After the Election,
The Work Begins

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 Trent Lott.

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 to voters.

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 info@publicampaign.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

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