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Ignoring Tired Pleas from the Democratic Party

By Matt Gonzalez

Democrats succeeded in getting Greens and Independents to vote for John Kerry, but will we be asked to do the same thing four years from now?

Although Democrats didn’t elect John Kerry on November 2, they did get something they wanted badly. They convinced Greens, Independents, and progressive Democrats to support a candidate who did not represent their beliefs about issues like the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, and the WTO. The Democratic Party successfully scared voters with the specter of another “spoiled” outcome like 2000.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans were disenfranchised by abandoning candidates who truly represented their values in exchange for John Kerry. Only “anybody but Bush” did not even win in the end, and progressives are left wondering if our votes could have been better cast. And if we will be asked to repeat the same futile exercise in four years.

The Democratic Party’s strategy is apparently to hope it will be able to talk progressives out of voting for their chosen candidates every election cycle. This is hardly a democratic — or practical — solution. But since Ralph Nader didn’t cost them the election this time around, their “solution” appears to have worked out just fine. And, unfortunately, very little post-election punditry has focused on the need for more democratic elections.

But are Democrats — who went to great lengths to silence third party candidates this year — willing to reform elections so we don’t face the same quandary four years from now?

Sadly, I predict they won’t. Democrats will likely ignore the necessity of updating the antiquated two-party system because they don’t perceive it to be in the party’s long-term interest to do so. Although Democrats are quick to invoke Nader’s role in 2000, they fail to mention how Ross Perot’s campaign in 1992 allowed Bill Clinton — who ended up with just 43% of the vote — to ascend to the presidency. The Democratic Party understands how the existing system, although not always kind to its candidates, does in fact reward it with power roughly half of the time.

Why should they bother with election reform that might actually allow a multi-party system to emerge? Why help the Green Party? Isn’t it better for Democrats to simply accept the results this year and look forward to a future in which power is shared with only one other party?

So what are progressive voters to do? For starters, we should pledge that we are not going to delay our efforts to build a more humane society. We will vote for the candidate we truly want to win, the one who represents our beliefs. The tired pleas for us to abandon our candidate are not going to be heard next time. We must communicate this now, so Democrats are on notice that they have only four years to fix elections or suffer future defeats — regardless of how “evil” the Republican candidate.

We need only look to San Francisco for an example of a simple and practical electoral reform. On November 2, San Francisco successfully implemented a voting system called “instant run-off voting” (or IRV) for electing its local county supervisors. Voters, in one trip to the ballot box, were able to rank their top three choices, allowing a runoff to be conducted immediately if no candidate received over 50% of the vote in the first round of tallying.

The use of IRV nullifies the “spoiler” argument used by the Democratic Party. It ensures that the winner of an election will have a mandate with a majority of the votes cast, not just a plurality victory as the current system permits. In addition, it allows for the inclusion of voices not counted in traditional run-off elections, as run-offs are generally plagued by a dramatic drop in voter turnout.

So why can’t we have IRV, or at the very least, traditional two-candidate run-offs, in presidential elections? If this method of voting had been used in Florida in 2000, Nader’s supporters could have selected Al Gore as their second choice, guaranteeing that their votes would not be wasted and eliminating the pressure to vote for a candidate who was not their favorite.

Last month, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL) introduced IRV legislation in the United States Congress. House Resolution 5293 mandates that states implement IRV by 2008 in elections of all federal officials. The only problem is that it’s not the first time he’s introduced such a measure. In the past he hasn’t been able to convince enough of his Democratic colleagues to join him. Will it be different this time?

Now more than ever, progressives must pledge not to bail out the Democrats next time around. Certainly not if they’ve failed to work toward electoral reform. To do otherwise is to get caught up in an endless cycle that props up a rotten and undemocratic system of voting in order to avert short term evils — all the while guaranteeing long term ones.

This article appeared first in Issue No. 7 of Mesh magazine, published in November 2004 and available in bookstores throughout San Francisco.