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writing for godot

Reforming the Two-Party System

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Saturday, 06 July 2019 20:07

Gallup polling before the 2016 election showed that only 13 to 20 percent of respondents approved of the way Congress was doing its job; 74 to 84 percent disapproved. The last time that Congress had an approval rating as high as 50 percent was in 2003.  Dissatisfaction with the two parties is a likely reason that voters were so attracted to Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in 2016; neither candidate followed his party’s line.  For most of his political career, Sanders had identified as an Independent rather than a Democrat, and Trump was never part of the Republican establishment.  A recent poll showed that 42% of voters considered themselves independents, a much larger group than those who identified with either major party.  In a 2016 Gallup poll, 57% of respondents said that a third party is needed.

It is likely that the dissatisfaction that voters feel for the Democrats and Republicans is because the two parties don’t represent the interests of the majority of voters.  Since at least Bill Clinton’s presidency, and arguably since Jimmy Carter’s, the Democratic Party has moved to the right, and now both parties seem to represent the interests of big donors like Wall Street and the military industrial complex.  Most politicians are forced to depend on those big donors to get and to keep their jobs.  In contrast, Bernie Sanders refused corporate cash, and Donald Trump at least gave the appearance of having enough money of his own to preserve his independence.  Although Hillary Clinton denied that her acceptance of corporate cash influenced her policies, many voters seemed to feel that politicians will do the bidding of those who pay them. Although taxpayers pay the salaries of elected officials, politicians need donors to fund their very expensive campaigns. The Clinton campaign, along with the Democratic Party and pro-Clinton committees and PACs, spent a total of $1.2 billion on her 2016 campaign.  The same year, winning Senate candidates spent an average of $10.3 million for their seats, and outside spending, including party committees, nearly doubled the average cost of winning a Senate seat to $19.4 million.  A House seat was a relative bargain, at only about $1.5 million before outside spending, depending on the district, but a Senate term is six years and a House term is only two.

If candidates of both parties support the interests of their donors rather than their voters, it means that we don’t have a democracy.  Many people realize this and don’t even bother to vote.  Other voters in 2016 and previous elections felt that their only choice was to vote for the “lesser evil.” As of this writing, the 2020 election seems to offer more choices on the left, with the progressive candidates refusing corporate cash.  However, the Democratic establishment seems to be doing all it can to kneecap the progressives, so whether a progressive can win the Democratic Party nomination remains to be seen.

In the United States, third parties serve the purpose of allowing voters who are unhappy with the dominant parties to register a protest, but that’s about all.  The system virtually never allows third parties any role in governing. Currently the only members of Congress who are not Democrats or Republicans are two Independents:   Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont, and Senator Angus King from Maine, both of whom caucus with the Democrats.  An explanation for why third-party candidates cannot win elections in the United States was provided by Maurice Duverger, a French sociologist who researched the viability of third-party candidates in the 1950s and 1960s.  Subsequent researchers have found his conclusions so compelling that they are now called Duverger’s law, which holds that the number of major political parties in a country is determined by the country’s electoral structure.

There are two relevant elements to the electoral structure, or how votes are translated into seats:

First is the number of representatives elected from each district.  A single member district (SMD) elects only one representative. A SMD can range from very small to very large: for example, in the U.S. presidential elections, the entire population of the United States is treated as a single district, since it elects only one president.   A multi-member district (MMD) elects more than one representative.  There are a number of different ways that MMDs can operate; an example found in some state legislatures has multiple candidates running against each other for two seats from one district, and the two receiving the most votes are elected.  SMDs are used in most U.S. legislative elections, but eleven state chambers and many municipalities use some form of MMDs.

The second element is how voters can make their choices, and there are three main systems:  plurality electoral systems, majority electoral systems, and proportional representation.

In plurality electoral systems, also called “first-past-the-post” systems, the winner is the candidate who receives the most votes, whether or not he or she gets a majority.  Plurality systems usually occur in SMDs.  In the United States, we use a plurality system for the House and Senate, but because of the Electoral College, presidential elections combine plurality and majority systems.

In majority systems, also called “second ballot” systems, the winner must get a majority of votes, which means more than 50%.    If no candidate wins a majority, then there will be a second round of voting (second ballot) between the candidates who received the most votes.  As in plurality systems, majority voting usually occurs in single member districts (SMDs).  U.S. presidential elections combine plurality and majority systems: candidates must get a plurality of votes in each state to win all that state’s electors (with two exceptions—Nebraska and Maine), but they must get a majority (270 electors) in the Electoral College to win the election.  If neither candidate gets a majority, the election is decided by the House of Representatives instead of a second ballot.

In proportional representation (PR) systems, parties gain seats in proportion to the number of votes cast for them.  For example, if a party won 30% of the vote, it would receive 30% of the seats.  Since it’s impossible to distribute votes proportionally if there is only one seat, all proportional representation systems use multi-member districts (MMDs).  Commonly used in parliamentary systems, PR is the most widely used system in the world.  Since the U.S. has mostly SMDs, PR is rarely used, but some city council elections use some form of PR.

Duverger’s law says that plurality-rule elections (such as first-past-the-post) within single-member districts tend to favor a two-party system and that majority systems and proportional representation tend to favor multi-party systems. The reason is that, in a plurality system, only the winning party is represented in government.  The other parties get nothing, no matter how much of the vote they receive.  In a presidential election, this is especially disadvantageous to parties that are geographically spread out.  For example, in 1992 Ross Perot’s third party won about 19% of the vote, but because those voters were in different states, he did not win even one vote in the Electoral College.

In the United States, the major parties further deter third parties by passing restrictive ballot access laws.  Since the United States allows each state to determine how a presidential candidate can get on the ballot, third party candidates must satisfy ballot requirements in all 50 states.  This can be prohibitively expensive for a small party.

In addition, the major parties also restrict third-party access to public debates. The presidential debates are crucial because they offer the only opportunity for third party candidates to reach more than 50 million voters at one time. The debates used to be controlled by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, which treated third party candidates seriously.  However, in 1987, Democrats and Republicans teamed up to create a private nonprofit corporation, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), which wrested control of the debates from the League.  The only third-party candidate the CPD ever allowed to participate in the debates was Texas billionaire Ross Perot in 1992.  The CPD wanted to bar Perot, who at the time was polling around 7%, but they were overruled by both the Republican candidate, George H.W. Bush, and Democratic candidate Bill Clinton.  Both candidates thought that Perot would hurt the other candidate.  It turned out that Perot got 19% of the vote and mainly hurt Bush.  Four years later Perot wanted to debate again, but both the parties and their candidates barred him.  Beginning in 2000, the CPD has required that candidates must appear on enough state ballots to win, and they must also register at least 15 percent in five national polls, even though most polls don’t include them. No third-party candidate has been able to surmount those hurdles. Libertarian Party candidate and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson said, “The game is rigged. There’s no way a third-party candidate can compete unless they’re on the debate stage, and you can’t get there unless you’re in the polls.”

Third parties also usually have tiny campaign budgets compared to the major parties.  As a result of their lack of exposure, many voters are not even aware of what the platforms are for third parties.  Even when voters are aware, there is a tendency for them to desert parties that have no chance of winning elections, and there is also concern about splitting the vote.  For example, many people blame Ralph Nader, candidate for the Green Party, for George W. Bush’s win in 2000, even though the blame belongs to apparent election fraud and the Supreme Court. Some have even tried to pin Trump’s win in 2016 on the small number of votes that the Green party won, saying that Jill Stein siphoned votes away from Hillary. (Gary Johnson likely siphoned even more votes away from Trump.)

Rather than keep losing, third parties often consider it wise to ally with one of the major parties.  Candidates do the same thing; in 2016, Ted Cruz, a Tea Partier, and Rand Paul, a Libertarian, ran in the Republican primaries; and Bernie Sanders an Independent, ran in the Democratic primaries. Joining the major parties gives the candidates a political infrastructure, greater credibility, and access to money and media.  The benefit to the major parties is the opportunity to expand their base: Republicans hoped that Tea Partiers and Libertarians would vote for their candidate, and Democrats hoped that Bernie supporters would vote Democratic. The candidates also aim to influence the platforms of the major parties; for example, the Tea Party moved Republicans to the right, and Bernie Sanders moved the Democrats to the left. Because of Bernie, Hillary Clinton was forced to debate issues from Wall Street reform to Social Security expansion to trade that she would likely have preferred to avoid.  Nevertheless, the Democratic Party never moved as far to the left as Bernie, and the Green Party’s platform was far to the left of that.  Furthermore, if Clinton had won the election, she would likely have moved right again, as Democrats always seem to do.  So, while the minor parties can have some influence, their lack of representation in the government means that various points of view are not represented as well as they would be if third party candidates could actually be elected. To the extent that voters are unrepresented, democracy is diminished.  When you add in gerrymandering and the power of incumbency, partisan media, and lax campaign finance laws, it means that the power of the political establishment always overwhelms the voting majority. That’s not democracy.

When multiple parties are represented in government, it tends to mean that no single party has a majority, so parties are compelled to work together to develop coalitions.  Examples of nations with democratic multi-party systems are Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Lebanon, Mexico, Moldavia, Nepal, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, the Philippines, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Tunisia, and Ukraine.  Are all these countries more democratic than the United States?  I don’t know, but it’s likely that more of their voters are represented in their governments.  For that reason, voter turnouts are also usually higher in elections with multiple parties.

So how can we reform the two-party system to make it more democratic?  We probably can’t switch to a parliamentary system and it would be extremely difficult to eliminate the Electoral College.  The route chosen by Bernie Sanders has been to try to reform the Democratic Party from within. This is what conservatives did with the Republican Party; in the1960s they rejected the idea of forming a new right-wing party in favor of transforming the Republican Party to suit their ideology.  As we can see, the conservatives were very successful in moving the Republican Party to the right.  Bernie also seems to have made some progress in moving the Democratic Party to the left.  For example, some prominent Democrats have co-sponsored his Medicare for All bill.  However, the problem is harder for Democrats than for Republicans, because moving to the right did not require Republicans to stop prioritizing the interests of the big donors, but Democrats moving to the left would require exactly that.  Bernie was able to get his campaign funded by small donors, but it’s unlikely that all Democrats could do the same. Many years ago, when Democrats better represented the working class, candidates could get funding from powerful unions, but the unions are not so powerful now.

To help solve the problem of getting clean candidates elected, Bernie’s movement has formed a new group called Our Revolution, headed by Nina Turner. Turner is a Democrat who served as a member of the Ohio State Senate from 2008 to 2014.  Here is what Our Revolution says about its goals:

Our Revolution will empower the next generation of progressive leaders by inspiring and recruiting progressive candidates to run for offices across the entire spectrum of government. From school boards to congressional seats, a new generation of political leaders, dedicated to transforming America’s corrupt campaign finance system and rigged economy, will become involved. Our Revolution will provide leaders inspired by the “political revolution.”

Another political action group with similar goals is Brand New Congress.  It was formed   by former staffers and supporters of the 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign with the purpose of electing hundreds of new congressional representatives who support the campaign's political platform regardless of political party.  In March 2017, it announced that it would team up with Justice Democrats to pursue its goals.  Justice Democrats is a group seeking to transform the Democratic Party.  Here is what it says about its goals:

In the era of Donald Trump and his billionaire cabinet, we will fight for an America that belongs to all its people. We are unafraid of taking on out-of-touch incumbents in primary challenges because we don’t need to just elect more Democrats, we need to elect better Democrats. It’s time to usher in a new generation of diverse working-class Democrats who have a bold vision to transform our economy and democracy.

You can see the 2018 candidates and ballot issues endorsed by Our Revolution, Brand New Congress and by Justice Democrats on their websites, including the endorsed candidates and ballot issues that won in 2018 as well as those that lost.  Most of their winners were for local elections, but winners for seats in the House of Representatives included Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (AOC), Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Deb Haaland, and more.

The Democratic Party establishment is not really on board with this progressive wave.  For example, AOC’s opponent was endorsed by the entire New York Democratic establishment, including Governor Cuomo, both of New York’s U.S. Senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand; NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio; 11 U.S. Representatives; 31 local elected officials; 31 trade unions; and even some progressive groups, including the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, the Working Families Party, and NARAL Pro-Choice America.  The Democratic establishment seems more interested in supporting centrists than progressives.

One of the methods of electing progressives used by Our Revolution. Brand New Congress, and Justice Democrats is to help progressive challengers win primary elections against Democratic establishment incumbents.  The first step in AOC’s election was defeating long-time establishment Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley in the primary election.  Similarly, Ayanna Pressley defeated Massachusetts establishment Democratic incumbent Michael Capuano in her primary.  This technique does not sit well with establishment Democrats who are concerned with their own job security, and in March 2019, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) warned political strategists and vendors that if they support candidates mounting primary challenges against incumbent House Democrats, the party will cut them off from business.  Making incumbents more difficult to unseat also makes them less responsive to voters, so this move by the DCCC is anti-democratic. In response, AOC has urged voters to contribute directly to progressive candidates, rather than giving money to the DCCC. On July 1, 2019, two staffers from Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign launched MVMT Communications, a Washington-based consulting firm.  Their stated aim is "primarying the consultant class” and providing services to “people working to make radical change.”

Apparently, rigging the primaries for incumbents is standard practice for both parties. Wyoming Republican David Dodson wrote an op-ed published May 20, 2019 in the New York Times complaining that the anticompetitive tactics used to protect incumbents in their gerrymandered districts in party primaries have “created a hidden monopoly structure that accounts for a Congress with a 77% disapproval rating yet a nearly 90% re-election rate.”  Dodson says that when he tried to run against an incumbent in 2018, the law firm he contacted told him that it could not work against an incumbent without risking its entire practice.  He found the same problem when trying to recruit staff or find a marketing firm.

In the article, Dodson suggested some possible solutions.  First, nonpartisan committees should take control of the taxpayer-funded primary process and run candidates from all parties on a single ballot.  Second, term limits would break the domination of incumbents.  Third is “a constitutional amendment against partisan gerrymandering so that voters choose their politicians instead of politicians choosing their voters.”[1]

There is another possible solution for the problems of two-party rule that does not address the issue of creating or changing political parties.  Instead, it aims to change the electoral structure to solve the problems of plurality voting in single member congressional districts (SMDs). The nonpartisan election reform group FairVote is advocating Fair Representation Voting, and the Fair Representation Act was introduced in the 115th Congress as HR 3057. Under this Act, there would be a form of proportional representation (PR) called Multi-Member Ranked Choice Voting (MM-RCV).  Congress would remain the same size, but congressional districts would change.

To start, each state would create an independent commission of ordinary citizens who would draw multi-member districts (MMDs) without gerrymandering.   States with more than six representatives would draw districts with three to five representatives each, and states with five or fewer representatives would have one statewide, at-large district.

Representatives from each district would be elected through ranked-choice voting (RCV) with instant runoff, in which voters rank candidates in order of choice.  If no candidate reached the cutoff needed to win, then the candidate with the fewest votes would be automatically eliminated and the candidates ranked again.  If a voter’s first choice candidate were eliminated, then his or her vote would go to the candidate that the voter ranked second. That way, third party candidates would not split the vote.  To make RCV easier to understand, let’s give an example using a single member district (SMD):  If I voted for Ralph Nader for President in 2000 and he was eliminated, my vote would have automatically gone to Al Gore, or whoever I ranked second, and so on until somebody won. There is a visual explanation of RCV on You Tube.

When it comes to multi-member districts, the same principles apply, but since voters are electing more than one candidate, things are a bit more complicated.  Another You Tube shows how RCV would work if we were electing three representatives from a field of five candidates.   Representatives would be elected proportionately to their share of the vote. Voters would be much better represented and third parties more likely to thrive.

The Fair Representation Act applies to the House of Representatives, which is a good place to start, but some of its principles could apply in other elections. FairVote supports parallel efforts in states and cities around the country to bring RCV to elections at every level, including both single member districts and multi member districts.  In SMDs we would not have proportional representation (PR) because we are electing only one member, but ranked choice voting would still help third parties because voters would not be afraid of splitting their vote, nor would they feel compelled to vote for the lesser evil.  For example, if a progressive voter lived in a swing state in 2016, she could feel free to vote for the Green Party’s Jill Stein or Libertarian Gary Johnson without fear that her vote might help to elect Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

FairVote says on its website that ranked choice voting “has improved elections in cities and states across the United States” and “has majority support in every U.S. city that uses it,” including several cities in California, Colorado, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Minneapolis and New Mexico.  In addition, RCV will soon be implemented in cities in Michigan, Oregon, and Utah. Some Democratic party primaries and caucuses will use RVC in 2020 in Iowa, Nevada, Hawaii, Alaska, Kansas, and Wyoming.

In November 2016, Maine became the first state in the nation to adopt Ranked Choice Voting for state and federal elections.  In 2015, electoral reformers had gathered enough signatures to put RCV on the ballot, and voters approved it.  However, Republicans objected based on complicated legal grounds, and in 2017 the Maine legislature effectively repealed RCV.  However, in Maine any law passed by the state legislature can be blocked by a “people’s veto,” and Mainers successfully gathered enough signatures to suspend the law.  More legal issues were raised, and eventually the Maine Supreme Court ruled that the June 2018 primary elections must be conducted by RCV. Republicans then sued in federal court to block RCV, but the federal district court judge rejected their claim.  Maine's first use of ranked choice voting took place in its primary elections on June 12, 2018, and Mainers also voted to retain ranked choice voting for all future primary elections as well as general elections for federal congressional offices. Consequently, RCV was used to elect federal congressional offices on November 6, 2018 and it will continue to be used in Maine's state and federal primary elections and in its federal general elections. However, after Election Day in November 2018, it became clear that the incumbent Republican U.S. Representative would lose in the RCV count.  He filed a lawsuit arguing that RCV was unconstitutional, but his request to stop the vote count was denied by the federal district court judge.  Another final judgment rejected all his legal arguments.  He then appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals, but the First Circuit denied his request.  Eventually he conceded.  All this is to say that what the voters of Maine achieved was not simple or easy.

.Currently, RCV bills are on the agenda for 24 states and counting. The bills vary in their scope: some call for adopting ranked choice voting for all state and federal offices. Others would give local governments the option of using RCV.  FairVote will track the existing legislation on its website, as well as any new proposals.

One thing to keep in mind about RCV is that it could enable the rise of viable third parties, which would be a game changer.  Justice Democrats recognize its role:

The two-party paradigm is the model for our country’s current political system. While we agree with and often champion many third-party candidates and movements, the reality is that right now it is next to impossible for a third-party candidate to win a national election.

We want our democracy to work for Americans again as soon as possible. The best way to do this is by working to change the Democratic party from the inside out. Once Justice Democrats take power, we plan to implement electoral reform like ranked choice voting so third parties can have more power in our democracy.

If you want to get involved, you can help any of the organizations mentioned in this article.  If you want to help Our Revolution, Brand New Congress, or Justice Democrats, you can do so at any level, from running for office or nominating candidates to volunteering in various capacities, subscribing, and/or donating.   You can also volunteer or donate to existing third parties, such as the Green Party or the Libertarian Party.   FairVote has an activist tool kit available on the website for those who want to get involved, or you can contribute by contacting your Representative, signing a petition, or donating. your social media marketing partner
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