[EM] FWD - Florida Fiasco Puts Radical Reforms on the Table

Donald E. Davison donald at mich.com
Thu Nov 23 03:48:23 PST 2000

  ------------Forwarded Letter ------------

Florida Fiasco Puts Radical Reforms on the Table
Taking Back the Vote
by Alisa Solomon

"Every vote counts!" the demonstrators chant, over and over, at
rallies from New York to Fresno, from Anchorage to Tallahassee, as
they protest the electoral debacle that was the November 7 election.
Such entreaties from mainstream citizens, broadcast to thousands, even
millions, through a flurry of e-mails, have turned the Florida fiasco
into a public debate on the depth of American democracy.

"On TV I saw a group of elderly Jewish women in Florida upset to
realize that they'd mistakenly voted for Buchanan," said Christopher
Costa, a newly minted political activist, as he joined the throngs at
Times Square on Saturday. "Then the pundits came on and made fun of
those women. I was so offended that I organized another demonstration
for Monday. You can't have democracy if you don't trust the people."

The outpouring of decentralized, nonpartisan action signals a new
opening for reforms to a system, voting-rights advocates say, that
has flaws far beyond flighty butterfly ballots and antediluvian
apparatuses. Even with a modern, standardized method of casting and
counting votes, and even if violations, such as Black voters allegedly
being turned away from the polls, were eliminated, "our system still
wouldn't fully be serving democracy," says Eric Olson, deputy
director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a national,
nonpartisan organization pressing for an array of alternatives,
including instant runoff voting, proportional representation, and
cumulative voting.

Until recently, such ideas have been relegated to political
purgatory. During the uproar over her 1993 nomination to be assistant
attorney general for civil rights, for instance, legal scholar and
activist Lani Guinier was lambasted for having written articles
arguing that such reforms would more fully enfranchise African
Americans and other minorities. But now that the every-vote-counts
myth has been blown open, "everything can be on the table," Guinier
says. "Hope is on the way when whites in this country begin to
realize that they are also disenfranchised and start examining more
closely the experience of Blacks, Latinos, and other people of color
to see how these problems, which often converge around visible
minorities, actually affect us all."

Even Congress is starting to wake up. New York representative Jerrold
Nadler said last week that he will introduce legislation to create a
commission to look into making registration and voting easier;
Senator Charles Schumer promised a bill to fund studies of online
voting and expanded polling hours, not to mention updated equipment.
And most far-reaching, last Tuesday, Representative Peter DeFazio, a
Democrat from Oregon, and Representative Jim Leach, a Republican from
Iowa, introduced the "Federal Elections Review Commission Act," which
calls for a nonpartisan 12-member commission to contemplate a full
range of reforms. These run the gamut, from opening presidential
debates to more candidates to reconsidering the electoral college, in
order to "ensure the integrity of, and public confidence in, Federal

In a section on "impact on voter turnout and expanding political
dialog," the DeFazio-Leach bill nods to progressives by including two
particular alternatives, the very devices deemed beyond the pale when
Guinier championed them: cumulative voting and proportional
representation. The first of these, cumulative voting (CV), gives
voters as many votes as there are seats up for election to distribute
as they choose. If, say, there are seven seats on a district school
board, a voter may give all seven to one candidate, one to each of
seven candidates, or three to one and two each to two others, and so

Proponents argue that cumulative voting offers the surest way to give
voice to minorities, whether that means African Americans in white-
majority districts, or Republicans in heavily Democratic ones, and
many have proposed promising schemes to apply such systems to U.S.
congressional voting. One plan is to expand congressional districts
so that each will elect three or more representatives, rather than
the existing one, and then let voters use CV to choose them. In
addition to forestalling the incumbent-favoring gerrymandering that
upcoming redistricting is certain to promote, such a format allows
for what Guinier calls "self-districting"—the ability of like-minded
voters to pool their power by concentrating their votes on a favored
candidate. A significant minority of, say, passionate Green Party
voters might be too small to elect a representative under the method
in place today, but could win a seat under CV by spending all their
chits on the Green candidate.

That's exactly the system Illinois used from 1870 to 1980, and that
some politicos there are pushing to revive, and with good chances of
success, says Dan Johnson-Weinberger, the Chicago-based national
field director for the Center for Voting and Democracy. "By helping
to elect Republicans from the cities and Democrats from the suburbs
or rural areas, CV kept those parts of the state from always being
pitted against each other. That meant that Illinois could move on
such things as public transportation for downtown Chicago as well as
the suburbs. Government was much more responsive and a lot less
corrupt," he notes, adding that Illinois voters threw out the system
only because its abolition was part of a popular cut-back amendment
in the inflationary year of 1980, which reduced the size of the State
House from 177 members to 118. "Classic baby-with-the-bathwater
situation," he says.

The other oft-recommended progressive reform, common to parliamentary
systems around the world, is proportional representation (PR), which
allocates seats to parties based on their proportion of the total
vote. New York's own City Council was never so diverse as during its
decade under this system. In 1936 New Yorkers voted by a margin of
almost two-to-one to replace the Tammany Hall-dominated Board of
Aldermen (where Democrats captured 95.3 percent of the seats with
only 66.5 percent of the popular vote) with a City Council elected
according to PR. That's what brought the first African American, Adam
Clayton Powell, into New York office, as well as the first Labor and
Communist representatives. At the same time, insurgent Democrats
defeated machine candidates, against whom they formerly hadn't had a

The machine launched a virulent campaign against PR, using alarmist,
red-baiting claims of foreign powers overthrowing democracy to stir
the public into reverting to the old style of voting in 1947. The
result was a full return to machine control, with the old Dems
winning 96 percent of the seats. The Center for Voting and
Democracy's Olson expects to see such models resurface in New York as
voting-rights advocates gear up for the first post-Florida municipal
elections next year.

The core principle guiding all these systems is a rejection of the
winner-take-all approach to representative democracy. Giving all the
power to the victor, no matter how slim the margin of victory, and
silencing the loser, not only makes a mockery of democratic
principles that are based on minority protections, advocates say, but
also skews the campaign process by encouraging candidates to focus on
small slivers of swing voters. Thus such bizarre spectacles as
Hillary Clinton staking out positions on Israel to the right of that
country's own government, and Al Gore neglecting to mention gun
control in his bid for support in Wisconsin or Colorado. The most
flagrant symptom of winner-take-all damage is the supercilious
neglect of most of the states in the presidential campaign as
candidates pour all their time and resources into the states where
neither candidate has a significant lead.

That, of course—along with Gore's apparent triumph in the popular
vote—has opened the op-ed pages and Sunday-morning pundit parades to
disquisitions about the electoral college. Progressives like Guinier
and Olson agree for the most part that the antiquated, lopsided body
needs profound reform, if not downright abolition, but, they warn,
moving to a direct election of the president will not go far enough
to redress the inequities in the system. At least for the moment,
notes Ronald Walters, professor of government and politics at the
University of Maryland, the electoral college's allowance for small
states to have influence, "also ironically allows for the impact of
cohesive minorities, like Black Americans. Because Blacks voted 90
percent for one candidate in this election, we had impact on the
states, and thus on the electoral vote."

In some states, at least. The thin blue line snaking along the
Mississippi delta amid a sea of Republican red on the voting-result
maps demonstrates how meaningless even some concentrated votes are
under winner-takes-all. Despite those 90 percent of African American
votes being cast for Gore, the Southern states all went to Bush.

Senator-elect Hillary Clinton's instant promises notwithstanding, the
electoral college is not likely to go anywhere soon, Walters
contends. "Changing it takes a two-thirds majority, and the ones with
more seats are the ones benefiting from it. How can anyone imagine
that it's going to change?"

Some of its distortions, though, could be mitigated. One of the most
promising ways, and the one getting the biggest push around the
country, is Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). On Election Day, voters in
Oakland approved a charter amendment to use this technique in special
elections to fill vacancies on their city council, and in nearby San
Leandro, voters adopted a city charter amendment to use runoff
elections for theirs. Meanwhile, New Mexico, Alaska, and Vermont have
been seriously considering the mechanism for their statewide offices.

Under IRV, long in use in national elections in Australia and Ireland,
instead of simply marking an X next to the most-desired candidate,
voters would rank them according to preference. If no candidate
emerges with a majority after all the first-choice votes are counted,
then the candidates who received the fewest number of 1's are
eliminated. The 2's on those ballots are then distributed among the
remaining candidates until one achieves a majority. If IRV had been
in place two weeks ago, the number-two choices on 96,837 ballots that
favored Ralph Nader in Florida would have been turned over
accordingly, and nobody would have heard of Katherine Harris. What's
more, "IRV would mean that someone was winning a majority," points
out Johnson-Weinberger. "It's not radical or crazy to say that a
president should get one more vote than 50 percent to win. A runoff
lets you do that, while also giving more meaningful participation to
third parties, which can launch all-out campaigns without fear of
being labeled spoilers."

According to five-term Vermont state representative Terry Bouricius,
a member of the Progressive Party, IRV has good chances of passing in
his state, where a bill favoring it will soon be introduced with
tripartisan support. "Established politicians can recognize how it
can benefit them, at least in the short term," he says, "even as in
the long term, it opens up third-party participation."

It's a small step, though, he says, in a country where voter turnout
hovers at the halfway mark, and is lowest among the poor and
uneducated. "Proportional representation can have far more impact in
serving to include many more voices in our democracy, but it's a long
battle. IRV is something I think we can pass in a year or two, and
that will help us move to even better reforms, as it makes room for
more parties."

If such a battle will be joined, however, it will take massive
grassroots, multiracial efforts. "Right now the slogan in Florida
is 'Let Granny Vote,' " says Ron Walters, "because, the feeling is,
if granny's vote counts, our votes may be counted, too. That's why
Jesse Jackson has been down there speaking in synagogues and holding
hands with rabbis. What we don't know now is how long that coalition
can stay mobilized."

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