what does it mean to be a democracy?

Monday 10 May 2010

What does it mean to you to live in a democracy?  I’m guessing most (or all) who will end up reading this live in a democracy; the majority of you probably in the U.S.  But if you look around the world, not every democracy looks the same.  In fact, many democracies look pretty different than the U.S.

This post is a response to two things I experienced lately.  First, I went to see a new (still in film festivals) documentary about and called Gerrymandering.  While the movie was only OK in my mind, it made me think more deeply about the process of gerrymandering, or simply the process of drawing district, where a certain person represents a certain area, and where many people in that area may not feel repented at all.

Second, just before the results of the latest election in Britain were known, I read an article with this funny sentence: “But polls suggested there was a good chance no party would win an absolute majority needed to govern effectively.”  My first thought/response was “an absolute majority sure doesn’t help the Democrats in the U.S…”  But also the fact that there are more than two parties with multiple members in parliament is quite something for a U.S.  voter to consider.  ( The results did end up showing that no one party got an absolute majority, which will thus mean a “coalition” must be formed.)

I guess my main concern and thought is that we need some reform in the U.S. system.  I may be socialist, but I still believe representative democracy is the best way for a country to be run.  Many large elections often turn out less than half of registered voters (and certainly less than half of eligible voters — and horribly small numbers for primaries and “off” elections), so people obviously feel their voice isn’t heard.  Let me share some thoughts that would improve the system immensely.

First, I think we need to install preferential voting.  In this system, people rank their choices to allow for greater flexibility when voting.  This allows for people to avoid feeling like their vote is “wasted” when they prefer someone who is not necessarily in the top two, allowing for greater variety of candidates and more likelihood that people can vote for who they truly believe in and still know their vote will matter in the end.

Here is a simple example of how this works: Let’s say in an election, the candidates are Dana, Peg, and Adam.  Voters rank them by preference 1 -3.  When only the #1 choices are looked at, Dana has 35, Peg has 30, and Adam has 25.  No one has a majority, but we know Adam is liked least, so we take those voters who voted for him and see who their second choice is.  Of those who voted for Adam, 18 put Peg as a second choice and 7 put Dana, so now we see Peg has 48 and Dana has 42. Peg wins.  This scenario might exist if Peg is a well-liked candidate but from a minor party who voters might otherwise be scared to vote for because “she can’t win” as a third-party candidate.  However, this option allows her supporters to put her as a first choice and not be afraid their vote is “wasted” because they know their vote would go to their second choice if she can’t win.

This could be particularly useful in primaries, where you might have two people (say B. Obama and H. Clinton) considered “front runners” but multiple other candidates who people support.  Even if I prefer D. Kucinich, I might still vote for B. Obama out of fear that H. Clinton (who I very much don’t like) would win if I didn’t.  Or similarly, what if a B. Obama and J. McCain face off, but I really like this third guy R. Paul, who many don’t give a chance.  Do I “waste” my vote and vote for the guy I truly believe in or vote for the two “top dogs” who people say actually have a chance of winning?  With preferential voting, you don’t have to choose!  This allows more people to get in the action without them being termed “spoilers” for taking away votes that might to to others, because if their candidate does not get enough support, they can then support another candidate (those familiar with caucusing will understand much better than others how this might work).

The second big change I think needs to happen is proportional representation.  This system attempts to have the representatives in government more closely mirror the proportions found in the population.  Let’s say the great state of Ohio has these proportions of ideologies across the whole state:
5% Far Left
15% Left
30% Middle/Left
25% Middle/Right
15% Right
10% Far Right

However, because how districts are arranged, winner take all elections, and the general two-party system, the make-up of representatives to congress looks like this:
0% Far Left
10% Left
40% Middle/Left
10% Middle/Right
35% Right
5% Far Right

In this (fictitious) example, you notice that the “Left” representation is skewed to the middle, and the “Right” representation is skewed to the Right.  Those in the Far Left, who make up 1 in 10 voters, feel no one is speaking for them, and many in the Middle/Right feel under-represented and unheard.

Instead of looking at small units and only having one representative, if you look at a larger area and have the representation be proportional to the numbers found in the region as a whole, more (or all) people feel like they have a voice and that their vote and voice matter to the decision making process.

Let’s use the numbers above and give Ohio 20 reps in the House after the next census — as it stands, if you live in Fulton county Ohio, you have one certain representative who may or may not be sympathetic to your views, and you may think “they don’t represent ME!”  However, if the 20 reps of Ohio instead represented the spectrum of ideologies, everyone should know that there is someone (or many people, if your ideology is a common one) who represents my feelings on the decisions that have to be made.  No one (or far, far fewer) should feel like their vote made no different.

As gerrymandering and district drawing go, many districts are “foregone conclusions,” where people expect the Democrat or Republican to win because of the sheer numbers of “those voters” in that area, and thus feel un-compelled to vote (if the election is even contested in the first place).  Ohio’s 5th Congressional District (located in rural NW Ohio) has sent a Republican to Washington since 1939 (not to mention the fact that it was only 3 different people from 1939 to 2007).  If I’m a non-Republican living there, why should I vote?  Who represents me in Congress?  Proportional representation gives a voice and representation to those who feel voiceless under the current system.

(The electoral college is also flawed, but we won’t get into that much here.  Basically, large elections should be based on the popular vote numbers using preferential voting.)

Preferential voting and proportional representation will help rid the U.S. of the horrible monopoly operating as the  two-party system.  These systems would allow more and varied voices to be heard, not just on TV and the Internet, but in the legislative process as well.  With more parties in the mix, it will force an end to the “us vs. them” mentality of Democrats vs. Republicans, Conservatives vs. Liberals, and on and on.  Coalitions will emerge to get things done, and groups will cease to be the monolithical, unmovable blocks who refuse to talk about compromise because no one group alone has enough power to sway things without the help of others.

Thoughts?  Comments?  Agree/Disagree?  Please comment and pass on to others.

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why i voted for dennis

Tuesday 4 March 2008

I suppose this could have maybe been more effective before the polls closed in Ohio, where I voted by absentee ballot this year, but I thought it would be apt to post today, too. I sent my ballot through the mail about 3 weeks ago, and if what I think I know about absentee balloting in Ohio is true, my vote probably won’t show up on the Internet or television tonight, but it will still be counted. And in the end, my singular vote probably won’t directly change the number of delegates who go to one Democratic candidate over the other (I pulled a Democratic ballot this year), it is important nonetheless. And while it’s obviously a race between Barack and Hilary, when I filled in the oval with my #2 pencil, it was next to neither of their names. Am I foolish? You might think so. But here’s why I voted for Dennis Kuchinich.

There are probably lots of reasons one could argue I shouldn’t have voted for Dennis: he “isn’t electable” (based on some poll figures and such), he stopped actively campaigning over a month ago (he was fighting to hold on to his place in the House tonight), he could never “beat McCain.” The list could go on, I’m sure. And those might be reasons you wouldn’t or didn’t vote for Mr. Kuchinich (as the NY Times would call him), but for me, those aren’t good enough any more. I’m tired of voting for whoever the Democratic candidate ends up being in November because she or he is surely “better than a Republican” and we know it’s really only a two person race anyway, no matter how many names are on the ballot (and who those other candidates would “take votes from,” leading to such a situation that occurred in 2000).

But that’s my problem: we too easily “settle.” Am I not to select the candidate who I feel would be the best person for the job? And if I don’t, why would the candidate I end up voting for have any incentive the change their ways to what I wished they were like? I mean, they got my vote the way they were, right? It’s not that I dislike Clinton or Obama — in fact, I would rather have either of them than that man from Arizona; it’s just that I like Kucinich better (much better, I might say). I don’t consider it throwing my vote away at all — I need to let me voice be heard, that I’m tired of “business as usual,” of playing games with corporations and “special interests” and all that jazz — and that I want our president and government to do what is truly best for all the people of this country and this world, not what’s best for those who will later help them fund their re-election campaign.

I’m sure there are some of you I still haven’t convinced, who will still vote for “the best of the rest,” but if you think it’s at least a worthy thing to vote for someone who stopped putting money into his presidential campaign in January, I probably should tell you why I marked Kucinich instead of one of the others promising “change.”

For one thing, Kucinich is a peace candidate. His main slogan was “Strength Through Peace.” We’ve heard promises of pulling out of Iraq (with certain conditions and time lines) from other candidates, but it’s more than just how you deal with one situation; it’s about an ideology. It’s about dealing through diplomacy and refusing to support militarism, handling misunderstandings and conflicts with conversation and discussion instead of bombs and bullets. Kucinich doesn’t believe “the best defense is a good offense,” as some do, but knows that the best possible situation is to not have to worry about defending from anyone at all.

Another issue is health care. Most people think providing everyone with adequate health care is a basic human right — especially in “the richest nation on the planet” — but people disagree on how to get there. Kucinich’s plan doesn’t perpetuate the current “for-profit” corporate business model of insurance companies and HMOs which causes some companies to seek out ways to get out of paying claims. It isn’t a plan that seeks to insure everyone by requiring them to have insurance or subsidizing them so they can afford it, a plan which creates an even greater profit for those making money off of health care. Kucinich wants a plan (which was offered by Ms. Clinton back in the 90s, actually) that rids us of the bane that are insurance companies and creates a single payer system — and if you think it would reduce our care or just don’t think it can work, watch Sicko.

I could go on about issues like trade and corporations and such (read “marijuana“), but you can look at his website if you’d like to know if you agree with him about other things. But really the point remains: “Why shouldn’t I vote for the candidate who I agree with the most?” (Take the test — for me Kucinich was an 83, Gravel an 82, and everyone else 38 or less.)

Editor’s note: after a short conversation with my Mom and Dad, I’d like to note that one could probably make a similar type of argument for voting for someone like Ron Paul, who my Dad voted for (Mom is an Obama-girl).