Transform local politics

Democrats would like to crush the Green Party, and many party regulars will continue to feel that way until it becomes clear that the upstarts are not going to fall back in line. Then the Democrats will learn to deal with them.

After the election, congressional Democrats pointedly declared that they would not work with Ralph Nader and heaped abuse on him for attacking Al Gore and siphoning votes away from the Democratic nominee. Senate Democratic leaders prevented Nader from testifying against the nomination of John Ashcroft for attorney general and Gale Norton for interior secretary. Some Democrats have talked of reprisals against groups affiliated with Nader, including Public Citizen, the public interest group Nader founded, but which now operates independently from him.

Nader, unrepentant, apparently has made his peace with House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, with whom he talked Feb. 8. "He made it clear he doesn't look favorable at the backbiting that is going on, the exclusionary backbiting that some Democrats in the House and Senate have engaged in against us,'' Nader told Reuters. He continued, "... Gephardt is a sensible person who keeps his eye on policy objectives.''

It might take time for word of a truce to filter down the ranks. In the meantime Greens and Progressive Democrats should work together at the local level on two issues that would advance progressive politics: instant runoff voting and public funding of elections.

Instant runoff voting allows voters to rank candidates according to their order of preference. If none of the candidates finishes with a first-round majority of all the votes cast, the last candidate is dropped and votes are re-tallied, with the second choices of the losing candidate's voters added to the remaining candidates' totals. The choices can easily be tallied by automatic scanners and computers.

If instant runoff voting had been used in the recent presidential election in Florida, and assuming a majority of Nader voters had Gore as their second choice, Gore would have won Florida by a clear majority rather than the apparent plurality which ended up being overruled by the US Supreme Court's "short count." On the other hand, if instant runoff voting had been used in 1992, and if most of Ross Perot's supporters had listed George Bush I as their second choice, Bill Clinton might never have been elected president. So both Democrats and Republicans have reasons to work for instant runoffs.

It's no accident that most of the work on IRV is being done in states and localities with a history of third and fourth parties splintering the vote from the two major parties. In Alaska, a petition drive turned up more than enough signatures to put an initiative on the ballot in 2002 to require instant runoffs for most state offices. Republicans remember 1990, when the Alaskan Independence Party drew enough conservative voters to allow the election of Democrat Tony Knowles. Unfortunately, the state constitution provides that the governor and lieutenant governor are elected by a plurality of votes, and the constitution is beyond the reach of the initiative process, but the legislature could put a constitutional amendment up for a vote, particularly now that the Green Party threatens to draw votes from the left.

Vermont is another state with a pesky third party -- the Progressives, who nearly drew enough votes this past November to throw the governor's election to the state House of Representatives. The state House in 1998 created the Vermont Commission to Study Preference Voting, which recommended that IRV be instituted for all statewide elections.

Democrats are pursuing a constitutional amendment allowing IRV in New Mexico, where Greens and Democrats have split the "liberal" vote in recent years, giving Republicans plurality wins in several races. The New Mexico State Senate approved a constitutional amendment in 1998, but the proposition failed to clear the House.

In California, Oakland voters in November overwhelmingly approved a city charter amendment to use instant runoff voting in special elections to fill vacancies on the city council. In nearby San Leandro, voters adopted a city charter amendment to allow instant runoff voting. Santa Clara County voters also approved a charter amendment authorizing the use of IRV.

Instant runoff voting was invented in Massachusetts in 1870 but was first used in 1893 in Australia, where it is still used in federal elections and is known as "alternative voting." Ireland's president is elected by IRV. In Britain, the mayor of London is elected by IRV and it is being considered, along with proportional representation, for the House of Commons.

David Cobb, a Houston lawyer, Texas state coordinator for Nader and also an activist for the Center for Voting and Democracy, which promotes instant runoff voting (see www.fairvote.org or phone 301-270-4616), was in Austin recently to talk up instant runoff voting. He called it "one of the most important electoral reforms we could do to increase democracy."

Austin is seen as ripe for instant runoffs because it is poised to make major changes in voting for its city council, whose mayor and six council members are now selected at large. A task force has recommended single-member districts, and also recommended that they be elected by instant runoff voting.

Benefits of IRV include the premium it places on discussion of policy issues instead of mudslinging, Cobb noted, since candidates won't want to alienate the supporters of rival candidates, hoping to be their second choice.

Instant runoff voting also guarantees that winners have a majority base of support. It reduces the extra costs of campaigning for a runoff as well as saving taxpayers the cost of running a second election. And it eliminates the threat of also-ran candidates "spoiling" the election.

As it stands, Cobb said, all the Green Party can hope to do is spoil the election of a Democrat, and few, if any, Greens are satisfied with that role.

He adds that in his efforts to get Democratic legislators to consider IRV, he warns them not to think he'll fall back in line if the Greens fail to achieve IRV. "I tell them 'I'm an unrepentant Green Party voter. I'm not a Democratic Party voter gone astray. I believe in different things than you do.'"

Libertarians have indicated support of IRV. Cobb hopes a resurgent Reform Party will support IRV as well. "We need the Reform Party to put a scare in the Republicans."

Passage of the McCain-Feingold bill, if it puts controls on "soft money" contributions to political parties and attack ads run by independent political action committees, would be a good first step towards reforming campaign finance. But "poison pill" provisions that might be attached to the bill, such as proposals to increase the current limits on hard money contributions and anti-union "paycheck protection" measures, would damage the cause of reform.

Public funding is the real solution to the high cost of running campaigns that keeps politicians reliant on corporate contributors. But that won't happen in Congress in the foreseeable future. Instead, the action is at the state and local level.

Four states -- Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont -- already have adopted versions of Clean Money Campaign Reform, which provides public campaign funds to qualifying candidates who agree to limit their fundraising and spending. (See www.publicampaign.org or call 1-877-687-8542.)

Austin Greens and others are promoting a "Clean Money" initiative to provide public matching funds for city council candidates who agree to limit their fundraising and spending. Candidates who collect signatures and $5 contributions from 500 voters for council seats or 1000 voters for the mayoral race would qualify for matching grants of $2 for every dollar they raise privately, up to a total of $100,000 for council races and $200,000 for mayoral races. Private contributions would be limited to $200 and must come from Austin residents. (See www.cleancampaigns.org or call 512-440-5757.)

Instant runoffs and public funding of elections could help bring democracy back to America. -- JMC

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