Seven steps for ballot access reform

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Election season 2012: the rich are stuffing candidate bank accounts (while they continue to stuff their own); say-anything politicians, including President Obama, are blowing with the wind; and right-wing zealots are beating each other senseless in Republican debates and primaries. The rigged U.S. system of voting is in the middle of producing what may well be the most expensive, nauseating and vapid presidential election ever.

The twin parties of capitalism have established a good gig for themselves. Since the Civil War, Republicans and Democrats have held 99-100 percent of all elected federal offices at a given time (that’s a literal figure). They have managed this by eliminating the competition, putting legal obstacles in place that make it nearly impossible for any other party to contend.

Their election rules, combined with discrimination at the polls, also disenfranchise millions of U.S. residents. And disgust at the process means that over 40 percent of people eligible to vote simply don’t; with good reason, they feel that their vote doesn’t truly matter.

Major reforms are needed, but are not the final answer. As long as our social and economic structure serves big business, our political structure will too. But fighting for a fairer electoral system can be part of fighting for broader, fundamental change. The seven proposals below would give minor parties more of a voice and more representation, deliver a poke in the eye to the two parties of the bosses, and transform the elections into more than a really bad TV reality show.

1. Eliminate laws that restrict ballot access for minor parties.

The thresholds for getting and keeping ballot status for minor parties, different in each state even for federal elections, need to be lowered. The many state laws preserving the Democrat and Republican duopoly are contradictory, confusing, and unreasonable.

Burdensome signature-gathering drives are the main route for minor parties to be certified. Parties may be required to collect signatures from as many as 10 percent of the number of people voting in the last major election. They may have as little as two weeks to gather the specified number of signatures. They may be required to win up to 20 percent of a statewide vote in order to keep their official status once they have acquired it. Or the ballot may list their candidates only as “independent,” and not with a party affiliation.

All these politically discriminatory laws should be axed. The importance of alternative parties to healthy political debate means that they should have to demonstrate only a modest minimum of public support to gain official recognition.

2. Curb corporate control and make the playing field more equal.

We need to abolish corporate funding for the few and instead institute public financing for all candidates who can show this minimum of support. And all candidates should have free and equal access to the media and to publicized debates. The current Commission on Presidential Debates, run by unelected Democrat and Republican party leaders, should be replaced with a nonpartisan or multipartisan commission that will invite every contender.

3. Uphold the rights of voters of color and the poor.

Sweeping many states is an ugly trend that seeks to take away many of the fruits of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Since 2003, 32 states have passed legislation mandating voters to show an approved form of ID. (In two of these states the laws have yet to be implemented.) The kind of ID required varies widely, but can be highly restrictive. In Texas, a weapons permit will suffice, but not a college ID card. Demonstrating proof of residency or citizenship can also be a stipulation.

The proclaimed motivation for these new laws is to combat widespread electoral fraud, which is actually proven not to exist. (Not on the part of voters, anyway.) The effect is racist, since it denies the ballot to legitimate voters, most of them Latino or Black and poor.

Voting processes and equipment also tend to be more haphazard and substandard in low-income areas, and need to be upgraded and nationally standardized. No more second-class treatment for voters of color and the poor!

4. End the disenfranchisement of prisoners, ex-prisoners and immigrants.

In 13 states, people who have been convicted of felonies permanently lose the vote. All but two states disallow voting by people currently in prison on felony charges. Ten states restrict voting by some people with misdemeanor convictions. But there is no good reason to disenfranchise current or former prisoners, especially given the racist and sexist nature of U.S. criminal justice.

Undocumented and noncitizen immigrants, for the most part, cannot vote in any election. Citizen or not, if you reside in the U.S. you are affected by its laws and policies, and you should be able to vote.

5. Replace winner-take-all with proportional representation.

Proportional representation divides up legislative seats among parties based on the proportion of the total vote they each get. Minor parties who get a significant fraction of the vote but don’t come out on top gain some representation.

6. Establish instant runoff voting.

Instant runoff voting (IRV) is a method for deciding executive offices. In an election for president organized this way, voters would rank each candidate — as they already do in Australia, Ireland, and Great Britain. If people’s first-choice votes for any candidate total more than 50 percent, the election is finished. If not, though, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and another round is counted. In this round, the votes of people whose first choice was eliminated count as votes for their second choice. And so it goes, until a candidate achieves a majority.

Instant runoff voting means that even if your favorite candidate doesn’t win, your ballot still matters.

7. Abolish the Electoral College.

The Electoral College is an 18th-century invention put in place to give the Southern slave states proportionately more weight in the selection of the president. It worked; the presidency was occupied by slaveholders from Virginia for all but four of the first 36 years of this country’s existence. Although the college has been modified since then, it still prevents the population from directly electing the president.

Freedom Socialist Party write-in candidates Stephen Durham, for president, and Christina López, for vice president, have a solid program for electoral reform on the way to the radical change that would make democracy real in this country. Protest the electoral con game and choose candidates dedicated to changing the rules in favor of the working class. Vote for Durham and López in 2012!

Also see: Politics is about to change — here come the socialists

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