A Time to Vote
Making a More Delicious Democracy
In the Land of the Free
A German view on voting, third parties, and election reform
"I'm proud to be German."
I never thought these words would cross my
lips. Considering the dark shadow of fascism, war-mongering, and propaganda
my ancestors cast upon their children and their children's children, I've always mistrusted any feelings of patriotism.
But the last few years have taught me that out of even deep darkness can come
good. It's possible, I now see, that the seeds that were planted in the physical and spiritual
rubble of World War II have grown up to create a society that is truly peaceful at heart.
"We are not convinced," said Joschka Fischer, German Minister of Defense. This doesn't sound like much. But it was spoken
directly and bluntly to Donald Rumsfeld, in English, when Rumsfeld was presenting to Germany the case for pre-emptive war in
Iraq. Amid a sea of German words, Fischer looked across the podium, ignored the translators, and spoke this brief sentence in English. It's simply remarkable that a German statesman could actually defy his
American counterpart's war drum. But what's still more remarkable is the fact that this particular defense
minister is a member of the Green Party who was democratically and convincingly
elected into power.
How could it happen? How could descendants of the Third Reich take democracy so
seriously that they would vote for a party that is wholeheartedly committed
to peaceful conflict resolution, equal opportunity for all, and a
The answer is two-fold. First, there are the unspeakable horrors that linger in one's soul and psyche after a bloody war
is fought on one's home turf. The stories of my generation's parents and grandparents were enough
to make us all pacifist to the core. We learned that the only winners
in war are the politicians in power and the makers of bombs. Everyone else
The second reason I believe Germans are so engaged in their version of democracy is because of the
country's system of representative democracy. This system allows third parties, like the
Green Party, the Christian Social Union, and the Free Democratic Party, to
attain seats in parliament. It may be because of this inclusive system that we Germans enjoy over 80% voter turnout.
Meanwhile, In the Land of the Free
Here in the United States, I continually watch as third parties and their candidates are
pushed out of the system. "Not now, you're disturbing the election," they're all told. The German system, which is called proportional representation, grants seats in parliament to any party that wins at least 5% of the popular vote. This allows a far broader range of voices to be heard, which, in turn, engages the majority of people. Nearly everyone feels part of the political process. The crucial truth, I think, is that even though the current U.S. president would like us to believe that life consists of only two choices – good or bad, strong or
weak, faithful or unfaithful – any society, especially one as diverse as America's, has so many shades of gray that any dualistic black and white system will fail.
An underreported and stunning fact of American democracy is that only about 50% of eligible voters actually go to the polls for national elections. And since third parties do continue to take a few percentage points of the vote despite their exclusion from the process, a candidate for president can be elected with less than 50% of the votes that are cast. This means that whoever "wins" the contest on November 2 will have
been non-elected by over 75% of the voting-age population! This simple
math leads to mind-boggling conclusions. How can a country that prides itself on
spreading democracy around the world "elect" a leader with less than a
quarter of its citizens' support? This is representative government?
As an aside, might this explain why people around the world are a
bit suspicious when they're being "liberated" by F-16 Democracy into this rather bizarre version
of the system?
Americans would probably be more concerned about their languishing
democracy if media polls were to reflect the actual percentages candidates
are getting. "Bush leads Kerry 48% to 46% among likely voters" sounds
downright comforting. But imagine reading, "Kerry pulls ahead of Bush, 24% to 23%, among
eligible voters." Just the sound of it would be a slap in the face to the oldest democracy on
So, where is the rest of America's adult population? Where's the other 50% – the other 100 million voters? Could they all really
be sitting at home, too busy watching television to remember the elections? Are they truly too preoccupied with shopping to even fill out an absentee ballot? Doubtful. More likely, Americans feel politically robbed, dried-out, and starved
by their winner-take-all system – a system that strangles third parties and arrests their attempts to raise issues of real concern. To add insult to injury, third parties are called vote-thieves.
Making a More Delicious Democracy
Democracy is like a sandwich. The more meats, cheeses, veggies, and condiments you add, the
tastier it gets. America, the home of both these great inventions – sandwiches and democracy – should be
no stranger to the concept. And yet, in the land of the free and the home of the hoagies and subs, the
only two choices Americans get seem to be: dry bread, and dry bread with cheese.
(I'll let you decide which of the current candidates gets the cheese). Now, imagine for a moment a
system with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, avocados, salami, roast beef, turkey, mustard, and mayonnaise. Do you think more people would
What's both encouraging and frustrating is that the American deli is already fully equipped. People just don't go near it for fear of
spoiling their cheese. There's sliced avocado (David Cobb), tomato (Ralph Nader), lettuce (Michael Badnarik), and onions (is Pat Buchanan running this year?). Add yet the system – and many frightened people – shout "Don't touch it!" Thus over half of U.S. citizens stay home and have their own barbecue or stir-fry.
With all Americans' innovative spirit, it would seem that they would long
ago have found a way to turn off the snooze button on their democracy. And indeed it really hasn't been the people's fault. When you look at the efforts at reform that have been slowly building for over a century, it's been primarily the folks that govern with less than 25% that have insisted on keeping the duopoly in place. How do they deny citizens a more delicious democracy? They say that a proportional system like Germany's – and like those of most other democracies around the
world – couldn't work here in America, "because of the way the Constitution was framed."
They do have a point. The founding fathers were so worried about radical
elements infiltrating the executive and legislative branches, they
settled on a direct winner-take-all system that would assure a moderate,
centrist government. However, the term "compassionate conservative" did not
exist back then, for had the founders known the bag of tricks that would be devised to dress fringe politicians as moderates, they surely might have thought twice about direct democracy.
Let's say, for the founding fathers' sake, that a proportional parliamentary
system is unattainable (and much too "Old Europe," anyway). Help is still on the way.
You can still have onions and tomatoes.
Having Your Sandwich and Eating it Too
Help, in this case, is called Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). It's a system that also goes by the names "ranked choice voting," as well as "1-2-3 Democracy." The latter name fits in particularly well with Americans' penchant for
fun, obvious, and easily digestible names.
Indeed, the system is as easy as 1-2-3. With IRV, the voter simply ranks her choices:
#1 for the candidate she wholeheartedly agrees with, #2 for a candidate she
would like to see elected if the first choice doesn't make it, and so forth.
If nobody gets at least 50% of the #1 votes, the candidate who won the fewest #1
votes is eliminated – and the #2 votes that he got are tallied among the remaining
contenders. This continues until one candidate receives over 50% of the
vote. Of course, all of this happens instantly through modern voting
equipment, so all the voter has to worry about is ranking the candidates.
As a quick example, if voters this year could use IRV, one could vote for, say, David Cobb, first, and then John Kerry second. If Cobb didn't get enough votes to win, then that vote would go to Kerry. It's that simple. You could choose to rank your choices, Cobb-Nader-Kerry. Or Badnarik-Nader-Bush.
And IRV isn't just some theoretical idea concocted by fringe
groups and malcontents. Many countries that don't use a proportional system like Germany's use IRV. Australia, for instance, uses IRV for nearly all its elections, including for its House of Representatives. The president of Ireland is elected through IRV. Closer to home, the Utah Republican Party uses IRV, as do hundreds of
jurisdictions, organizations and corporations around the country.
And, notably, this
November 2, the city of San Francisco, which opted for IRV in a popular ballot
measure, will use the method for the first time to elect its city
supervisors. San Franciscans will be allowed to rank their choices among the candidates.
Republican John McCain, the poster boy for all just and fair causes, endorsed IRV on a ballot measure in Alaska. Even Howard Dean supports it. But unfortunately, today, that's about it for politicians in the duopoly parties.
Take it from a German. The disenfranchisement of over half of the electorate is the
biggest threat to American democracy. Every four years, it seems, voters here are ordered to
forget about any real issues of concern and to get swept up in a bizarre cult
of two personalities. This leaves campaigns with generally no room for any inspiring ideas or serious contemplation. Today, in 2004, with the country more polarized than ever before, and with a populace
motivated by fear and distrust, the winner-take-all system has seemingly completely stifled any and all alternative voices.
Yet this predicament also offers America a great opportunity. America today faces a true test of its democratic spirit, with the chance for both succeess and failure. To me, the question is not whether John Kerry or George Bush comes
out the winner in this election, but whether the people of the United States
can collectively rise above the self-imposed stranglehold of the two-party
system. As is so often the case, the problem is that most people don't know about the
existence of real alternatives like IRV, and that's why it is so important
to shine a light on events like the upcoming elections in San Francisco. If
IRV were to receive its fair share of media coverage, it would surely be
greeted with great enthusiasm. Only the most cynical protectors of the
status quo could oppose a democracy in which the voices of all people are
With its keen sense of adventure and optimism, America has always inspired the rest of the world. America has taught the rest of us that dogmatism and unjust power structures can be replaced if enough people envision and use
their innovative spirit to change and adapt to new circumstances.
Donald Rumsfeld responded to Joschka Fischer by urgently pleading with him to "be a
stronger leader" and "persuade the German people" of the need to invade Iraq. Fischer responded: "I'm sorry, sir, but we always thought that in a democracy it worked the other way around." It was in fact a tribute of respect and admiration
to the American democratic spirit.
We now stand at a crossroads where the hopes of the world are not about whether America can spread democracy to others, but about
whether it can reinvent its own. Let's make it a double decker, with extra
sprouts and pickles.
Sven Eberlein is a musician with Chemystry Set, a writer for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and a contributing editor at Garlic & Grass.
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