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Election Issues


Michael Albert

The

election fiasco is an unexpected spur to progressive prospects.

  • Lots

    of people are thinking hard about what good government is. This could yield

    positive political vision, not just a list of things we don’t like.

  • The

    coming assault on the Electoral College will nourish reform fever and could

    lead toward proportional representation, instant run-off voting, and

    campaign finance reform.

  • The

    U.S. has become the world’s laughing stock. This could augment dissident

    hope, independence, and confidence. The King has no clothes and suddenly

    folks are pointing it out.

  • Whichever

    party takes office will be hamstrung by the doubts the election fiasco has

    engendered. The more hamstrung each party is the less harm either can do to

    blacks, Latinos, women, workers and other non-elite constituencies. The

    weaker the parties are, the less popular pressure will be necessary to force

    desirable programs.

Nonetheless,

though we obviously need to reap the above political harvest, a few

complications also arise.

For

a serious leftist, it should be second nature that the U.S. electoral system is

utterly compromised by lobby, party, and candidate money, and even more by the

structure of our government itself. We have little popular impact on who runs

for office, much less on the job description once they are in power. We lack

honest knowledge of what candidates intend to do. We lack contextual knowledge

of the issues. We lack the power to impact candidates once in office. More

broadly, the Republicans and Democrats are agents of the haves for retaining

dominance over the have-nots. All that and more should be the core of what we

communicate about U.S. elections, of course. Still, with millions closely

watching the current crisis in Florida, we will be pushed to also address

secondary and even less important details now on people’s minds.

So,

beyond their basic structural failings, widespread vote robbing also condemns

our elections. The path of some to the polls is made simple. The path of others

is burdened or even blocked. Bumbling tricks impede some voters’ preferences

being registered or counted. Of course we should criticize these problems, but

we should not imply they are all that’s wrong with our elections. They are

vile implications of the candidates and parties trying to win at all costs, of

course. But these excesses bear the same relation to the more basic structural

problems with elections as corporate fraud bears to the more basic structural

problems with capitalism: a pimple on the back of a whale. U.S. elections, even

run perfectly, don’t approach real democracy. Run imperfectly, they are still

worse.

But

another growing complaint seems not only secondary or peripheral, but also

ill-conceived, at least the way some folks are expressing it.

Some

people urge that if Gore wins the popular vote, he should become President.

Having Bush become President due to winning only the electoral college will

diminish democracy, they argue. But these folks are making a disingenuous and

odd claim.

Consider:

All parties agreed before the fact that the Electoral College would be the final

ballot for the presidency. All candidates campaigned and all citizens voted

based on that assumption. To argue that votes ought to be fairly counted and

people should not be disenfranchised by ballots that misrepresent their

intentions or by machinations that prevent them from reaching the ballot box or

having their votes counted, seems worthy and logical, of course. But to argue

that Gore should be president because he won the popular vote even if he loses

in the Electoral College doesn’t seem worthy or logical, at least to me. For

one thing, how many of those asserting this would still hold the view if Florida

suddenly went for Gore in a recount, but the million outstanding mail ballots in

California simultaneously swing the popular vote to Bush? Would they all then

say, “okay, wait a minute, yes, even though Gore got the Electoral College,

Bush got the popular vote, so Bush should be president”? Not many would, I

bet.

But

perhaps even more troubling than partisanship dominating principle is the lack

of logic behind the claim. In 1960, the Pittsburgh Pirates won the U.S. baseball

World Series over the New York Yankees, winning 4 games to 3, by a thrilling

ninth inning home-run in the 7th game. Yet the Yankees outscored the Pirates 55

to 27 (and out hit them 91-60 and out-homered them 10-4) over the seven game

series. In such a series total runs scored may be a better indicator of team

quality than games won, but surely we would all object if the Yankees tried to

claim the 1960 crown on this basis. Both teams played to maximize games won and

not runs scored, and as long as that is the way the game was understood by both

teams at the beginning of the Series, that is the way winners should be

determined.

The

analogy isn’t precise, of course, but it does do push us to see that both

candidates campaigned to win electoral votes, not to win the maximum number of

popular votes. Gore spent nearly nothing in California. Bush spent relatively

little in Texas, and ditto for both of them in other large states with a large

gap. Both spent way disproportionate time and money in the small swing states.

More, what about voters who didn’t bother to go to the polls because they knew

their state was in the bag? Is it fair to take what was for them a plausible

choice that didn’t hurt their candidate in the Electoral College, and make it

a disenfranchisement that did hurt their candidate due to belatedly changing the

rules to favor popular votes instead of Electoral College votes? Does that

enhance democracy?

In

an election in which only the popular tally mattered, the candidates would

function completely differently than they do in Electoral College mediated

elections. The candidates would spend way more time, money, and effort where the

most voters are, regardless of their prospects to win a majority in every such

place. Gore would try harder to win voters in Texas than in Oregon, even though

he couldn’t possibly win Texas, because there are so many more people in Texas

to add to his overall tally. Bush would spend more time in New York than he did

in this campaign, even though he couldn’t possibly win New York itself. Did

every Bush or Gore supporter in Texas and did every Gore or Bush supporter in

California vote, or did many of them not vote on grounds that they knew their

state was sewn up regardless of their choice 

And

this brings us to the Electoral College. Is the Electoral College an

anachronism? Of course it is. Is the Electoral College reactionary?

Well…maybe. It was created to insulate the election of the president from the

rabble public via a layer of electors who would of course be properly civilized

and wealthy. But that was a long time ago, and now the electors are

overwhelmingly bound by the vote for the candidates. On the other hand, because

the electoral votes allotted to a state are one for each Representative and

Senator, the number of electors for small states is disproportionately high

compared to its population. This is a real problem, and may well warrant getting

rid of the whole Electoral College system, or at least changing the votes

apportioned to each state. For example, if each state had only as many electoral

votes as it had Representatives — that is, if it were proportional to its

population — Gore would have won the Electoral College even without winning

Florida.

What

is perhaps still more interesting to consider, and harder to evaluate, is that

the Electoral College system has a considerable impact on the nature of the

campaign, causing campaign efforts to be poured into close swing states and away

from large states that are obviously in one camp or the other. If the vote was

just one-person one-vote and the most votes wins, election strategy would focus

overwhelmingly on the most populace areas without regard for differentials in

them. Would this be good or bad? I don’t know, especially as compared to

proportional representation, instant runoff voting ,, serious campaign finance

reform, incorporating means to recall elected officials, or making sensible use

of referenda and initiatives.

Getting

rid of the Electoral college would remove an elitist (but barely operational)

firewall between the voters and the candidates, would eliminate the

disproportionate overvaluing of the populations of small states, and would

significantly impact how campaigns are run. Still, I doubt that the absence of

the Electoral College would impact the public’s sense of involvement or

participation much, or their capacity to affect results, much less aid

progressive and left aspirations. In other words, the Electoral College is a

third order issue, at best, I think, and important mostly because worries about

it open the door to the possibility of other reforms. Urging Electoral College

reform will be valuable only if it promotes those other reforms, not if it makes

it seem that eliminating the Electoral College will yield a desirable electoral

system.

However,

our first order priority needs to be different. Roughly 2.5 million people voted

for Nader. I bet another 2.5 million would have liked to, maybe many more. I bet

another 5 million or more were interested, wondering, and thinking, “well,

maybe.” This is a lot of people. What should we do to retain their interest,

enlist their energies, inspire their hopes, and fuel their aspirations? This is

a receptive audience. It is large enough to generate more money than Federal

Funding would have. It is large enough to do more effective outreach than the

mass media. One approach to bringing all these folks into lasting involvement is

to form a shadow government and create a continuous arena for participation,

creativity, learning, and struggle. There are probably other good ideas too. The

measure of the Nader campaign will be whether it grasps one or more of these

ideas to create lasting movement strength.

 

 

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