The Runoff: A Simple Electoral Reform

The Runoff: A Simple Electoral Reform

Philip Wohlstetter

Every crank has an idea. Every American is a crank. Philip Wohlstetter is an American, therefore - well, you get the idea.

Contrary to what pundits and party apparatchiks would have us believe, neither God nor George Washington proclaimed, “Let there be two parties, Republican and Democrat, thou shalt worship none other but these.” Not until after the political founding of our country, a decade after the drafting of the Constitution, did our first party system come into being. Its ostensible purpose was to mobilize political energies, not (as now) to exclude them. In the beginning, it did so. Federalists vs. Jefferson Republicans, Democrats vs. Whigs, Lincoln Republicans vs. Democrats: the system kept evolving, spawning new rough-and-tumble rivalries, new alliances, new ideas, new ways to participate. Then it ground to a halt. What we have now, what we have had for a long time, is a duopoly - or, if you prefer, what Gore Vidal has called “a hydra-headed single party” that controls all access to politics. It is the perfect embodiment of Tocqueville’s “tyranny of the majority,” keeping conflict and discussion within a sanitized and Disneyfied center which it defines without significant input from the American people. Are there differences between the two heads of the hydra? Absolutely. They are not minor differences. A Bush presidency plus a Republican Congress would, as many know, make life harder for a lot of people. That is why I, personally, felt compelled to vote for Gore.

This sense of compulsion is precisely the flaw at the heart of a system which ought to inspire a sense of free choice, but never does. What flaw? The perennial need to vote tactically, rather than passionately. Vote Nader and you elect Bush. Vote Gore and you ratify a party system you detest. This is not a moral dilemma that builds character. It is a political flaw that corrodes citizenship. Does anybody believe that cynicism and apathy are not the inevitable results of a closed system, however relatively benign? Does anybody believe that a third party can be built as long as voters know that they are tossing away their vote when they vote for a candidate who has no chance of winning? Not only will there never be a viable third party under the current rules, there will arise no new party whatsoever. We are condemned to the Democrats and Republicans from now until eternity, in saecula saeculorum. To turn this state of arteriosclerosis into a virtue, to keep identifying such a senile party system as the linchpin of a healthy and vital democracy is a perversity beyond Orwell.

I’d like to suggest a simple electoral reform that would, at one stroke, remedy this flaw and re-open the system. In France, there is a second round of voting in the Presidential election. The top two vote-getters face a runoff. Imagine such a system were in place in America. You or I could have voted Nader in the first round (garnering for him enough votes to qualify for federal funding and gradually build a viable third party) and then voted against Bush in the Gore-Bush runoff. Gone would be all those incestuous, finger-pointing arguments among Left-Progressives who share the same broad goals but waste their energies fighting each other instead of the Right. Suppose (in the absence of the Fear-of-Bush factor) Nader and the Greens had gotten, say, 12% of the vote. Suppose (and who can suppose otherwise?) the major parties continue to falter in the next four years. The Greens could get 22% next time, and then, eight years down the road, win 40%. The same goes, of course, for every variety of Right Wing party from Buchananites to Christian Theocrats. There would be more teams on the field.

Would such a reform tamper with the essence of our American democratic identity? Not at all. It would merely replace an outdated technology (which no longer achieves the end for which it was designed) with a newer one better suited to bringing energy into a political system that will eventually mummify without it. It is not the only such technology that could do the job. Similar results could be achieved without a runoff - for example, by allowing minority party candidates to transfer their vote totals to a top contender, providing they have announced their intentions before the election. There is also a proposal for a system of instant runoff voting (I.R.V.) in which the voter ranks his or her preferences on the ballot. If no winner emerges after all the first place votes are counted, then the second choices are tallied up until a candidate obtains a majority. The point is not to make a fetish of whatever technology we adopt, but to focus on the goal: to re-open the system, to boost participation, to aid new party formation.

Let’s not be naïve. The Republican and Democratic party machines are not going to say, “Hey, good idea, let’s go for it.” They will fight to preserve their monopoly. Wise men from the parties, aided and abetted by media pundits, will ridicule the proposal. It would, they will say, invite the extremes into politics, sharpen conflicts. Better to have only a 50% turnout. Apathy, they will argue, operates as an additional buffer against instability and faction, showing once again how little they trust the safeguards that the Founders built into the system by separating Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary, and how much they prefer to introduce unspoken (and unconstitutional) checks and balances. They will cite ostensible constitutional obstacles, decry the expense, warn that it is the first step on the slippery slope to (gasp!) a parliamentary system - and, if none of that works, they’ll play dirty.

But right now, in this extraordinary parenthesis, when the wounds of the election are still fresh, when Florida’s own version of Imelda Marcos is about to choose the American President over the will of the people in her state, when voters and excluded candidates are more alive than ever to the perversities of the electoral system, will there ever be a better moment to take up arms against it? Let the Greens make this their primary message and the Buchananites too. Let Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan, and Jesse Ventura raise their voices together and speak out in favor of opening up the process (and why wouldn’t they?). Let them take some kind of dog-and-pony show from state-to-state, and they will generate a tremendous groundswell of popular support and put the duopoly on the defensive, both domestically and internationally.

There is no task more important. Not abolishing the electoral college. Not reforming campaign finances. Not any of the urgent issues that could at last begin to be heard consistently were the system to finally open up. To those who say, “this cannot be changed,” I ask them to step back into the voting booth with me and take a last look around. The Republicans, bless their souls, have constructed a phenomenology of the voter, the implications of which they do not even dimly realize. In their version of events, the voter suddenly stops in flagrante delicto, besotted by the choice, riven by paralyzing doubts, incapable of finding among the slate of candidates enough of an erotic spark to manually penetrate the ballot, able only to dimple and withdraw. Whether one accepts this “electile dysfunction theory,” or my more tragic reading of the voter as an Oedipus habitually faced with the insoluble riddle (“If you vote this way, you’ll get this, but you’ll also get that”), there is a great deal too much going on inside this booth and none of it nourishes the citizen.

Let’s make it simpler.

Let’s find a way to vote for who we like.