates or parties would need to inspire people to actually vote for something rather than against. This seems hard to imagine in modern-day America, but maybe it's still possible. (a milder but still significant reform would be to require, as some nations do, a run-off election if no one receives at least 50% of the votes that were actually cast. I don't know that this would make much difference in the United States.)
  7. MAKE REPRESENTATION PROPORTIONAL. This would be the biggest change and, perhaps, the most significant. Proportional Representation (PR) is the norm in Germany, Italy, and a host of other countries. Although there are many variations, all are based on the idea that representation is at least as important as stability. One version of PR works, in a nutshell, like this: people cast their votes for a party, and the various parties then occupy seats in the legislative body in direct proportion to the number of votes received. If a party receives 5% of the votes, they receive 5% of the seats. The chief executive (president, prime minister, or whatever) is then selected by the majority party, or some coalition of parties. The big advantage readily presents itself: More diversity in the legislative body, which would better reflect the diversity in the population. There are lots of other versions.

I don't think that any of these changes are actually going to happen in our country in the near future. Any one of these changes would require a groundswell of support based on an organized grassroots campaign of huge proportions. And this sort of organization assumes a political environment which includes a well-developed democratic infrastructure that would create, and be created by, an active and politicized citizenry. Such an infrastructure would include things like strong unions, for example, and broadly-based citizens' groups. The sorts of things that have been declining in the United States for the past few decades.

But until the day when we are able to elect the people who actually make the major political decisions, I offer these proposals for reform of our current system in the hope that they might inspire someone who is currently doing nothing to do something. And to do it by working together with other people. For it seems to me that, unless and until a large number of people are willing to organize themselves to think about, to plan, to propose, and to build alternatives to the current system, alienation will continue to grow. And if that's the case, then we can expect that trivial matters will continue to be elevated to levels of prominence, and business as usual will continue to be conducted.

And I do mean "business".