Two parties, no choice: A practical program for radical electoral reform

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In the United States, we are, for all intents and purposes, limited to two major parties, who are financed by and serve the same corporate interests.

Campaign finance reform legislation, initiated in the 1970s, was supposed to clean up our elections and prevent politicians from being purchased by pharmaceutical giants or petroleum titans. These reforms turned out to be a bust. Today, most of these laws exist for public relations value only or, worse, serve as bureaucratic hurdles to keep independent candidates on shoestring budgets off the ballot.

Candidates running for higher offices still rake in millions of dollars from big business and lecture at fundraising dinners that cost thousands of dollars per plate. To reflect reality, our government’s motto should be updated to read, “…of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.”

Take for example the U.S. Senate: it is one of the most exclusive millionaires’ clubs in the nation. And now from its ranks comes John Kerry to challenge fellow multimillionaire George W. Bush for the presidency.

While these two parties may differ in their rhetoric and public images, they both perpetuate the same policies. What separates them is a matter of degree and style, not fundamentals; compare Bill Clinton’s regular bombings and deadly sanctions against Iraq to George W.’s invasion and occupation.

Clearly, the number of U.S. citizens who are alienated and hurt by the policies of the status-quo politicians is vastly greater than the number who are enriched by their rule. Yet the incumbents remain entrenched.

How is it that we have almost no workingclass voices in public office, while the wealthy are so overrepresented?

How is it that only a handful of “swing states” — or worse, the Supreme Court — decides who wins the White House? Most important, what can be done about this undemocratic state of affairs?

Curbs against competition. The makers of mega-profits, ever vigilant against the possibility of power shifting from their hands to those of the people they exploit, have erected numerous roadblocks to protect their two parties from any insurgent competition.

On state and local levels, laws abound that hinder minor parties in a myriad of ways from making the ballot. Whereas the major parties enjoy perpetual ballot access, third-party and independent candidates must make special efforts with each election to qualify their candidates. And any perceived threat of competition causes even more obstacles to be put in place.

Take independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader as one example of this broad problem. In a number of states, his supporters have run into ordinances that hinder signature gathering to qualify him for the ballot, ordinances that didn’t exist in 2000. Fort Worth, Texas, for example, instituted a law that bars petitioning for signatures inside an annual arts festival. As a result, Nader advocates had to stay outside, where they gathered 60 percent fewer signatures than four years ago.

Still struggling for voting rights. Thwarting competition is one line of defense for the status quo. Weeding out who gets to vote is another. Many potential voters would toss the bums out given a chance, but are disqualified from doing so.

In the 2000 election, nine states denied 4.7 million ex-felons their voting rights. In Alabama, this kept 7 percent of African Americans from voting, compared to 2.1 percent of the general population.

Discrimination against voters of color, with or without criminal records, is widespread. Most notoriously, in Florida in 2000, anti-felon laws were used to “accidentally” drop qualified Black voters from the rolls. Others faced harassment by police and poll watchers or were forced to produce multiple pieces of identification.

In South Dakota, Indians face the same obstacles as Blacks, and are put in gerrymandered districts where they have no political clout. Such roadblocks discouraging voters of color exist across the U.S.

A plan for fairer elections. Since childhood, we have been taught to believe that we live in the greatest democracy in world history. But the fact is, other countries run their elections in ways that are drastic improvements over the two-party chokehold that is the U.S. scene.

Below are some key reforms that would attack the most egregious problems of the U.S. electoral system, enfranchise millions of people, and enable left and labor candidates to reach a much wider audience.

Do away with ballot-access hurdles. To increase voters’ choices, any individuals or parties who can show a modest threshold of support should be allowed onto the ballot.

Public financing. Eliminate private contributions and give candidates an equal amount of money, so that they will have to distinguish themselves by their ideas rather than their campaign war chests.

Proportional Representation (PR). PR is used to elect legislative bodies that are better reflections of the electorates in microcosm. In the U.S., if a party pulls even 49 percent of the vote, it comes away with zero legislative seats. Under PR, if a party attracts 12 percent of the vote, they win a proportional number of seats. PR would encourage closet leftists to abandon the doomed strategy of supporting the lesser of two evils, a strategy that only perpetuates the current system as a whole.

Instant runoff voting (IRV). With IRV, voters get to rank candidates, such as for president, in order of preference (1, 2, 3 ,4, etc.) If your favorite hasn’t enough support to win a majority, your vote doesn’t go in the garbage, but transfers to your second favorite, and so on, until there is a majority winner (by 50-plus percent).

In our current plurality system, without vote transfer, someone in a three-way race, for example, can win with as little as 34 percent, even if the other 66 percent loathes him.

Free and equal coverage by the media. Big media outlets are supposed to cover matters of public interest; it’s time to demand they live up to this standard by giving equal play to each candidate, regardless of major or minor party status or supposed “electability.”

All-inclusive debates. Abolish the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates and replace it with a nonpartisan or multi-partisan debates commission that will invite everyone.

Dump the Electoral College. This antiquated system was designed to equalize the voting power of the less populated slave states against the more densely populated non-slave states in presidential elections. On several occasions it has caused the victory to go to the candidate who lost the popular vote — most recently in 2000 (with the help of voter fraud and the Supreme Court).

Foolproof, uniform ballots. It’s time to universally implement the best technical system engineers can devise. If an electronic system, such as touch-screen, is used, then a voter-verifiable paper trail must be available to double-check against computer malfunctions.

Aim for full participation. Give automatic voting status to all adult U.S. citizens. And extend voting rights to prisoners and ex-felons as well as to immigrants, documented or not, who work here, pay taxes, and are affected by U.S. laws. Make election day a holiday so that people have time to vote. Make voting by mail an option everywhere, so that those who are homebound can participate.

Electoral reform is just one step. By implementing these proposals, we can create a healthier political atmosphere that will allow those who are voiceless now to turn up the volume. Finally we will see a more accurate measure of the political diversity in the U.S. as minor-party sympathizers come out of the wings and vote their consciences. Multimillionaire senators will have to compete on a more level playing field with workingclass opponents.

Make no mistake: even these reforms would not bring about true political democracy. As long as a tiny elite controls the wealth, they will continue to wield political power. To change this will require fundamentally changing the entire social and economic order, a housecleaning from top to bottom.

But electoral reform, by giving radicals and workingclass representatives a broader audience for their ideas, has a role to play in that process.

The U.S. has already had two revolutions, first to oust King George and later to end slavery. Both were initiated by a minority who convinced the majority that things could be done better. Now, in our time, prying open the closed door of the two-party club can play a significant role in bringing about the next, and most liberating, American revolution.

Herm Ross of Citizens for Proportional Representation in Seattle can be reached at

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