After the Election,
It is fashionable in progressive circles to say that there is no difference
between the Democrats and the Republicans, but in congressional elections,
at least this year, that is not true. If the Democrats controlled Congress,
Dick Gephardt would be Speaker and David Bonior would be Majority Leader
setting the agenda instead of Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey. In the Senate,
the difference is Democratic Leader Tom Daschle versus Republican Leader
The Work Begins
A Democratic Congress might disappoint me, particularly when big money is
involved, but a Republican Congress with the prospect of a veto-proof majority
and/or a crippled President scares me.
Those differences are enough, in my thinking to justify a Democratic vote
on November 3. But the work only starts on election day. On November 4 progressives
need to start organizing to give voters better choices for the 21st century.
For some, that means organizing the Green Party, the Labor Party, the New
Party, the Reform Party, or other alternatives to the Democrats and Republicans.
For Democrats, it means taking back the party from the people who bought
you Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council.
But as long as elections go to the highest bidder, reformers will always
be on the margins. The Center for Responsive Politics found that it cost
candidates $673,739 on average to win a House seat in 1996 and $4.7 million
on average to win a Senate seat. Candidates need to raise funds constantly,
and it's a lot easier to take checks of $1,000 each from corporate lobbyists
at receptions on K Street in Washington than to seek checks of $5 each in
working-class neighborhoods back home.
The rules are stacked against populist candidates and alternative parties.
We must work to change the rules. We need to take private money out of elections
and we need to adopt election systems that expand the choices available
Congress has shown it is unwilling to reform campaign finance in any meaningful
way. The House had to overcome the GOP leadership this past August to pass
a bill that would have closed the "soft money" loophole and reined
in attack ads by "independent" advocacy groups. Even that patchwork
bill was filibustered to death by Senate Republicans.
Meanwhile, "Clean Money" campaign reform bills would have provided
public funds for congressional candidates who agreed to take no private
money and abide by strict spending limits. Those bills, from Rep. John Tierney,
D-Mass., and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., didn't get past a committee hearing.
Polls show that public opinion is solidly behind public funding that takes
wealthy influence peddlers out of campaigns, but it is devilishly hard to
get legislators to support a bill that would make it easier to mount a challenge
against incumbents, so the best bet to implement this sort of "clean
money" public financing is through state initiatives. Two are on the
general election ballot in Arizona and Massachusetts.
Both state initiatives provide that candidates who qualify with a nominal
level of small contributors can renounce all further fundraising and receive
enough public money to run a moderate campaign. In effect, the initiatives
would allow honest candidates to run for office by selling themselves to
voters instead of renting themselves to the lobbyists.
Maine voters approved a "clean money" initiative in 1996 and the
Vermont Legislature approved a similar measure last year. (Both plans are
effective with the 2000 elections.) Other states that have groups promoting
"clean money" initiatives include Missouri, Washington, Oregon,
Michigan and Idaho. "Clean money" organizing is also going on
in Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey,
New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Utah, Washington. For more information, contact
Public Campaign, 1320 19th Street NW, Suite M-1, Washington, D.C. 20036;
e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; web site: www.publicampaign.org.
We also need to reform the way we elect our representatives. The Center
for Voting and Democracy, in a study based on past voting patterns, found
that 83% of this year's House elections were decided when the state legislatures
reapportioned the district lines to protect incumbents or partisan advantage
[see "Monopoly Hard to Beat in Politics, page 8]. Only 74 House seats
are considered "up for grabs" and recent polls indicate that only
about 40 of those seats are really closely contested. If you're a Democrat
in a district that was drawn with a clear Republican majority, or a Green
practically anywhere in the country, you have no real impact in electing
your congressional representative.
In Germany, the Green party was able to form a ruling coalition with the
Social Democrats by virtue of its 6.7 percent showing in September elections.
That was enough to get the Greens 47 seats in the German parliament to join
the 298 Social Democrats and make Social Democratic Gerhard Schröder
Chancellor with a 21-seat majority. In the United States, under the winner-take-all
voting system, Greens and other minor parties can do little more than take
votes away from Democrats and help Republicans win elections, as they have
in two congressional races in New Mexico in the past year.
U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., sponsored HR 3068, the Voters' Choice
Act, which would amend a 1967 law that requires states to elect members
of Congress from one-seat House districts. McKinney's bill would allow election
by proportional representation (PR), where several districts would be combined
into one multi-member district. If there were five seats in the district,
for example, a group with 20 percent of the vote could elect a candidate
to one of the seats, where the group might be too dispersed to elect a candidate
under the winner-take-all system.
Among the forms of PR authorized by McKinney's bill are party list voting,
which allocates seats to political parties in proportion to their share
of the popular vote (after they reach a threshold); cumulative voting, in
which voters can give candidates as many votes as seats being elected; and
choice voting, in which voters rank candidates in order of choice. A variation
of choice allows for instant runoffs in at-large elections.
One of McKinney's motivations is to preserve the intent of the Voting Rights
Act, which the Supreme Court has whittled away in recent years with findings
that legislative districts cannot be drawn solely to help black or Hispanic
candidates get elected. Proportional representation would reduce the need
for gerrymandering and it also would allow other dispersed minorities--including
Republicans in heavily Democratic areas--to group their votes to elect candidates
in multi-member districts. Voters would have a reason to cast a ballot again.
Earlier this century, progressives got two dozen cities, including Cincinnati,
Cleveland, and New York, to adopt PR by initiative. It helped break up one-party
rule but the political machines eventually won repeals everywhere except
Cambridge, Massachusetts. However, more than 200 local governments in the
United States now use some form of PR.
Illinois used "cumulative voting" in three-seat districts from
1870 to 1980. Voters could put all three votes on one candidate, or split
them. The system helped Republicans maintain representatives in Chicago
while Democrats maintained representatives downstate. If 25 percent of voters
supported only one candidate, that candidate would win. Over 75 percent
of votes was necessary to sweep a three-seat district.
McKinney's bill also got nowhere, but you can work to implement proportional
representation at the state and local level. For more information, contact
the Center for Voting and Democracy, P.O. Box 60037, Washington, DC 20039;
email: FairVote@compuserve.com; web site: www.fairvote.org.
-- Jim Cullen
News | Current Issue
| Back Issues | Essays
About the Progressive Populist | How
to Subscribe | How to Contact Us
Copyright © 1998 The Progressive Populist