“There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.” – Senator Mark Hanna, 1903

Clean Elections

Most people think there is too much money in politics. Historically, the candidate that raises the most money in a political campaign will win about 90% of the time.

The solution to this problem is a system called clean elections, which is used in Maine, Arizona, and Connecticut. It is sometimes referred to as publicly funded campaigns. Under this system, if a candidate gets enough base support to show that he is a viable candidate (typically a certain number of small contributions, generally around $5), the state will fund his campaign. It is a voluntary system; candidates may choose not to run clean if they don’t want to take the state’s money (for example, if they are rich and would not need it). If another candidate in the race is not running clean, and outspends the candidate that is, the state will match whatever money the other person is spending. It would be cheaper for the state to put a cap on how much candidates can spend in an election, but the Supreme Court ruled that that would be unconstitutional in the 1976 case Buckley v. Valeo. This is the famous case where the court held that money = speech (more on that later).

In addition to reducing the potential for corruption (as well as the appearance of corruption), clean elections allow politicians to focus more on their job. Often, politicians spend much of their time making phone calls and attending fundraisers, as they know that how much money they raise is critical to their reelection prospects. If a politician is able to use clean elections money instead of spending all of his time fundraising, he can spend more time on his job, and be more effective at it (we could certainly use more of that).

Another benefit of the system is that it allows more candidates to run that would not have had the money or connections to run otherwise, bringing fresh ideas into politics. In the last congress, 54 of 100 Senators were millionaires. It is unlikely that millionaires are as able to understand the problems of middle class and lower class people as non-millionaires. In Maine, a waitress making half the minimum wage plus tips was able to win a seat using clean elections money. Congress could use a few more people like that, that understand how much of the country actually lives.

Critics of clean elections systems say that they are a waste of taxpayer money, that there is no proof that politicians favor those who donate to their campaigns. While it is often difficult to prove that campaign contributions influence individual politicians (what politician would readily admit this?), it is clear that politicians who vote for certain bills typically get far more money from the bill’s lobbyists than politicians that vote against them (the book Is That a Politician in Your Pocket lays out this trend in great detail). Furthermore, it is doubtful that the corporations that give to both sides in a political race do so in the spirit of debate; they want to make sure they have the ear of whoever wins.

Outside Groups

Of course, enacting a clean elections system would only begin to address the issue of money in politics. Much of the money in campaigns comes from outside groups that spend on election advertising outside of individual candidates’ campaigns. This allows them to skirt many of the donation limits placed on donors to candidates. Outside groups became even more active in the 2010 election in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case, where the court held that corporations and unions could spend unlimited amounts of money on political advertising, which the court said was their 1st Amendment right.

The chief hurdle to limiting the influence of outside groups in campaigns is the Supreme Court’s holding that money = speech under the 1st Amendment. It is a tough question that could certainly be argued either way. On the one hand, the more money a candidate has, the more he is able to get his message out there. On the other hand, buying an advertisement is a purchase, which is not necessarily an act of speech. We do not have the right in this country to purchase whatever we want (meth, rocket launchers, etc.). Even if buying ads was speech, not all speech is protected by the first amendment. A person cannot yell “fire!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire. If advertisements were speech, advertisers are still forbidden by law from putting certain content in their ads, such content that is deceptive or untruthful. The point is, we do have limits on speech in this country when it is deemed to be in the public interest. Giving a rich man far more “speech” than a poor man is certainly not in the public interest. In this country, you have a right to hold any opinion you choose, but that ought not give you that right to bombard the poor voters of this country with attack ads.

The Supreme Court needs to get over its insistence on letting individuals, corporations, unions, and non-profits spend unlimited amounts of money on outside groups, and we need to put strict limits on how much people and organizations can spend on outside groups. In lieu of this, matching funds for candidates who have less outside groups spending money for them would also be a perfectly reasonable solution. Either way, elections in this country ought to be decided by which candidate has the better ideas, not by which one has the most money behind him.

Another way, besides proportional representation, to allow voters to legitimately vote for a candidate that is not a Democrat or Republican is instant runoff voting (IRV), which is also sometimes referred to as ranked choice voting.

The basic premise behind instant runoff voting is that a voter can rank the candidates on the ballot in order of preference. If you wanted to vote for, say a Main Street Party candidate first, a Democrat second, and a centrist third, you could do that. Conservatives could vote for a Tea Party candidate first, a Republican second, and a centrist third. How are the votes counted? It’s easier to explain visually, so I’ll direct you to this video. It usually takes people a few times to figure it out, so don’t worry if you don’t get it the first time you watch it. It’s not that tough, though; schoolchildren in Ireland and Australia use the system to vote for class elections.

Another benefit of IRV is that it typically reduces mudslinging/negative campaigning. This is because elections under our current system are a zero sum game: if I can get one of your supporters not to vote for you by making up some nasty rumor about you, that helps me because that is one less person voting for you that otherwise would have. However, under an IRV system, that person would likely just vote for a different candidate, which doesn’t help me at all. Furthermore, in an IRV system, you want your opponents’ supporters to like you. If you can get them to rank you second or third, that may help push you over the top in the final round of counting.

One advantage IRV has over most systems in the U.S. is that it ensures that the winning candidate has a majority of the votes in the final round of counting. In most places, a candidate can win with less than 50% of the vote.

IRV can also save money in some jurisdictions. If a jurisdiction uses a typical two round runoff to select a winner, it would be cheaper to just have one election with IRV. It would also solve the turnout issue in runoffs. Runoff elections typically have much lower voter turnout than general elections, and the people that don’t vote in runoffs are more likely to be poorer, younger, and more ethnically diverse. Even a jurisdiction that doesn’t use two round run-offs could save money with IRV by knocking off the primary. Many people like primaries because they get a first look at candidates before the general, but I think they’re a waste of money. Why pay for two elections when you could get the same result in one? Primaries also typically suffer from low voter turnout.

One common criticism of IRV is that it is too complicated, and that American voters are too dumb to be able to use it. Frankly, this is quite a patronizing criticism. If schoolchildren in Australia and Ireland can handle it, American adults can. We are perfectly capable of counting to three (hell, even if a person wasn’t, they would not have to rank more than one candidate on the ballot).

Another common criticism is that it can be costly to buy the software to run the system. This is true, but allowing voters true choice on the ballot is worth the cost. Voting is the most important way citizens interact with their elected representatives; we should not be skimping on costs when it comes to democracy. Also, IRV can actually save money if implemented in a certain way (see above).

One legitimate criticism of IRV is that it typically does not lead to a multiparty system. Most places that use IRV only have two political parties. This is true, and it is the key reason why proportional representation is the superior system for legislatures. For races where a single person is going to be elected, IRV is the choice. A prime ministerial system would be great for executive positions as well.

IRV is already used in a variety of places across the U.S., mostly in California and Minnesota. Unfortunately, a few places have gotten rid of it in the past year, generally due to campaigns by sore losers under the system or poor implementation. There is hope, however, that the continued success of the system where it is currently used will lead to further growth in the future.

In my last post I promised to talk about how we could to a point where we have more than two legitimate choices on a ballot, so here is the answer: a voting method known as proportional representation.

Unfortunately, the way our system is set up now in most places, with a single person winning an election when they get the most votes, third party candidates have no shot. This is because of the spoiler effect: when a third party candidate on one side of the political spectrum does well, it is often because he/she takes away votes from the main party candidate that he/she is most ideologically similar to. This can end up costing the candidate he/she is most similar to the election, and the third party challenger is stuck with the major party candidate he/she likes the least. This is arguably what happened with Ralph Nader and Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election, and with Ross Perot and George H.W. Bush in the 1992 presidential election.

The solution, at least for legislative races, is proportional representation, where voters elect multiple representatives at once, instead of just one. There are several different proportional representation systems, but the basic idea is that voters vote for a political party (or sometimes individuals), and the party’s share of the legislature should be about equal to the percentage of the vote it got. For example, if the state of Washington elected its nine members of the U.S. House of Representatives under this system, and Republicans, Democrats, a Main Street Party, and a Tea Party each got 22% of the vote, while a centrist party got 11% of the vote, the first four would each get two seats, while the latter would get 1 seat.

Proportional representation is not some radical new idea, it is actually the most commonly used election system in the world. The founding fathers never considered it simply because it was not around at the time.

Some countries do not allow voters to vote for the individual representatives that hold the seats that a party wins, but the U.S. would not, and should not, stand for this. If we ever see proportional representation in the U.S., voters should be able to vote for the party they like, and then the person within that party that they like the most.

Some countries that use proportional representation have voters vote for individuals, which may seem better suited to the U.S., where we are used to voting for individuals, but these systems are complicated, and are unlikely to catch on in a country as bad at math as the U.S., where people openly brag about their inability to do basic math. A simple system where voters vote for the party, then a person within that party, would be an easier sell.

The easiest way to set up a proportional representation system in the U.S. would be to have each state elect is representatives to the House through the system. For example, Washington state would elect all nine of its House members through the system simultaneously. For larger states like California, there would have to be several districts of around 10 Representatives, as having voters pick from a list of 53 candidates would be a bit much. Picking from a list of 10 candidates would not be too difficult.

Another benefit of proportional representation is that it typically increases voter turnout. This is because the system leads to more competitive races. In the vast majority of legislative races in America, the voters already know who is going to win. A Democrat is going to win in San Francisco, and a Republican is going to win a rural district in the South. In a proportional representation system, parties jockey with multiple competitors to win every last percentage point they can. Democrats in San Francisco would have to compete with a progressive party, and Republicans in rural southern districts would have to compete with a conservative party. This competition makes political races more interesting, and voters have a reason to turn out.

Voters in proportional representation systems are also typically happier with their government. This is for the same reason that consumers in capitalist countries are happier with their choices than consumers in the USSR were: competition. When there are only one or two choices available on the market, they are often not that good, as there is little competition pushing them to be better. However, when a product must compete with several other products, this forces the company making it to either put out a better product or fall behind. Similarly, if the two largest political parties in a proportional representation system do not represent you, you can vote for someone else.

Another added benefit of this system is that it typically elects more women and more minorities. This is simple math. If even a small number of people in an area discriminate against a woman in a plurality/majority system, it is difficult for her to get more votes than a male candidate when there is only one seat up for grabs. However, when there are multiple seats up for grabs, it is easier for women to get a few of them. If a particular party never nominates any woman, they get a reputation for being sexist. Similarly,  is easier for minorities to win elections when there are multiple seats on the line. If Asians make up 10% of a 10 seat district, and vote along ethnic lines, they can elect a representative. In a plurality/majority system, they would have no shot.

Elections under this system typically see less mudslinging in campaigns, and more of a focus on issues. The main reason we see so much mudslinging in the U.S. is because politics is a zero sum game. If a Democrat puts out a negative ad that prevents a conservative voter from voting for his opponent by abstaining from voting, that is a win for that Democrat. However, under a proportional representation system, that conservative voter would just vote for the Tea Party candidate if he did not like the Republican. This forces candidates to give voters reasons why they should vote for them, instead of against their opponents.

Critics of proportional representation will often point to Italy and Israel as reasons why the system is flawed. Both of those countries have so many parties in their legislature, that it is difficult to form a coalition and get anything done. However, both suffer from very low thresholds, meaning that a political party can get a seat in the legislature with around 1% of the vote. Countries that have higher thresholds of at least 5-10% fare much better. These countries typically have only 3-5 parties in their legislature, so it is easier to form a coalition and get things done.

Currently the only place in America that uses the system is Cambridge, Massachusetts. Since most Americans have never heard of the system, it is difficult to get any traction around the issue. However, if we are ever to have real choice on our ballots, we must have proportional representation. The best strategy would be for progressives, libertarians/tea party types, and which ever party is in the minority in a given area to team up and demand change. A San Francisco Republican is likely to be hesitant to the change, but there is not doubt that he would receive better (by which I mean at least some) representation under the system. People may have to hold their nose in the short term and vote for a candidate that they don’t agree with, but in the long term, the benefit would be true choice in elections.

Let’s face it, neither the Democratic or Republican parties adequately represent people in this country. No matter what poll you look at, a large majority of the country disapproves of the job this Democratic congress is doing. Republicans are not faring all that well either. We need a party that is genuinely interested in doing what is best for us, a party that truly represents main street.

There is no shortage of third parties in this country that aspire to this goal, or possible names to call one. Perhaps the most famous one is the Green Party. The name makes people believe it is a single issue party, however and the issue, unfortunately, is not a priority for most people. One recent alternative is the Coffee Party, but this group also suffers from an ill-conceived name which makes people think, fairly or unfairly, that it is just the left-wing version of the Tea Party. In other countries, such a party would likely be called a social democrat party, but naming an American political party that would cause many to label it a socialist party, which is a word that has negative connotations in the minds of many.

Main Street Party does the trick. People would instantly know what it is and what it stands for: a party that fights for middle class and lower class people in this country. The name does not suggest that it would be a single issue party, but that it would work on any issue important to main street Americans. It would not immediately alienate anyone, save perhaps those super-rich who are only concerned with themselves, though they would never get on board with the party anyway.

The only potential downside I can see with the name is accusations of class warfare. However, this would not cause nearly as many problems as the alternatives I have listed above. I am certainly open to other suggestions.

At this point, you may be thinking to yourself, “this will never happen, the deck is stacked against third parties in this country.” You are right, the way we elect our leaders in this country must be changed before a Main Street Party could ever hope to achieve success. Soon I will have postings on two possible reforms that would give third parties a real chance to compete: proportional representation and instant runoff voting.

Hello to you, who somehow found this site! Most likely, your first thought when visiting was: “what is this site?” Well, let me answer that for you.

This site is my own personal blog intended to educate and give opinions on issues important to “Main Street America,” by which I mean “everyday,” “average” people. I do not claim to “be” Main Street America or represent Main Street America, or anything so grandiose. This site is merely meant to educate and entertain you about issues that are going on in the country and around the world that I think are important.

I live in Tacoma, WA, so I may talk about local issues from time to time, as well as some international ones. I plan on mainly looking at ideas rather than day to day news, as you can get that from so many sources.

I hope you enjoy the blog, and feel free to e-mail me if you have any questions or comments. Who knows, I may even do a mailbag somewhere down the line if I get enough e-mails.

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