The California Recall and Thoughts on Election Reform

Friday, 10 October 2003

"Schwarzenegger's victory was much more decisive than many political observers had predicted," CNN reported. "Schwarzenegger also appeared headed for a commanding victory from voters," said Reuters. "Victory margin provides mandate," stated a San Francisco Chronicle headline. Radio commentators spoke of a landslide win for Arnold. Oh really?

Let's look at the numbers (see the California Secretary of State Web site for the details). Schwarzenegger got 3,743,393 votes, while those voting "No" to the recall--i.e., those preferring to keep Gray Davis--numbered 3,559,400. That's a vote margin of almost 184,000 for Arnold, or about 2.5%. So where's the landslide? But wait, there's more. Comparing the "No" votes to the votes for Schwarzenegger is like comparing apples to oranges, or, more accurately, apples to apple salad. There is some basis for comparison, but it's not direct. Consider for a moment the runner-up in the contest: Cruz Bustamante. He got 2,432,446 votes. When campaigning, he urged people to vote "No" on the recall but vote for him when selecting a candidate. Apparently at least 1.1 million people--the difference between the "No" vote and Bustamante's tally--who voted "No" did not vote for him, and probably many more, since there were undoubtedly many who voted "Yes" on the recall but chose Bustamante over the other candidates. Apparently, then, at least one-third of the people who voted to keep Davis preferred another candidate over Bustamante. Could some of those who voted "No" have voted for Schwarzenegger?

Let's assume that only 10% of the "No" voters also voted for Schwarzenegger. Considering the fact that Arnold's appeal was pretty evenly distributed among various groups of people, it's safe to say that this figure is low, but it will serve to illustrate the point. Since these 355,940 people voted "No," their clear preference was for Gray Davis, and Schwarzenegger was only their second choice. In a fair election, one in which all candidates were on an even playing field, these votes would have been subtracted from Arnold's total, putting Davis ahead by 172,000, similar to the "landslide" numbers attributed to Schwarzenegger.

It's clear that a majority of the voters in California preferred to have someone as governor other than Gray Davis. It's not clear, and in fact it's doubtful, that more people preferred Schwarzenegger to Davis, though a head to head contest would probably have been close. The fact is, we'll never know, but it didn't have to be that way. If we had truly fair, representative elections, candidates who were the true choices of the people would be more likely to win than they are today. I take no position on whether Schwarzenegger will make a better governor than Gray Davis. Time will tell. I only use the election to illustrate the need for serious election reform in the U.S.

People have been voting for candidates in the U.S. for more than 200 years, so why do we need election reform? Everyone gets to vote in our system, so it must be fair, right? Wrong! Close to half of the voters are disenfranchised in every single congressional election, and in a close election for a single seat, it may be that the wishes of more than half of the voters are set aside. Consider, for example, the last three presidential elections, in which the winning candidate has failed to win a majority of the popular vote. Was the will of the people done? Furthermore, as most people know, money corrupts the political process. So does the media, when it is owned by corporate monoliths, as most major television and radio stations are, as well as many newspapers. No wonder that fewer than 50% of registered voters (not to mention eligible voters!) bother to show up for most elections. They often have two choices, one Democrat and one Republican, who differ from one another in fairly insignificant ways, both of whom are backed to the hilt by special interests. It's a choice between the devil and his brother. What can be done to reform the electoral system so that it is more just?

First, there must be true campaign finance reform. The Supreme Court is currently wrestling with the constitutionality of the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act. One of the issues with which it must deal is whether a campaign donation is free speech. I'll save the justices from their deliberations: IT'S NOT! If I have an opinion about a political matter, I can express my view in a letter to my congresswoman, or I can stand on a street corner and hold a sign stating my view (at least I could before the Patriot Act), or I can post my views on a Web site. So can anyone else. I have the right to state my opinion, and so does my opponent, and we have roughly equal opportunities to do so (leaving aside for the moment the question of access to the media). However, if I support a candidate and Bill Gates supports that same candidate, and we both decide to make campaign donations to our candidate, is my opportunity for making a donation equal to that of Bill Gates? Of course not! I might be able to donate $100, while he can donate $100 million. Let's say both of us have ideas about the candidate's legislative agenda. Is there any doubt that the candidate will be strongly tempted to heed Bill Gates' advice over mine, even though mine might be a better course of action? In our current political system, there's no doubt at all. When money talks, it speaks louder than the voice of an actual citizen, and that's not right. McCain-Feingold is flawed because it doesn't go nearly far enough in its reforms of campaign finance. The only just system is one in which all campaigns are fully funded by the public. Congress can decide how much money should be spent on each election for a federal office, and those candidates who can show a certain level of popular support (say 5%--see below) are entitled to use public money for their campaigns. Each candidate would also receive an equal amount of time from the broadcast media, and an equal number of column-inches from the print media, to make their case to the electorate.

Some would argue for substantial media reform as a second prong of electoral reform. The four largest television networks are all controlled by corporate giants whose political leanings are anywhere from slightly right of center to far right in the case of Fox. There are certainly left of center voices on the tube, but they are overwhelmed by the voices of the right. The solution to this problem is not some sort of media censorship, however. The First Amendment right to free speech is a core civil right and should not be abridged. One solution to the current situation is to create a truly independent public news system like the BBC, one funded by an independent endowment that cannot be touched by Congress or the president, so that the network's employees cannot be coerced by those currently in power. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio do not currently have enough independence from the government, nor do they have sufficient budgets, to rise to the level of the BBC or CBC (Canada). If the CPB were able to produce round the clock news like Fox, MSNBC, CNN, and others, there is every likelihood that the coverage would be more balanced than existing alternatives. Furthermore, a network whose news division was not beholden to the entertainment wing of the corporation might pay less attention to candidates whose major appeal is their popularity (e.g., Schwarzenegger or Jesse Ventura), forcing such candidates to present concrete plans, or at least a cohesive vision, before they get any air time. A second solution is for political progressives to fund alternatives to the right-wing media, especially television and radio. Although there are exceptions in the broadcast media and especially in print, the Web is currently the only place that many Americans can access left of center views on a consistent basis. Progressives need to be more active in making sure that their views can be found in all of the different types of media. Reform of the media's role in the election process is vital, but so is preserving the First Amendment intact.

In addition to campaign financing and the media, reform must also occur in congressional redistricting. The spectacle of the Texas Democratic state legislators fleeing first to Oklahoma (the House) and then to New Mexico (the Senate) to avoid an unscheduled redistricting session is a perfect example of the need for reform. Normally states redistrict once every ten years, shortly after the official census numbers are returned. However, since Texas Republicans gained more strength in the most recent elections, Tom Delay, Majority Leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, and a Texan himself, decided to force through a new map that would erase between seven and ten Democratic districts. One district is so distorted that it ranges from north of Austin to the Rio Grande valley, a textbook example of gerrymandering. The problems of redistricting in Texas and elsewhere could be solved by two innovations. First, Congress should pass a law mandating that redistricting occurs only once every ten years. This law would prevent a political party with new power from exaggerating its influence over the electorate by redrawing districts. Second, single-member districts should be replaced by districts having between three and five (or more) representatives, if the state population allows it, and all districts should follow county lines. Texas, with 32 congressional districts, could be divided into eight districts with four representatives apiece. Each of Texas' 254 counties would fit entirely inside one district. The advantages of multi-member districts and the procedures for electing representatives will be described below.

First, though, a 200+ year-old dinosaur must become extinct once and for all: the electoral college. The electoral college arose as a result of two considerations. The first was a concern that states maintain a certain degree of decision-making capability apart from the federal government (just how much freedom states had was one of the reasons behind the Civil War). The second was a deep mistrust of the average voter to make an informed decision. Alexander Hamilton, in The Federalist Papers, no. 68, says, "It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided." So far so good, but how should the sense of the people be determined? "It was equally desirable that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favourable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations." In other words, the average voter is a stupe, so "he" needs to choose someone else to make an informed decision. Hamilton goes on to expound the advantages of the electoral college system. "It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder. . . . The choice of several, to form an intermediate body of electors, will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements than the choice of one who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes." The election debacle in Florida in 2000 belies the truth of Hamilton's opinion. In theory the idea behind the electoral college makes some sense: choose wise individuals who will in turn choose a good president. In fact, however, the electoral college only worked with George Washington. Once political parties formed, voting for an "elector" was the same as voting for a specific candidate, so the electoral college system was almost immediately a failure. Voters in a national election can be trusted to choose the president directly by popular vote. On three occasions the will of the majority has been thwarted by the anachronistic electoral college: in the elections of Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), Benjamin Harrison (1888), and George W. Bush (2000)--all three, incidentally, Republicans. Voters can be trusted to elect the person whom they want to serve as president directly.

In addition to the competence of the electorate as a whole to elect a president directly, the electoral college system has another serious flaw: it causes candidates to put undue focus on certain states, especially those with the largest number of electoral votes, and it allows candidates to ignore other states. It is currently possible to be elected president of the United States by winning a majority in only eleven states: California, Texas, New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, New Jersey, and Georgia. During the election season, candidates will often visit one state numerous times, while completely bypassing another state. The message is that voters in California and New York are more important than voters in Alabama or Hawaii. When was the last time a candidate for president campaigned in Hawaii? If candidates had to win the popular vote, their visits to the big states would dwindle, and their trips to the smaller states (in population) would increase. The concerns of voters in Wyoming or Maine or New Mexico would suddenly get as much of a candidate's attention as the concerns of voters in Texas or Florida. In other words, the candidates would be forced to deal with the concerns of more voters, thus becoming--in theory--more representative of the views of all Americans. I am opposed to amending the Constitution unnecessarily, but Article Two, Section One, and the Twelfth Amendment, which revised the section on electors, need to be replaced by language dictating the election of the president and vice president by popular vote.

Reforms in campaign financing, the media's role in the electoral process, congressional redistricting, and the electoral college are necessary, but the types of elections we have must also be changed from the winner take all (or first past the post) system we now have. First we will deal with the election of a single candidate to a single seat, for example, president or governor. As noted above, the past three presidents have been elected without winning the majority of the votes cast. The elimination of the electoral college would solve the problem of the 2000 election, which Gore would have won easily. However, what can be done about the 1992 and 1996 elections, in which Clinton failed to win a majority of the votes? If it is undesirable for a candidate to be elected without a majority of the votes, it is also less than ideal to hold expensive runoff elections. A better solution is Instant Runoff Voting. In an election using Instant Runoff Voting, the voter indicates his or her first, second, third, etc., choices on the ballot. When votes are tallied, if no one wins a majority of the first choices, the person with the least first choice votes is eliminated, and that person's second choice votes are distributed among the other candidates according the voters' preferences. This process repeats until someone has a majority of the votes. Leaving aside Jeb Bush's purging of the voter roles, butterfly ballots, hanging chads, and the Supreme Court's unwillingness to count all the votes, the Florida vote in 2000 could have been decided in a simple manner by Instant Runoff Voting. To simplify matters, let's assume that only four candidates--George W. Bush, Al Gore, Ralph Nader, and Pat Buchanan--appeared on the ballot. If Buchanan got the least number of votes, his name would be eliminated from consideration, and his second choice votes would be redistributed, presumably mostly to Bush. There would still be no majority, so the person in third place, Ralph Nader, would have his votes distributed to the voters' second choice, most likely Gore. At that point Gore would have achieved a majority and the election would be over.

Elimination of the electoral college would also have simplified the vote counting in the Florida contest, but when combined with Instant Runoff Voting, another significant benefit would appear in nationwide elections. Some people blame Ralph Nader for stealing votes from Gore in Florida, thus enabling Bush to win there, but the real culprit is the winner take all method of voting. Under Instant Runoff Voting, voters nationwide would be free to vote Green, or Libertarian, or Socialist, or even Dixiecrat without worrying about wasting their votes. Votes for third parties would swell dramatically, allowing voters representing minority views to make political statements, but their votes would be reassigned to their second or third choices if their candidates were eliminated from consideration. Many Republican voters in California might have preferred to vote for McClintock rather than Schwarzenegger in the governor's race, but figuring that McClintock didn't have a chance to win, they held their noses and voted for Schwarzenegger. With Instant Runoff Voting, they could have voted for their true choice first, choosing Schwarzenegger as their second choice if McClintock were eliminated. With Instant Runoff Voting, voters suddenly have more than two bland choices at the polls. It is likely that voter turnout will increase fairly dramatically when people realize that their votes and views really matter and will be counted in the election.

Now we will turn to the election of candidates to many different seats, such as a congressional election. The current system of winner take all in single member districts almost guarantees that few members of parties other than Democrat of Republican can win. Of the 535 members of Congress, all but two are Democrats or Republicans, Sen. Jim Jeffords and Rep. Bernie Sanders, both from Vermont. This distribution of representatives is not truly representative of the electorate. Many voters in all states identify themselves as independents, yet they are unable to elect candidates from parties other than the two major parties. Greens and Libertarians have significant numbers of voters in many states, but they are completely unrepresented in Congress. The current system needs to be replaced by a system that guarantees Proportional Representation. In a proportional representation system, a political party that garners 10% of the vote receives 10% of the representation in Congress (or the state house, or the city council; in much of Europe and elsewhere, 5% of the vote is the minimum amount needed to get representation). Proportional representation can be assured in at least a three different ways. First, voters can cast their votes for political parties, which provide lists of candidates, and representation will be allotted according to the percentage of votes each party receives. A slight modification of this method allows voters to select specific candidates within a party. A second way of achieving Proportional Representation is by Mixed Member Proportional voting. In this scheme, voters elect some representative directly from local districts, but they also indicate a party preference. Based on the percentages of votes each party receives and on the parties of the people elected directly, the parties are allocated a certain number of additional seats in order to ensure that the elected body reflects the party preferences of the electorate. A third method, Choice Voting, lets voters rank candidates, first, second, third, etc. It is similar in this regard to Instant Runoff Voting, but because it applies to multiple candidates for multiple seats, the votes are handled somewhat differently in an effort to ensure Proportional Representation.

Reform of campaign financing, media participation in elections, redistricting; the elimination of the electoral college; and the adoption of Instant Runoff Voting and some method of Proportional Representation represent great steps forward in making America a more truly representative and just democracy. The rich and famous will lose the undue advantages they now have when running for office. Wealthy individual or corporate donors will no longer be able to donate huge sums of money, expecting payback once their candidate is elected. The media will offer fairer coverage of the electoral process. The presidential election will become truly democratic. Voters will have more choices, and more varied choices, so they will come to the polls in greater numbers. Elected officials will more closely represent the whole spectrum of public opinion, not just those in the middle of the road. Parties other than the Democrats and Republicans will have a substantial number of representatives in Congress. More women and minorities are likely to be elected. The U.S. has no business passing judgment on the elections of other countries until it reforms its own electoral processes. These are some suggestions for how to do it.

For more information on Proportional Representation and Instant Runoff Voting, see The Center for Voting and Democracy, or any of many other Web sites.

© Copyright 2003, Progressive Theology

Progressive Theology