Election Lessons


Michael Albert

What
happened? Amazingly, as we go to press, still no president. But we do know
that of all potential voters those Not Voting got roughly 50 percent. Gore got
24 percent. Bush got 24 percent. Nadergot 2 percent. Salient facts: Twice as
many folks did not vote as supported either candidate. The Greens wound up the
third largest party in the U.S. Voter anomalies and tampering came out of the
shadows.

Non-voters saw
their choice as being screwed by Gore or being screwed by Bush. To avoid self-
abuse, they stayed home. Those who own capital or hold highly empowered jobs
assessed impact on their bounty. They preferred Bush, but voted significantly
for Gore as well. Those who occupy disem- powered social positions and who
voted at all, were often moved by media-distorted misperceptions of welfare
costs, defense issues, job possibilities, and the relative power of government
as compared to business, and often wound up voting for (spin-doctored)
personality, since nothing else seemed compelling. Virtually everyone took for
granted that society’s defining features would go unaltered. We don’t know
how many would prefer systemic changes were that option freely available.
Then, the important part, there was also Nader/LaDuke.

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. We have little popular impact on who runs for
office. 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 two main parties exist to ensure that
society’s haves retain dominance over society’s have-nots.

In Election
2000 we also saw that the path
of some to the polls was made easy. The path of others was burdened or even
blocked. Bumbling tricks impede some voters’ preferences being registered or
counted. Viewed from abroad, we have the son of an ex-ruler (president) who
also ran the country’s secret police (CIA) losing the popular vote but
hanging on due to a colonial artifact institution plus a ridiculously close
vote in a state that his brother rules (governor) and in which oddball ballots
and state police intimidation of minority voters were ubiquitous. If the U.S.
were a third world country and Florida a third world province, what would
everyone think? We should criticize the election’s operational corruption,
of course, but we should also clarify that these excesses bear the same
relation to the election’s more basic structural problems as corporate fraud
bears to capitalism’s more basic structural problems. Electoral corruption
might swing an election, as market fraud might enlarge corporate bounty, but
underneath the electoral corruption, the two-party system, the government’s
structure, and the media control of what we know, are what truly ensure our
society’s perpetual deviation from true democracy.

 

Elections
and Activism

The
Nader campaign showed that for getting votes, money matters. Money determines
how many people even know you exist; much less know what you favor. It
determines whether you are sufficiently visible to inspire belief you can win,
which is crucial for holding votes, and whether you can get supporters to the
voting booths. Nader got 2.6 million votes. To run well in 2004, the Greens
need to get $10 or more from each of those 2.6 million voters for the period
from now to the next election. That’s the grass roots alternative to
government funding.

The Nader
campaign showed that for communicating content, media matters. Shutting Nader
out of the debates locked the door on the visibility needed to win 5 percent.
Pathetic media coverage guaranteed low support, low hope, and thus low votes.
Any future campaign must more effectively galvanize alternative media and
Internet options and must also mount a far more powerful campaign of visible
pressure on mainstream media and on the debate authorities. Why not have
rallies of 10,000 and 15,000 people outside NBC, or inside NBC, for that
matter?

The explanation
for Nader not reaching 5 percent rests partly with money, partly with media,
and partly, for that matter, with Gore having run such a pathetic campaign
that the lesser evil issue arose so prominently. But there were other reasons
as well for a lower than optimal tally, more within our power to correct.

For example,
why was Nader’s support so low in Black communities and among working
people? In California, the exit polls indicate that Nader did half as well
among Blacks as he did among whites. Similarly bad results show up for
Nader’s tally among union members. If Nader had done better with the blacks
and organized workers who went to the polls, it would have easily given him
well over 5 percent of the vote.

What about
non-voters? Approximately half of all eligible voters didn’t vote. If Nader
had attracted just a hair over 4 out of every 100 of the non-voters, he would
have made 5 percent nationally. If the Nader campaign was in the trenches
doing that kind of outreach, 5 percent should have been quite attainable. Left
candidates cannot do well if they aren’t aggressive about gender and race as
well as about class. Even more, they cannot do well without reaching out to
those who are disaffected from politics, as compared to those who are already
leaning their way. To his great credit, Nader seemed to learn that lesson as
the campaign unfolded. Next time, the insight should inform strategy from the
outset.

  

Election
reforms?

Is
the Electoral College an anachronism? Of course it is. Is the Electoral
College reactionary? Well, it was created to insulate the election of the
president from the rabble public via a layer of electors who would be properly
civilized and wealthy. But that was a long time ago, and now the electors are
overwhelmingly bound by a direct 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 even
now disproportionately high compared to its population. This is a real problem
that warrants 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 its
number of electoral votes were proportional to its population— Gore would
have won the Electoral College even without winning Florida.

What is perhaps
more interesting, is that the Electoral College causes campaign efforts to be
poured into close swing states and away from large states 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 populated areas
without regard for differentials in them.

So
the bottom line is that 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. On the other hand, eliminating the Electoral College wouldn’t enlarge
the public’s sense of involvement or participation, much less its capacity
to affect results, nor would it significantly aid progressive and left
aspirations. The Electoral College is important mostly because worries about
it open the door to considering other reforms.
So once the door is open
to election reform, what other reforms should we work for?

(1) Instant
Run-off Voting.
Under instant runoff voting, voters rank candidates in
order of preference. You could vote Nader/Gore/Bush, or any other pattern that
represents your true preferences. Ballots are counted in a series of rounds.
If a candidate wins a majority of first choices right off, then that candidate
immediately wins. If no candidate receives a majority of first choices right
off, then the last-place candidate is eliminated. On his or her ballots,
second choices are distributed among the remaining candidates. If that fails
to produce a winner, eliminating last- place candidates and re- counting
continues until someone goes over 50 percent. In this way, the lesser evil
phenomenon is minimized. In Election 2000, for example, after the first count,
Pat Buchanan, who came in last, would have his second place votes distributed
upward. Even if all those votes went to Bush, this would not put Bush over the
top. Next, Nader’s second place votes, as well as any votes he received from
Buchanan supporters, would be distributed among remaining candidates. This
would win for Gore. Even if Nader had gotten 20 percent of first place votes,
supposing those voters had all placed Gore second, Gore would still be the
winner.

(2)
Proportional Representation
. Nearly all elections in the United States are
based on the winner-take-all principle. As a result, voters for the candidate
who receives the most votes win representation, but voters for the other
candidates win nothing. Proportional representation (PR) guarantees that any
group of like-minded voters can win legislative seats in proportion to its
share of the popular vote. With winner-take-all, 100 percent of the
representation goes to a 50.1 percent majority. With proportional
representation voters in a minority win their fair share of representation.
All the many possible variants of proportional representation promote more
accurate input from the spectrum of political opinion in a given electorate,
than our current winner take all approach.

(3) Campaign
Financing
. Everyone knows that having a system in which only the rich can
win is a disaster for anything but the interests of the rich. It isn’t just
that only folks with access to money can win. Nor that only parties with means
can win. It is also that incumbents incessantly raise money, becoming beholden
to those who give it to them. An interesting alternative might be federal
funding of all elections, with a special tax on corporations to foot the bill. 

What Now?

Roughly
2.5 million people voted for Nader/LaDuke. Perhaps another 2.5 million would
have liked to. Plausibly, another 5 million or more were interested and
thinking, “well, maybe.” This is a lot of people. How should we retain
their interest, enlist their energies, inspire their hopes, and fuel their
aspirations? This already receptive audience 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 eliciting lasting involvement is
to form a shadow government (see Z November) and create a continuous
arena for participation, creativity, learning, and struggle. Whether with this
approach or some other, the measure of the Nader campaign will be whether it
creates a clear and powerful way forward that unites diverse constituencies
and single-issue movements, that promotes creative and even joyous
participation, that produces powerfulpo litical priorities, and links to local
grassroots organizing, with the national effort helping local efforts and
being helped by them. There is a real opportunity in the land. The task is to
grab it.
                             Z