Tag Archives: elections

5 Ways to Get More People to Vote

This past Tuesday was Election Day! Or as some people call it, “second Halloween”. Corny people call it that. I haven’t found the voter turnout for this week’s elections, but, given the tradition of political malaise in modern American politics, it was probably pretty disappointing. People have pretty good reasons for not voting: one party advocates evil, the other party is nothing, and the third party can’t win. Until we can get some people we actually want to vote for, how can we get more people to vote?

5. Universal Voter Registration

Right now, it’s your own responsibility to register to vote. But it’s a bureaucratic burden that is easy for people to lose track of – amid all the other bureaucratic burdens placed on individual citizens. There is no good reason why the burden of responsibility for registering voters cannot be placed on the state. The state has numerous records that it can cross-reference to build a reliable voter list. Anybody who fell through the cracks can just register at the polls. (Because same-day registration is just common-sense.)

In fact, removing the costs to voting, whether in terms of money, time, or filling out forms, will probably improve voter turnout. Such cost-savings include: moving Election Day to a weekend or making it a holiday; ride public transit for free on Election Day; secure online voting; or even just pay people to vote, like the ancient Athenians.

4. The Basic Right to Vote

According to the Supreme Court (Bush v. Gore), the United States constitution does not guarantee the right to vote. Thus, states can put up all the barriers to voting they want, as long as they can pretend that everyone can get over those barriers. A constitutional amendment that guarantees the right to vote would make barriers like voter ID laws illegal, or at least become the duty of the state to help citizens pass them. Congressional representatives Keith Ellison and Mark Pocan introduced such a constitutional amendment this past June 14th, to the deafening indifference of Washington, DC.

3. The Basic Duty to Vote

A right is just a permission, however, and rights can be ignored. But perhaps the least act of self-government – voting – should not be allowed to be ignored. Voting is a citizen’s duty, like jury duty, military service in wartime, and paying taxes. Because voting is literally the least we can do to participate, the penalty for failing to go to a poll can be negligible. Most people wouldn’t give up $20 just not to vote. The only people who would do so are conscientious objectors and people trying to make a point. The first can be handled the same as conscientious objectors in military conscription. They demonstrate that they have a sincere religious or philosophical belief against voting. The second do not get that consideration, but they do get the benefit of making a stronger statement than they can today. If political non-voters were penalized for their non-voting, they won’t get lumped in with the confused and the apathetic.

2. Proportional Representation

At the moment, the United States uses an electoral system called “plurality” or “first-past-the-post”. That just means that whomever receives the most votes wins. It’s intuitive, but has bad results if we want the legislature to represent the voters. In electoral races with more than two candidates, the winner may represent only a minority of the population. Even if there are only two candidates, only the majority is represented in the legislature. The losing minority has “wasted” its votes. If you know that your district has gone to a Republican for the past ten elections, then Democrats might as well stay home.

Many nations have used proportional representation (PR) methods to make sure that everyone’s vote counts. In most PR systems, political parties create party lists of candidates for the electoral district, and voters choose a political party. This is a pretty good reflection of how most people think about modern politics anyway. Other systems, like Germany or New Zealand, are mixed between voting for individual candidates and political parties. The result is a legislature where the proportion of political parties resembles the proportion of political parties among the voters. If the Democrats received 45% of the vote, the Republicans received 45%, and the Green Party received 10%, then those percentages would be present in the legislature. This often does not happen in our current plurality voting system. With PR, everyone’s vote would count, third parties would have a voice, and so people would be more likely to vote.

Of course, PR assumes that political parties are themselves “representative” of the population, and that representation of political party preference is what should be represented. The genuine common will of the people might in fact be obscured by political parties. This makes a different sort of representation attractive.

1. Participatory Representation (or, let the people set the agenda)

What if we could set the agenda for our representatives? If the public had the power to establish policy priorities for their representatives, rather than having policy handed to us from a party elite, then voting would be much more attractive. I’ve been thinking about an electoral system that creates just such a popular power; I’ve called it “participatory representation“. In participatory representation, citizens are not confined to approving one branch of the ruling class or the other. Instead, popular assemblies gather locally to decide the needs of their communities and to nominate candidates from their own ranks that understand these needs. The assemblies send to delegates to policy assemblies for the whole electoral district, which both reduces the slate of candidates and establishes general policy goals and priorities for the district and their future representative. The voters choose their final representatives at the polls.

A version of this process took place in Cartagena des Indias, in Colombia, for the mayoral elections of 2011. It was the initiative of one of its candidates, Dionisio Velez, whose respect for the electorate won him the mayor’s office in 2013.

Of course, the process was dependent on the whim of a single politician. Likewise, political parties may create empowered deliberative spaces for their partisans, as the Chavistas do in Venezuela. But again, that may change. When a party’s political fortunes wane, its popular aspect will vanish as partisans are told to follow the word of those who knew better all along. While participatory representation may work with political parties, a constructive, deliberative process of popular power must eventually replace competitive elections. The biggest obstacle to voter turnout may be the politics in the political system.

These solutions assume that increasing voter turnout is an actual goal of the political system. However, one political party is downright hostile to voting rights, and the other party is apathetic to protecting the voting rights that exist. As long as voting is weighted against the public, the people may have to resort to more forceful methods of getting what they want.

Hong Kong: Radical Means, Limited Goals

I visited Hong Kong in my youth, in 1994. In three years, the British would return this jewel in their bloodstained crown to the People’s Republic of China. My memory of Hong Kong is of draped and drying laundry strung between publicly owned apartments, a channel choked with bobbing junks, the Kowloon street filled with bamboo birdcages. I was struck by the omnipresence of the cell phone, years before this became commonplace in the United States. I learned my first lesson in imperialism – only the British could own corporations; Chinese need not apply. But the people of Hong Kong valued, and continue to value, the civil liberties and limited democracy inherited from the British Empire. Beijing claimed, in an agreement with Britain in 1984, that it would continue to respect the government it left behind. But now the Chinese government is reneging on that agreement, and the people of Hong Kong are not having it. An immense sit-in followed Beijing’s threat to interfere in the elections of Hong Kong’s executive, followed by clashes with the police. Chinese military intervention looms. So far though, the means the protestors use are more radical than their demands.

What are the protests about? Hong Kong is supposed to be its own “Special Administrative Region” of the People’s Republic. Based on an agreement with the British in 1984, this means maintaining its capitalist system, civil liberties, and government for at least 50 years after the transfer in 1997. However, China is easing the people of Hong Kong into full democracy. The elections for the executive and legislative branches become more democratic in stages. The People’s Republic promised universal suffrage in Hong Kong’s elections by 2017. But Hong Kong’s Basic Law, or constitution, has some giant loopholes.

After the transfer, the Chinese stipulated in the Basic Law that:

The method for selecting the Chief Executive shall be specified in the light of the actual situation in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress. The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures. (No. 26, Chapter IV, Section 1, Article 45, 1990)

The articles for the election of the Legislative Council have similar qualifications (No. 26, Ch. IV, Sec. 3, Art. 68). Beijing decides what is “necessary” for “gradual and orderly progress” to universal suffrage.

The current method of electing the Chief Executive and Legislative Council is complex. An Election Committee elects the Chief Executive, much in the same way our Electoral College is supposed to elect the President. Hong Kong’s Election Committee actually does elect their Executive though. The Election Committee is composed of 1200 representatives from four sectors of society. These sectors include commercial, social, and professional sectors. For example, accountants have 30 representatives on the Committee. Catering has 17 representatives. It’s about time somebody reversed the oppression of catering businesses! The National People’s Congress in China has 36 representatives. The Legislative Council, almost as an afterthought, has 60 representatives. Likewise, the Legislative Council is only partially elected from geographic constituencies, as in the United States. More popularly elected legislators are added every year, but the representatives of the other sectors increase as well.

The democratic legitimacy of Hong Kong’s government is already suspect, at least by traditional Western standards of electoral representation. Now China has announced its intention to nominate candidates for future elections. Thus, student demonstrators occupied the space around government buildings to force Beijing and its current quisling Chief Executive in Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, to fulfill its promises.

Occupy Central with Peace and Love is an exceptional protest for its size, diversity, organization, and perseverance in the face of massive police repression. Americans, for whom persistent political organization seems difficult, could learn a lot from the willingness of the Hong Kong protestors to commit to a broad-based popular organization and employ radical tactics. Much like their American cousins on Wall Street, the protestors have occupied a public place as a show of popular power. However, they also have specific goals and a willingness to disrupt the functioning of the dominant institutions. Occupy Central has not only occupied and sat-in, but organized boycotts and are preparing for a citywide general strike. The difference with Occupy Wall Street is that Occupy Central has the social connections to mobilize across Hong Kong society.

Yet, Occupy Central is able to have such specific goals, including a concrete proposal for change, because its goals are so limited. Occupy Central has a narrow focus on achieving traditional political democracy through electoral reform. Occupy Wall Street had wide-ranging, nebulous concerns with no clear purpose, but those concerns challenged our dominant institutions to their core. I cannot suggest that Occupy Central is wrong for the pursuit of its limited goals. The people of Hong Kong know their situation better than I do. What I can say is that the world needs to combine the radical, institution-disrupting means of Occupy Central with the radical, institution-challenging goals of Occupy Wall Street.


The Basic Law of Hong Kong

The Alliance for True Democracy

Participatory Representation

Most of us in the United States by now realize that the government does not work for us.  In a previous article, I discussed this, the most significant problem in American society.  Besides the many undemocratic features of government in the Unites States, the failure is partially a matter of the mechanism for electoral representation.  As readers may remember from that previous article, I identified the failure as being the “mediating factors” that distort the relationship of the elected representative to the represented citizens.  These mediating factors include campaign contributions, political party oligarchies, and special-interest organizations whose influence outweighs that of the voting constituency.  My solution to this problem is to replace these mediating factors with a public mechanism for electoral representation that organizes citizens’ power over their representative.  I call this mechanism “participatory representation.”  Participatory representation empowers citizens in their control over their representatives by creating a public process of democratic mediation between the represented and the representative. read more »

Are We, the People, Being Represented?

There is little doubt that a modern democratic state requires representation – the vast numbers of people in a modern nation must have someone to “stand in” for them – to represent them – to other similarly large numbers of people, through their own representatives.  People in modern nations are supposed to be assured of representation by the process of electing representatives.  Electoral representative systems are the means by which representatives are motivated by and informed of the public will. The representative wants access to participation in political power, and so will, in theory, behave in a manner consistent with the desires of the majority of his or her electorate.  When the representative fails in this respect, the public does not reelect that representative.  I think we can agree that this doesn’t really happen – in fact it has become painfully obvious.  I mean literally, it’s killing us.  So what’s the problem, and, more importantly, what’s the solution? read more »