Activists across the political spectrum were universally dismayed with last year's Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, overturning the extremely tame McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms that took nearly a decade to enact. A national grassroots coalition called Move to Amend believes the only way to reverse a century of similar pro-corporate Supreme Court decisions is via a constitutional amendment that specifically bans "corporate personhood" and other so-called Bill of Right protections that allow powerful corporate lobbies to corrupt the democratic process. I agree. I strongly encourage everyone to sign their petition at www.movetoamend.org, which presently has over 99,000 signatures.
Nevertheless amending the Constitution will take at least a decade. This makes it equally important to look at more minor electoral reform progressives can undertake simultaneously. Many on the left are quick to pooh-pooh all electoral reform short of publicly financed elections. They argue that both Republicans and Democrats are too enmeshed with their corporate backers to respond to any grassroots reform effort, no matter how large or how vocal.
I disagree. At present the big problem for the left is the refusal of the majority of Americans to engage in any way with the political process. We're still searching for the dynamite populist issue which will mobilize a million or more Americans to help us retake control of our so-called democratic institutions. At the same time, the US left seems to find shutting doors much easier than opening them. In view of the grave impending economic/resource/ecological crises Americans face, I think we need to be willing to explore all potential avenues and approaches.
After 30 years as a grassroots activist, I have found it often makes strategic sense to nibble around the edges of reform. For two reasons. First, the best way to build a movement is to inspire people that they can win small victories. Secondly, the experience in other western democracies is that any reform that improves participation by the disenfranchised reduces corporate interference in the political process.
The Growing Movement for Proportional Representation
After eight years living under a government elected via proportional representation, organizing to enact similar electoral reform in the US strikes me as an excellent place to start. Especially as the issue already enjoys strong support at the state and local level. The US , Canada and the UK are the only western democracies that still conduct their national elections via an archaic "winner-takes-all" system. Under this system, voters only have the option of voting for one of two major party, corporate-sponsored candidates, as minor party votes are never reflected in the final outcome. And voters, believing they have less and less voice in a political system they know is funded and controlled by powerful corporations, turn out in smaller and smaller numbers.
At present the US has the worst turnout for elections in the industrial world. In November 2010, average voter turn-out was 37.8%. The lowest turn-out was in Washington D.C. , where it was 28.9%. What this means was that in many localities, candidates were chosen by under 10% of eligible voters -" given that only 50% of eligible adults register to vote in the first place. While turn-out is better in presidential elections, our current "winner-takes-all" system has created a scenario in which the major parties only seriously campaign in 15 "swing" states, leading residents in the other 35 states to stay home their votes don't count.
As an American, I had no prior experience with proportional representation when I emigrated to New Zealand in 2002. New Zealand has a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), adopted in 1993 as a result of a popular referendum. This followed a series of elections in which the "winner-take-all" system put governments in power that were opposed by a majority of voters. In 1978 and 1981 the National Party won Parliament and the Prime Minister slot, despite winning fewer votes than the Labour Party. Then in 1993, National formed a minority government, despite winning a plurality of only 0.5% - even though a sizeable minor party vote meant a majority of New Zealanders actually voted against National. Under the new MMP electoral system, each party that receives more than 5% of the vote is allocated a proportional number of parliamentary seats.
The Link Between Low Turnout and the Stalemate in Government
The May 2010 elections in Britain - which significantly boosted public support for proportional representation - provide a dramatic example of the extreme unfairness of the winner- take-all system. In Britain , candidates can only win a seat in Parliament by winning a local electorate. The Conservatives, with a total of 36.1% of the vote, won 306 seats (because they won 30 electorates); Labour, with 29% of the vote, won 258 seats and the Liberal Democrats, with 23%, of the vote only got 57.
However what I find even more concerning is the present legislative stalemate in the US Congress, which makes the federal government virtually powerless to address the serious economic, social, and ecological crises Americans presently confront. It's rare for American analysts to see the link between low voter turn-out - and the appointment of a de facto minority government (one that doesn't enjoy the support of the majority of the population) - and this legislative impasse. However it's not unusual to see foreign commentators address it in reporting on American elections, especially as most industrialized countries faced the same dilemma New Zealand did (low turn-out and successive minority governments) in the 1990s.
Despite his strong popular mandate in 2008, Obama has been totally unsuccessful in keeping campaign promises to close Guantanamo, end the wars in the Middle East, pass banking reform, economic stimulus or climate change legislation. Even more alarming is the federal government's inability to address the serious infrastructure decay in our cities - the inability to maintain adequate law enforcement, street repair and lighting or even to keep schools running at full capacity. As is their inability to halt the virtual meltdown of the US education and health care systems, owing to the steady loss of disgruntled teachers and health professionals to other careers.
The stalemate in Congress actually dates back to the Republican takeover of the House and Senate under Clinton in 1996. Clinton himself was unsuccessful in passing meaningful health or education reform. Programs passed by subsequent presidents - Bush's "No Child Left Behind" and Obamacare (an insurance company bailout bill that is actually making it more expensive and harder to access health care) have been little more than window dressing. Congress even experiences more and more difficulty performing basic governance functions, such as passing timely budget appropriations.
The Myth of Our "Deeply Divided" Nation
Most American pundits blame this legislative paralysis on the popular viewpoint that the US is a "deeply divided nation." In their simplistic analysis, all Americans fall into one of two more or less equal diametrically opposed camps - Republicans who favor lower taxes and less government and Democrats who favor higher taxes and more social programs.