Thinking Elections:

Four Local Activists Share Ideas on the Role of Electoral Work in Progressive Social Change

Editor's Note:
Congressional and State elections are nearly upon us. As an organization and a movement, we encompass a range of perspectives on how to approach elections. Below are four thoughtful perspectives. This small section is in no way an effort to represent all progressive persepctives. Look for a Peace Council statement on elections in November.

Reforming Elections
Steve Penn

The US electoral system's undemocratic state is clearly shown by two statistics from the last national election. First, in 92% of congressional races the winner outspent the runner-up by over 2-to-1. These campaign funds come overwhelmingly from corporations and upper class donors and go to both Republican and Democratic candidates. Thus the election is bought no matter which party wins. Second, the two corporate parties gerrymandered the congressional districts so that 98% of incumbents were re-elected and 90% won by vote margins over 10%. Moreover, as the policies of the two corporate parties grow ever closer, it matters less and less who wins. It is little wonder that the majority of eligible voters do not bother to cast their ballots.

A series of electoral reform campaigns in recent years have asked the federal government to establish campaign finance limits, to provide equal campaign funding and to forbid gerrymandering. These campaigns cannot succeed because they require the two corporate parties to vote away their source of power. This they will not do.

As there are no electoral mechanisms to enact the popular will at the federal level, electoral reform must start locally.

On the local level the number of voters and the costs of campaigns are both small enough that it is possible for grassroots action to overwhelm corporate influence. In addition, local governance laws are flexible enough that municipalities can and have established institutions that greatly increase local democracy. Here are three ideas for local democratic reform.

Neighborhood assemblies decide on local spending using a budget that is apportioned by the number of residents. Each of these assemblies would have a delegate on the city council to represent their views. Thus the power and the purse always reside in the neighborhoods.

Winner-take-all elections allow up to 49% of the voters to be unrepresented because their candidate did not win. Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) improves this situation by allowing voters to rank the candidates. If no candidate wins a majority, the votes of the lowest vote-getter are redistributed according to the second preference. This process is repeated until a candidate attains a majority. IRV is especially effective in multi-seat races, like council races, and it eliminates the notion of an "election spoiler."

Winner-take-all elections always favor the majority parties, effectively excluding small parties from the civic process. Proportional Representation (PR) insures that the distribution of parties in government is the same as in the populace. With PR, voters declare their party at the polls, and assembly seats are distributed on that basis. The highest vote-getters for each party win seats until their party's allocation is filled. Thus everyone gets a voice in government.

The most important first step in local democratic reform is to realize that change will not come from the corporate parties. While individuals within those parties may sometimes promote democratic reforms, the party as a whole understands the power equation. They will not vote away their power, nor will they tolerate party members who attempt to do so.


Steve is a Green Party activist and physics professor at Hobart and William Smith College in Geneva.

Regaining Control of Congress
Barbara Humphrey

Webster defines "democracy" as government by the people, ruled by the majority. Supreme power is vested in and exercised by the people directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodic elections. My high school civics instructor added - the "rule of the majority with respect for the minority." Our Constitution, the "law of the land," defined three branches of government, each with responsibilities, balancing authority with the other branches as a way to maintain a balance of power.

Over the years, the executive branch has assumed greater authority over the legislature. More and more, the President's legislative agenda frames Congressional debate (and many people think the federal judiciary as well), especially since 2000 when the Republican Party took control of the executive branch of government and continued control of both houses of Congress. Add to that mix the cast of Republican characters who now wield control of Congress and hand out plum committee assignments to those who have shown greatest loyalty to the President and the party and you have 2006. The White House issues an agenda that barely resembles the will of the majority, let alone shows any respect for the minority. Further, the president dictates policy to congressional leaders, who as noted above, reward party loyalty with chairmanships of powerful committees, particularly those that control the purse strings.

Hope lies in the people seizing the opportunity in 2006 to break the powerful one-party control of Congress, as well as Congress' subservience to the President. From New York to California, including our own 25th congressional district, a number of progressive congressional candidates have stepped forward in opposition to the current reality. Yet lest this election be no more than the exchange of one party's stranglehold on power for that of the other, we the people need to look beyond the immediacy of the upcoming election to the longer term structural issues of our system of government, challenging ourselves to advocate for reforms that put the power of government back where it belongs - with the people.

Barbara is a long time community activist and a member of the SPC steering committee.

Elections in US a Sham
Candace Saunders
Elections in the United States are a sham. There is no amount of reform or reshuffling of power that could make US elections legitimate or democratic. As long as capitalism rages on, who do we have to vote for? To suggest that reform could fix such a disfigured "democracy" is to play a skilled cheater's game. Giving up on elections might well be our secret move.

We must confront the frightening fact that those with a monopoly on defining the fight on terror will not relinquish power easily and have, so far, stopped at nothing to maintain the system as it is - unjust, deadly, even suicidal. A few crumbs of promise may continue to be handed over, but the fall of capitalism and a complete grassroots turn towards local direct democracy should be the real goal of our struggles.

Why settle for a "less fascist" Big Brother when WE can make better decisions FOR OURSELVES through consensus? We must concentrate not on changing an inherently corrupt system but on creating and strategizing ways to defend an alternative world where many worlds fit. I'm talking about collective self-determination!

In carrying out our solutions, all people contribute what they can, according to their ability. We stand in solidarity with each other in the face of obstacles. In the background is the recognition of our differing experiences of privilege and oppression. We support each other in the decolonization process with tough love, free education, honesty, and understanding.

It's not easy now and it's not going to be easy. But why wait around to build a life raft when you know the ship's already sinking?

Let us never forget that in seeking to defend or reform the current electoral system within the United States we attempt to legitimize a racist and otherwise vastly oppressive state. This is the state founded on the genocide of Native people, the prolonged enslavement of Africans, and the current genocide and enslavement of poor people (most of color) in wars, fields, and factories across the scarred planet.

Candace is a former Peace Council intern working to build a truly radical environmental and social justice movement.

Local Elections are Key

Partnership for Onondaga Creek activists block demolition to make way for the Sewage Treatment Plant on Syracuse’s southside, July 29, 2004. The County Legislature and Executive have been deaf to the concerns of community residents. Photo: Ann Tiffany

Mark Spadafore

It's a tough time for working families. Wages are stagnant while costs are soaring. Affordable health care and retirement security are disappearing. A good, middle-class living is slipping out of reach for millions of America's working families.

But if we work together this election season, we can make America work for working families.

Labor 2006 brings together union activists across the country to educate, mobilize and turn out union household voters to support candidates who support us. And there's strength in our numbers: union households accounted for one of four voters in the 2004 elections. This year, we can have an even greater impact.

The problem is that the Labor movement no longer has enough members on its own to affect an election. That is why progressives of all stripes have to be going in the same direction electorally. We must work for candidates that guarantee that our whole community will benefit - not just wealthy individuals or corporate interests. The total community, from our natural surroundings, to our living environment, to our dignity as human beings must benefit from the public largesse. If candidates cannot or will not advocate that level of support, then change must be created with different candidates.

In order to have a significant impact on our community, it's important to work on more than national elections. In our CNY community, we have a level of governance - county government - that is unresponsive to much of its constituency. Ironically, to date many progressives have not felt empowered to try to influence how the county does its work. It's time for that to change.

There are many issues on the county agenda that affect the well being of city residents as well their suburban neighbors. Unfortunately, Onondaga County government has a history of not listening to many of its constituents. Whether it's siting an incinerator in Dewitt near an elementary school, imposing a landfill in Van Buren, or building the Regional Treatment Facility (sewage treatment plant) on Midland Avenue - the thread that unites these disparate neighborhoods is that County government ignored the will of the citizenry.

This disregard is why we as progressives must get involved in races beyond those in which we have local interest. Democrats represent most of the city's county legislative districts, but it's not enough to have only the city government include these more progressive councilors. We must work in the suburbs to ensure that there is accountability in our county government as well. We must ensure that the voices of the people who live on the other side of town are heard. It's up to us as progressives to promote responsive government on all levels.

Mark is Field Coordinator for the Central New York Labor Federation, AFL-CIO. He is also the Chair of the Onondaga County Human Rights Commission.