When Ralph Nader chided what he called the "liberal intelligentsia" for appealing to him not to run in 2004 as "a contemptuous statement against democracy, against freedom, against more voices and choices for the American people," he added, "You'd never find that type of thing in Canada or Western democracies in Europe."
But Ralph was being disingenuous by not acknowledging that before Americans can take advantage of the heightened democracy enjoyed by those nations, we need a slew of electoral reforms that he may support on his campaign website, but which have gone virtually unmentioned in his media appearances and speeches.
I agree with Nader that America's democratic promise isn't fulfilled and that we live with a downsized politics of excluded alternatives. But, as The Nation noted in our "Open Letter" appealing to him not to run in an election when the overwhelming mass of progressive voters have only one focus--beating Bush--Nader's perceived role as a spoiler is likely to attract far more attention than the valuable issues he raises.
Instead of demonizing Nader though, progressives and indeed all Democrats should fight for reforms that open up our electoral system. One place to start would be to demand that the Democratic presidential candidate--and the party's platform--support electoral reforms that reflect an understanding that the party that can capture the hearts and minds of political newcomers can build a voting majority.
For the first time in nearly a century more than a quarter of US voters are not registered as either Republicans or Democrats. We need an electoral system that accommodates and indeed celebrates our country's diverse views. It's no accident that Howard Dean drew his strongest support among young people. Like Dennis Kucinich, he embraced instant runoff voting and stressed the importance of reforms that allow the range of voices and choices found in democracies with more modern voting systems.
Both Dean and Kucinich, like Nader, know that our two major parties have effectively colluded to dramatically narrow voter options. But there's nothing in American political culture that mandates the present system. It's an artifact of self-protection by the two party duopoly that at this point is particularly damaging to Democrats.
So here's my list of some ideas on how to reconstruct American democracy
with links to groups working on their behalf:
1. Proportional Representation. The most obvious difference between electoral politics in the United States and Europe is our plurality, winner-take-all electoral system. Giving all representation to the candidate with the most votes by definition shuts the door on political minorities. Nearly all European legislatures have forms of proportional representation--called "full representation" by reformers here--where 51 percent of the vote wins a majority of seats, but not all seats. Winning 10 percent of the vote wins 10 percent of seats, and in some nations, like Germany and Belgium, candidates and parties can win with far less support.
Indeed new parties form in European democracies in roughly comparable numbers as they do in the United States; the difference is that with "full representation," more than half of these parties ultimately win seats and a chance to bring new voters and issues into politics even as the leading parties typically function as stable pillars of coalition governments. Arguments about how difficult it is to govern under proportional representation--as in Italy--collapse under the weight of sensible policies coming from countries like Germany, Sweden, France and the Netherlands.
Reflecting Americans' limited understanding of the political systems of other nations, it's unlikely that the Democrats will embrace full proportional representation yet--although they do have the wisdom to use it to elect delegates to their presidential convention. But if they turn to Illinois' experience with its more modest system of cumulative voting in three-seat districts (essentially three adjoining legislative districts that are combined into one), they will see they have nothing to fear and much to gain.
Illinois used cumulative voting from 1870 to 1980, and there's increasing bipartisan support in the state to restore it. Three-seat districts with full representation lower the share of voter support necessary to earn a seat to roughly 25 percent. That change alone would open up nearly every area in the country to healthy two-party competition, give third parties a better chance and address the goals of redistricting reformers. (It's worth noting that restoring cumulative voting in Illinois has support from a range of political figures, including the two most recent Republican governors and African-American Democratic figures like the Secretary of State Jesse White and Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr.)
Amarillo, Texas shows what cumulative voting can do for fair representation in the US: after having had an all-white school board for two decades, it adopted cumulative voting in 1999 and now has a school board which looks much more like its voter base with four white members, two Latinas and an African American.
2. Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). Most presidential democracies have runoff elections in which the top two candidates face off if no candidate wins a majority. This allows voters more luxury in supporting any candidate they like in the first round with little fear that doing so will assist in electing their least favorite candidate.
Ireland has an even better system: instant runoff voting (IRV). IRV simulates a full runoff election in a single round of voting through the simple device of allowing citizens to vote both for their favorite candidate as well as for the candidate they would support if their favorite fails to advance to the runoff. The result is a winning candidate able to build a true majority coalition.
And when given the chance, American voters seem to like IRV; in 2002, it was adopted in San Francisco for city elections; 53 of 56 town meetings in Vermont supported resolutions calling for IRV for gubernatorial elections, and in 2001 the Utah Republican Party adopted instant runoff voting for elections that take place at its state conventions.
Given their understandably angry reaction to Nader's candidacy, Democrats should consider a reform that would accommodate such a candidacy in the future. Instant runoff voting could be adopted for presidential elections in any state by a mere statute. Public backers in recent years have included the leaders of the state senates of Maine and New Mexico, two states where Democrats control the state government. New Mexico governor Bill Richardson-- one of Nader's fiercest critics--should take the lead in supporting a reform that is a win-win solution to the "spoiler" controversy.
3. Fusion. One American answer to the question that in most other systems is answered more straightforwardly by proportional representation, namely, how can you give representative weight to minority electoral sentiment, is fusion voting.
Fusion lifts prohibitions against more than one party nominating a candidate. That simple change permits people to vote their values without wasting their votes or supporting "spoilers." The positive experience of the Working Families Party in New York in recent years shows that you can build a viable minority party this way, even in the otherwise inhospitable electoral environment of the US.
Fusion also has the weight of long American experience behind it. Before the early 20th century, it was a frequent tool of emerging parties before major parties started banning it, and it has been particularly prominent in New York's electoral history. Fusion also has helped progressives focus on the challenge of building majorities in a winner-take-all system.
4.Democracy Toolkit: Then there are a slew of reforms that would increase voter engagement in the system, improve responsiveness of the major parties to the full electorate, and offer good complements to full representation, instant runoff voting and fusion.
- Public funding of elections, either through general revenues, individual tax credits or special scrip. Big money politics give disproportionate influence to the wealthy, and blocks the candidacies of those without access to money.
- Election day registration. A third of American adults are not registered and, even if caught up in the excitement of an election in its final days, are denied a chance to vote. Reforms in voter registration are all the more possible in the wake of technological innovation and recent movement to statewide voter registration databases.
- Election day as a holiday. The highest voter participation in the United States is in Puerto Rico, which makes election day a holiday (as incidentally, does The Nation's collective bargaining agreement). In addition to giving frenzied working people time to get to the polling booth, this contributes to a civic awareness of the importance of elections.
- Consolidation of election calendars. Because the United States spreads voting throughout the year, the impact of one's vote in any one election is weakened, and important primary and local elections often draw single-digit turnout as a consequence.
- Tying FCC licensing to more public affairs programming. A real public channel or two would dramatically increase electoral awareness.
- A Constitutional amendment enshrining the right to vote, as Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. has publicly proposed. The lack of a right to vote in the Constitution allows states to disenfranchise more than four million citizens convicted of felonies and to fail to establish and maintain voting systems that ensure everyone who wants to vote will be able to cast a vote that counts.
Admittedly, these are just a beginning. It's worth remembering that in recent years two out of five state legislative races haven't even been contested, and that the number of marginal congressional seats is at an all-time low. The Electoral College results in most voter mobilization being focused on the fifteen or so battleground states, not the the nation as a whole.
As so many citizens understand, America needs a democracy reconstruction project. I just wish Nader would use his pulpit and street cred as a legendary public interest advocate to fight for these measures rather than launching a candidacy that might help reelect the most reactionary government in our lifetime.
Katrina vanden Heuvel has been editor of The Nation since January 1995.
Copyright © 2004 The Nation