Category: Archive

Echo Opinion: In voting, what a difference a 2nd round makes

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

“Republican, Democrat, there’s no difference between the two,” he told the Echo last month.
It’s strange that for a party that wants to shake up the system, its advocates so often come off sounding like broken records.
Not that there’s anything hugely wrong with McCourt’s effort to add a little color to a state-wide race, while at the same time opposing the war in Iraq.
Indeed, there mightn’t be a war in the first place had that party’s Ralph Nader confined his electoral ambitions in 2000 to being, say, the governor of Texas or perhaps the junior senator for New York.
Think locally, act globally is a famous environmentalist slogan. Unfortunately, the Greens don’t think locally enough. When they might have better served democracy in recent times by trying to breath life into dormant neighborhood politics, they have instead overreached themselves at a national level. The result has been a paltry return for a package of policies that in other countries, using other balloting systems, might garner 10 to 20 percent of the vote.
The problem, of course, is that the Green Party must navigate America’s “winner-takes-all” system. It’s a rather misleading name, as there are outright winners and losers in all electoral systems. The British, who invented it, more accurately call it “first past the post.” But the best description would be “one-round balloting.” However, whatever you call it — WTA, FTP or ORB — it has consistently worked to the advantage of conservatives over non-conservatives in recent decades. It certainly helped Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and the whole lurch to the right in this country and Britain. And, as Karl Rove might say, for conservatives, it’s been a gift that keeps on giving — at least when there are more than two candidates on the ballot.
More generally, ideological considerations aside, one-round balloting has more potential than any alternative to thwart the popular will.
Let’s take an uncontroversial Democratic congressional primary back in 1998. Four candidates offered themselves to replace Chuck Schumer when he gave up his House seat for a Senate run. It turned out to be a very even contest: the winner got 28 percent, less than one percentage point ahead of the second-placed candidate. The third and fourth contenders got 22 and 21 percent. (To put that in some perspective, 28 percent is what George Bush got in 2004 in my county, Queens; 71 percent voted for Democrat John Kerry.)
Rep. Anthony Weiner has turned out to be very fine congressman, by all accounts. But in a system based on some logic and justice, he surely would have been forced to runoff against his leading opponent.
The French presidential election of 2002 showed rather more dramatically the dangers of one-round balloting – and the protections offered by another round — when the far-rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen came second in a multiple candidate field. At the second go, two weeks later, President Jacques Chirac increased his vote from 20 to 82 percent (rounding out the figures), while Le Pen went from 17 to 18 percent.
And going back to 2000, almost every American had a preference for either one of the two main candidates, Al Gore and George W. Bush. Even two out of three people who voted for Nader would have voted for the vice president over the governor of Texas, if they were the only options available; similarly most Pat Buchanan voters tended towards the GOP.
All of this surely makes the argument for an inbuilt run-off (an instant run-off, that is, to distinguish it from the French variety), to ensure that the people’s will is respected.
So why has the current system been so bad for the Democrats? How, for instance, did it help Reagan? Well, some of the great issues and sources of tension in American life have cut through traditional Democratic bases. On race: the overwhelmingly white GOP could exploit the resentments of Caucasian ethnics, some of them upwardly mobile. On war: the issue of military involvement abroad has tended to divide Democrats into pro and anti camps. On capital and labor: it’s no surprise that given its dominance, that corporate America has its claws in both major parties, but only one has ties to the organized union movement.
From the 1970s on, the Democrats could have used a little electoral competition from smaller parties and independents on both its flanks (if indeed it has only two), allowing social tensions to be worked out in the first ballot, but also allowing the possibility of votes coming back to the party on the second. And what has happened instead? On the one hand, the “people’s party” can’t get the most marginalized in the community out to vote, while on the other, some of the children and grandchildren of their one-time core voters have abandoned it for good.
The Republicans in the same period have had an easier time, wrapping themselves in the flag and talking a lot about “morality.”
Meanwhile, the poor have gotten poorer and the rich have gotten richer — much richer.
The next time you hear someone argue that the only way to move things in a more liberal direction is to vote for a tiny party, remember that governmental power has been good for the center-left in this country. The elections of FDR and JFK, men born to privilege and neither hardly in any sense radical, ushered in halcyon eras of progressive optimism and self-confidence.
Arguably, however, one spin-off of the 1960s was the Nader voter: male typically, white, middle-aged, middle-class, who dismissed the Democrats as sell-outs, but who ultimately had nothing to lose materially if Bush won. Yet, even that arrogance was only possible after eight years of the Clinton presidency.
Which brings us back to Malachy McCourt and his campaign (should he get the official nod from the Greens this week). It’s nice to see an Irishman run for governor again, and one who will raise important issues. Good luck to him. But ultimately, it will be much ado about nothing.

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