May 4, 2010
Conventional wisdom holds that the Democrats—as the party controlling the White House—will lose congressional seats in the 2010 midterm elections. Americans, an impatient and demanding bunch, seem to have a recurring case of buyer’s remorse every four years. No sooner do we elect a president than do we decide that our national leader isn’t doing the job we want—or doing it fast enough. Since we can’t vote the president out, we take out our frustration on the president’s party in Congress.
In other words, we decide to throw the bums out.
It doesn’t seem to matter who the bums are—or who their replacements will be—as long as we throw them out.
This dynamic creates an electoral pendulum which is in constant motion; swinging from Right to Left and back again. There is never a middle ground or an opportunity for voters and parties to coalesce around common goals for the common good. Indeed, the pendulum’s perpetual motion is one of the few things, along with scandal and disappointment, which is constant in American politics.
Yet, like the swinging watch and chain of a sinister hypnotist in an old black and white movie, the motion is deceiving. In fact, the pendulum is stuck: it swings from a fixed point. It cannot go forward, stop in the middle or rise above. The pendulum is like American voters on Election Day—it sweeps Right and Left for one reason and one reason only: it has nowhere else to go.
Ironically, Americans, the planet’s ultimate consumers, have an abundance of choices in almost every aspect of life except where we need it the most—at the ballot box. We have thirty one flavors of ice cream and hundreds of channels of satellite television but only two choices on Election Day. We’re just one choice away from having no choice at all.
Many—if not most—Americans reject the notion that all of our nation’s ideas, political philosophies and cultural diversity can be shoehorned into two political identities. About one-third of all eligible voters boycott the electoral process entirely: they don’t even bother to register to vote. Of the remaining two-thirds, there are still tens of millions of people who are registered to vote, but don’t, or who refuse to join the two major parties,
More choices on the ballot would mean more discussion from more perspectives about solving our most pressing problems. More people would be interested in and involved with campaigns and more people would vote. Countries which offer their citizens more choices at the ballot box—from Austria to New Zealand—have much higher voter participation rates than the U.S.
With only two choices on the ballot and two parties in Congress, Americans are condemned to an eternal ride on a political see-saw.
Our “two party system” is an artificial construct. Nothing in the Constitution or federal law requires two parties—or any parties at all. It is the two major parties themselves which have done a superb job of squashing any potential competition by enacting a series of restrictive state laws designed to keep new parties and independent candidates off the ballot. This process is reinforced by the press and pundits who view elections as a horse race and ignore any campaigns which won’t place first or second.
Ending the two party monopoly of the ballot would encourage more candidates from all over the political spectrum; giving voters more choices and stimulating public debate about the future of our country.
Besides opening the ballot to new voices and more choices, we need electoral methods which are designed to provide representation for diverse populations and viewpoints. Instant Runoff Voting and Proportional Representation are two methods used around the world which increase voter choice and eliminate the spoiler effect of independent and third party candidacies.
If our elections, and the governments they enshrine, are to have any integrity whatsoever they must be publicly financed. Voters should have the option to vote for a candidate who is not financed by private interests. Although some bristle at the notion of “taxpayer money being used to fund campaigns,” it seems much smarter for the public to invest in—and therefore own—the electoral process than for it to be owned by corporations.
Ending restrictions on independent and third party candidates, embracing enlightened electoral methods and taking private money out of public elections are essential components of political reform. Each step will help give American voters bona fide options at the ballot box.
Unless we change how we conduct our elections the outcome will always be the same. What’s the point of throwing the bums the out if all you’re doing is voting the same bums back in?