When Elections Are Farces, It’s Time for Drastic Change

New Yorkers may take a justifiable pride in knowing that throughout

American history their state legislature is second to none in the

corruption department. (Brains is another matter.) When it comes to

venality, the Empire State has no reason to hang its head when places like

Louisiana, California, Illinois and Arkansas are mentioned. Matched dollar

for dollar and ounce for ounce, our crooks are just as good as theirs. From

the days of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt’s bagmen on into our own,

in no place is a bribe more welcome than Albany.

Modern New Yorkers are so inured to dishonest government that the newest

and baldest act of bribery went largely uncommented on. I’m referring

to Governor Pataki’s forcing the charter school bill though the

Legislature by making the members’ salary raise contingent on passage

of the legislation. Without going into the merits or demerits of this

version of charter schools, one can only stand, mouth agape in admiration,

at the temerity of the rogues. Talk about a naked quid for an open, public,

in-your-face quo!

Come Election Day next year, will there be retribution? Absolutely not.

The Democrats will continue their hold on the Assembly and the Republicans

will do the same in the Senate. Nothing is changing and nothing will. New

York and most other places are frozen in a pattern of safe electoral

districts, safe seats, nonsense primaries and tinkertoy elections which

seem democratic but are almost as ritualistically predetermined as the

kabuki elections the Soviets used to entertain us with.

These observations are news to nobody. We know that our politics is

close to ruin, thanks in part to the rule of money. The stink of do-re-mi

is in our nostrils and the talk of it is on our tongues, although less so

as the years pass and we accept the volume and velocity with which money

moves through our politics. The generally accepted total figure which was

spent in the nationwide elections last November is $2 billion.

The courts have made effective change impossible by ruling that money is

protected by the Bill of Rights. The court has decided that money talks and

we have to listen. Spondulix has free speech, but whether or not you and I

do is a mere debate topic. Given the composition of the Supreme Court and

the position taken by the Bush and Clinton appointees to the Court, no one

not currently in kindergarten should harbor a realistic hope that the role

played by money in our elections will be changed.

It’s an odd situation. The mossbacks in the Republican Party are

content to have political power transferred from people to pelf, but so are

the commie, pinko liberals. The reductio ad absurdists, crypto-nudists and

political faddists who run the American Civil Liberties Union are just as

much in favor of money power as Mitch McConnell, the smirky G.O.P. Senator

from Kentucky who has made it his mission to ensure no useful change in the

election laws can pass Congress. Not that it would matter if such a law

were enacted, because the Supreme Court would knock it down, anyway.

They’ve got us coming and going, which has not stopped people from

trying to invent some means of mucking out the electoral stable. The State

of Maine has passed a law that other states are looking at which has much

to commend it, if the courts will allow it. Without going into details, the

law is predicated on the proposition that if you cannot limit campaign

money, then the next best thing is to try to equalize it, that is, use

public funds to make sure that both candidates have approximately the same

amount of money to spend on their campaigns. That means using public money,

and it drives some types up a tree, but if enough money were available to a

poorer person’s campaign, it might stop jerks like Steve Forbes from

swooping down out of nowhere to buy themselves power, prominence and

place.

That approach takes us part of the way. What it leaves undisturbed is

the central fault in modern American elections: Nationwide, they are

conducted by a few thousand specialists sitting in bunkers in New York and

Washington processing polls, creating mailers, radio and TV spots, buying

air time and fighting fax and cyberspace duels. We have achieved a certain

kind of democratic perfection, to wit, people-free elections that are

hardly more than dueling electronic apparatus. The modern campaign is

nonhuman and, as one might anticipate, has the added advantage of having

almost no voters. The present occupant of the White House is there thanks

to a landslide majority of somewhere around 19 percent of the eligible

voters. Thousands of occupants of lesser offices hold them thanks to the

suffrage of 8 or 10 percent of the eligible voters.

What are we going to do about that? Spend more money on political ads?

If a $2 billion ad campaign can’t get them to the polls, what makes us

think that $3 billion can? Some people say we should make voting

compulsory, but abstention is a political act of some sort, and abolishing

people’s right to exercise it endows an election with a false

legitimacy. Compulsory voting can only be defended if a “none of the

above” box is added to the ballot and, even so, it leaves a bad taste

in the mouth. Regimentation cuts against the grain.

No, we need another idea, something that forces elections to be

conducted as a social activity in which people interact with people rather

than machines operating on an inert public. Perhaps this is it: Instead of

declaring any candidate who gets the most votes the winner, change the

rules so that to win in a general election, a candidate must get a majority

or plurality (when there are three or more contestants) of the eligible

vote. Hence, in a two-candidate race, no winner will be declared until at

least 65 percent of the eligible voters have cast their ballots. Under such

a rule, there would be no more Clinton-type landslides with the winner

getting no more than 14, 15 or 16 percent of the eligible vote. Under this

system, a winner would have to gain the support of at least 33 percent of

the possible voters, hardly an unreasonable threshold. Until the 65 percent

line is crossed, no one would be declared elected, even if one candidate is

leading by 10 to 1.

The 65 percent would force candidates and campaigns out of the

consultants’ offices and into the streets, to confront and convince

would-be voters that there is sufficient reason for them to do the dirty

deed. For that to happen, very large numbers of people would have to be

recruited to work on campaigns. Present techniques like setting up paid

phone banks in low-wage sections of the country to phone prospective voters

hundreds of miles away won’t get enough people to the polls.

A second advantage to this idea is that it compels building political

organizations, even stable, grass-roots party organizations. It demands

recruiting tens of thousands of new people into real political work.

Currently, in a nation of a quarter of a billion people, there probably

aren’t 100,000 who have any role in elective politics save voting. The

conversion of politics from a labor-intensive activity into a

capital-intensive business has all but destroyed American democracy’s

red corpuscles. Our political system is now so anemic it is anyone’s

guess what might happen if it were to be seriously stressed.

To make the 65 percent turnout rule work, some other things would have

to be changed. Election Day would have to become Election Weekend or even

Election Week. Absentee balloting, which is growing anyhow, should be made

a routine alternative to walking over to the local firehouse or public

school. To reward especially valuable campaign workers, a degree of

political patronage ought to be restored. Lastly, term limitation laws

should be repealed. Elections in which 65 percent of the eligible voters

really vote should be legitimate enough to answer most of the arguments for

term limits.

More about these questions at a later date. This little essay aims to

present a crude idea for reinvigorating our politics. We can’t stand

around forever bemoaning apathy and cynicism. We need a few new ideas,

fast, before the next great wave catches us amidships.

When Elections Are Farces, It’s Time for Drastic Change