THE MARGINS in November's presidential election could be so narrow that the actions of the Green Party of the United States (GPUS) might influence the race's outcome. But it is not surprising that the media have largely ignored the GPUS nominating process, culminating this past weekend in a convention in Milwaukee at which it was decided in what capacity, if any, the GPUS would support a candidate for president of the United States.
At the convention, former GPUS General Counsel David Cobb, who had won the majority of votes in the Rhode Island Green primary, won and accepted the party's nomination as its presidential candidate. The other things the convention could have done would have been to endorse (a weaker form of support than nomination) consumer advocate and former GPUS presidential candidate Ralph Nader, or not to support any candidate for president.
In my capacity as Providence city councilman and the only elected Green in Rhode Island, I supported Cobb for the GPUS nomination for president, although I continue to admire much of Nader's life work.
This decision was predicated more on political strategy than on political philosophy. Cobb's and Nader's platforms rarely diverge in significant ways: Both candidates (and the Green Party and I) support universal health-care coverage, a living wage, the right to organize, trade agreements that take into account workers' rights and environmental considerations, a move toward clean energy and energy independence, electoral reforms, and peace, in the literal sense.
The salient differences between the Cobb and Nader campaigns are twofold: Cobb has demonstrated a commitment to building the GPUS as a progressive alternative to the major parties, while political expediency has led Nader to pre-emptively reject the GPUS nomination. (He is, instead, cobbling together a motley array of support, from independents, Reform Pary remnants, and others.)
And, perhaps more important, Cobb holds as a priority the defeat of George W. Bush. He intends to run his campaign in a way that does not interfere with efforts toward that end.
Cobb will appear on the ballots of the 23 states in which the GPUS maintains ballot lines. An endorsee, such as Nader, would have had access to at least some of those ballot lines.
Cobb has announced that he will actively seek votes only in the so-called safe states -- those with political tendencies that so heavily favor one or the other of the major parties that it is transparent even today which candidate will win those states' electoral votes in November.
Rhode Island and Massachusetts are perhaps America's "safest" states.
The Green Party of Rhode Island needs 5 percent, or about 22,000 votes, to maintain its ballot line. I hope that Rhode Island progressives, realizing that they need not fear a Bush victory here, help us meet that threshold if we decide to run a candidate.
So, too, do the leanings of the several factions of the GPUS vary with strategic considerations. Nader and his backers tend to dismiss the distinctions between Republicans and Democrats. Cobb believes, and the bulk of his supporters concur, that the difference between the parties "is incremental, but it is not inconsequential."
As an elected official -- as a Green with a unique and privileged perspective -- I hold the Cobb sentiment.
In most respects, John Kerry's politics do not approach the progressive ideal, but on the environment, social welfare, health care, the death penalty, the right to organize, women's rights, civil rights, gay rights, and elsewhere, Kerry stands in stark contrast to George W. Bush. I hope that Greens and other progressives who do not live in safe states, in recognition of the Bush threat, will cast votes for John Kerry, and weep as they do so.
Cobb's strategy is, of course, informed by the 2000 presidential race, and the perception that Nader's GPUS candidacy facilitated Al Gore's defeat and Bush's election. This perception, whether accurate or not, has been a terrible weight on the GPUS, and has stifled its growth.
Continued association with Nader would serve to further blur whatever distinction the public recognizes between him and the GPUS, and make it more difficult to shed the "spoiler" stigma, particularly if this year's presidential dynamic becomes similar to that of four years ago.
But "spoiler" concerns need not be endemic to our electoral process. The inception of "instant runoff voting" (IRV) would let voters rank candidates, rather than choose just one. For example, had IRV been adopted before the 2000 election, voters in Florida could have ranked Ralph Nader as their first choice and Al Gore as their second choice.
IRV requires that a candidate receive a majority of voter support to be elected, by eliminating the weakest candidates and transferring their votes to the second choices of those who voted for them. As such, upon Nader's elimination, his supporters would have been able to transfer their support to Gore.
San Francisco has adopted IRV for mayoral elections, and the reform is under consideration in many other jurisdictions. Prominent politicians -- including John McCain, Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich -- are increasingly vocally supportive of IRV. Individual states could adopt IRV as the mechanism by which they allocate electoral votes.
In Rhode Island, IRV -- even at the local level -- might not be consistent with the state constitution. In Massachusetts, the barriers are not as significant.
It should also be noted that the Democratic Party is largely the impetus for the "spoiler" problem it now decries, in that it has failed to promote IRV and it has supported legislation that requires third parties to run candidates in elections of national significance to maintain state ballot lines.
It is only once basic electoral barriers are lifted that minor parties and independent candidates can flourish. Electoral reforms should be the focus of the activities of the GPUS and all third parties, as well as all candidates -- including, presumably, Ralph Nader -- who care to promote real democracy.
In support of these various ends -- the continued growth of the GPUS via the candidacy of David Cobb, the defeat of George W. Bush's bid for re-election, and the promotion of electoral reform -- I have formed the committee Greens for Impact, which can be reached at www.GreensForImpact.com.
David Segal is a Providence city councilman.
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