Libertarian Solutions: Revitalizing Our Democracy Through More
Competition and Less Regulation
by Jonathan Trager
Imagine if you had only two choices when you watched television: The Late Show with David Letterman, or The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
Each of these programs has regular gags and bits, and you may be partial to one host over the other, but they are virtually the same. It probably wouldn't take long for you to become bored with this limited "choice" and tune out.
That's what has happened with the American political system. Bored to tears with the regular political gags and bits of the Democratic and Republican parties, tens of millions of Americans have simply "tuned out."
Consider this: In the 2000 presidential election, only about half of all eligible voters in America participated. Roughly 100 million people could have made their voices heard in the electoral arena, but instead chose to remain silent. And that's in an election with a presidential contest. In non-presidential election years, the number of people punching ballots sinks further, with roughly two-thirds of eligible voters choosing to stay away from the polls. Needless to say, public apathy toward politics isn't 100% attributable to the dominance of two parties. But there is plenty of evidence indicating that lack of political competition is a prime factor in the ongoing decline of American democracy.
According to the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the United States ranks 103 out of 131 democracies when it comes to voter participation since World War II. In multi-party countries such as Denmark, Italy, Australia, and Ireland, election turnout rates are often 20% higher than in America. Interestingly, low voter involvement is most pronounced among 18-to-24-year-olds, falling by almost 20% since 1972, when 18-year-olds first won the right to vote.
The lack of free and open competition among varying political viewpoints in U.S. politics has given rise to a number of organizations determined to "reform" democracy.
"The pulse of American democracy is fading, in spite of the closest presidential election in a century," writes Michael Mills, president and CEO of the Coalition for a Voting America.
"Two tests of a democracy are whether it promotes majority rule and full participation," says Bob Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. "Third parties and independents are a growing, healthy force in our politics, and it's high time for a change."
But is the public open to the idea of allowing more players into the political arena? Polls typically say yes. For example, a 1995 Gallup poll found that 60% of Americans wanted a third party to be competitive in the next presidential race, and that 54% would vote for the best candidate even if he or she seemed to have no chance of winning.
Not surprisingly, Republican and Democratic politicians in Washington, DC and in state capitals have not made promoting increased political competition a legislative priority. But if legislators were serious about rejuvenating democracy and turbo-charging American politics, they could:
- Repeal campaign finance laws. Which ones? Just about all of them. Many "public interest" crusaders claim that campaign finance laws help clean up campaigns and prevent corruption. The reality is quite different, notes Federal Elections Commissioner Bradley A. Smith: "For most of our history, campaigns were essentially unregulated, yet democracy survived and flourished," he writes. "However, since passage of the Federal Elections Campaign Act [in 1974] and similar state laws, the influence of special interests has grown, voter turnout has fallen, and incumbents have become tougher to dislodge."
Think about it: Incumbent politicians and entrenched political parties already enjoy high name recognition and free media exposure. But challengers need to raise an enormous amount of money to thrust themselves into the limelight, and fundraising and spending limits greatly hinder their ability to do so. As a start, Congress should repeal the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2001, which prohibits unlimited contributions to parties and certain political advertising close to an election, as well as the Federal Elections Act of 1974, which caps donation limits to candidates. In addition, mandatory reporting laws should also be thrown out. If that were done, anyone could donate to whomever they want without fear of political retaliation, and voters could decide for themselves whether to vote for a candidate who does not voluntarily report his or her donors.
- Change presidential debate criteria. Participation in televised presidential debates -- the "Super Bowl" of political debates -- is controlled by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). This allegedly non-partisan commission is currently chaired by former heads of the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee. That's probably why the CPD has created a Catch-22 for third party candidates: In order to be included, a candidate must be polling at least 15% in several public opinion polls -- an impossible achievement for most candidates if they have not yet appeared in a debate.
A far more reasonable requirement would be to include any candidate who will appear on enough state ballots to have a chance to win the election. Had this been the case in 2000, only seven candidates would have qualified -- hardly an unmanageable number.
- End campaign subsidies. Did you know that in the last presidential election, Republican candidate George W. Bush and Democratic candidate Al Gore each received $67.6 million in tax money for their general election campaigns? Not only that, but Americans also paid for the nominating conventions, the primary campaigns, and other candidates' campaigns, including Pat Buchanan of the Reform Party, who received $12.6 million.
The government shouldn't be doling out money to political parties or candidates. It's difficult enough for third parties and independents to compete with the two major parties; they shouldn't also have to run against tax-subsidized opponents.
- Reform ballot access laws. Each state sets its own ballot access rules, which generally require non-major party candidates to gather signatures in order to be listed on the ballot. In many states, these laws are oppressive and should be changed. For example, in Oklahoma it costs about $100,000 to pay petitioners to gather the tens of thousands of signatures needed to qualify a candidate for the ballot. Or, it takes thousands of hours of volunteer time. Such requirements drain money, time, and energy from alternative uses. Instead of signature requirements, each state should allow any candidate who has been nominated at a state party's convention to be listed on the ballot, along with his or her party's designation.
Sound too simple to be implemented? Actually, such a standard was adopted in Colorado in 1998. The state now has perhaps the most competitive electoral atmosphere of any state, with 10 recognized political parties.
- Change the electoral system. The winner-take-all political system of the United States has resulted in a loser-for-most system for citizens. That is, a vast majority of Americans aren't represented by a politician they support.
According to the Center for Voting and Democracy, less than one-third of eligible voters actually cast a vote for their current representative in the U.S. House. In fact, since only about half of all citizens vote, and since it takes only 51% of that trivial turn-out to win, many politicians go to Washington with the support of less than 25% of eligible voters.
One solution is a proportional representation (PR) system. The most common type of PR system is the "list," whereby voters cast votes for a political party slate. The percent a party earns in the popular vote determines the percentage of seats that party receives in the legislature.
Not only does PR ensure a more broadly representative legislative body, it also puts an end to the gerrymandering that occurs so often in state legislatures -- whereby the dominant party draws the districts in a way that gives it the greatest advantage.
On the other hand, even single-winner elections could be improved with an instant runoff voting (IRV) system. With this method, voters rank candidates by preference. If the most popular candidate does not gain over 50% of the vote, the bottom candidate is dropped, the votes for that candidate are transferred to the next candidate on the list, and the votes are counted again. IRV assures that the least disliked candidate is elected. Moreover, it eliminates the dreaded wasted vote syndrome, in which voters are tempted to cast their votes for the "lesser of two evils."
At the 2002 national LP convention in July, delegates voted to add support for alternative election methods to the party Platform. Turning that Platform plank into law would go a long way to making the electoral system more diverse.
Libertarians champion the free market system in the business world. Why should the realm of politics be any different?
Of course, defenders of the status quo will oppose any attempt to open up the democratic system to other voices. But voters have made it clear they want more choices. After all, even a fan of Jay Leno or David Letterman occasionally checks out Ted Koppel on Nightline.
Jonathan Trager is Deputy Communications Director of the Libertarian Party. www.lp.org.
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