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Fifty States of Gray

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Politics is polarizing, and there is a simple reason for it -- Crowd Control. We are taught not to discuss politics at the dinner table, that it is a sacred duty to vote and that once the election is over we are supposed to shut up. We have had our chance to 'speak.'

Democracy is messy, which is one reason why the US has such a long history of collaborating with dictators. It's easier to get deals and decisions made. Our side and theirs, with no clamoring dissenting voices.

Just as those in power like to keep international decision-making streamlined, they want it in elections as well. They seek to enshrine binary thinking in every facet of life - white vs black, red vs blue, urban vs rural, Democrat vs Republican. Vilify and marginalize outside voices, especially alternative political parties. Narrowing elections to two main candidates has distinct advantages to power structures -- the math to predict victory is easy, and candidates can focus on a single task - discrediting the opponent. If you lose, you can blame the peripheral voices -- the 'spoilers.' There is no need to review one's own campaign for flaws or do-overs -- shift the blame to the electorate and let them fight each other. This strategy works so well that our government has been shifting steadily towards the right for nearly four decades.

Breaking out of this self-defeating paradigm requires a fundamental change in thinking:

  • Perpetually blaming other voters for the results of elections gets us nothing. Blame for bad policies belongs squarely on the shoulders of those making and enforcing them.

  • Citizens have more than the single job of voting in federal elections. We must remain engaged year-round, and demand accountability from those elected.

  • Local and state politics are as, if not more important than federal -- determining districting and how elections are run are the responsibility of the individual states.

  • There is no one way to win. We need to embrace multitasking, and support those engaged in different, equally important tasks.

  • We need to resist the urge to settle for the familiar red vs blue. We need to embrace the murky math and diversity and require elected officials to actually work for our votes. We need to think in terms of 50 States of Gray.

So where do we start? By getting involved. Get up to speed - learn about how your state government is set up. How many houses? Who are your representatives? When do they meet? How are they involved in determining election procedures? There are many issues and ways to get involved, but here are three that require structural action at the local and state level.

Reform the Electoral College -- The 2016 election was not the first where the results of the Electoral College contradicted the results of the national popular vote, this time when the other candidate had over 3 million more votes than the Electoral College winner. This has inspired demands and an acrimonious debate nationwide to eliminate the Electoral College. While the Electoral College may only be abolished by a US constitutional amendment, there are ways to defang it by acting locally.

Get your state legislature to sign on to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact - By signing on, a state agrees to cast its electoral votes for the candidate who wins the National Popular Vote. Contact your representatives and governor.

Enact Ranked-Choice Voting -- RCV effectively eliminates spoilers, by requiring that a candidate get a majority of the vote, not just the most votes amongst multiple candidates. It also allows for a wider variety of viewpoints to be represented, such as independents and alternative parties, boosting voter turnout. Voters cast multiple votes in order of preference. If your first-choice candidate is eliminated in the first round, your second choice is counted instead, and so forth. Under this system it is more likely that an individual vote actually makes a difference. It also becomes necessary for candidates to appeal to a wide range of voters, since they will need not just their bases, but the 2nd- placers to win. For a succinct video illustration of it, check out this video by Minnesota Public Radio.

Responsibility for how elections are run lies with the individual states and is often overseen by the Secretary of State. Find out how your state conducts elections and urge them to adopt Ranked-Choice Voting. The State of Maine is now using this system. You can even copy the Maine statute and present it to your legislators and ask them to bring it to the floor. You can also start smaller and talk to your city or county council. Here is information on the success of RCV in Maine: Also contact and find the branch in your area to see if efforts are already underway.

Reform Districting and Gerrymandering -- Congressional districts are redrawn every 10 years in response to the federal census. The census determines how many congressional seats a state may have. States have different ways of determining how the boundaries are drawn, sometimes in law, sometimes in their constitutions. Gerrymandering refers to the drawing of districts with absurd contours in the hopes of retaining power in that district.

Find out how this is done in your state, and work towards getting it overseen by a non-partisan panel, not the majority party in your state house. Here are some ideas on how to do this.

These are not the only issues requiring citizen action. You may see something of more importance in your state. Take hold of it and run with it -- or on it, and know that by your action, you are fighting the Good Fight.
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Eileen is a mother, progressive activist, artist and poet in the Greater Seattle area.

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