Oregon State Bar Bulletin — NOVEMBER 2010
Parting Thoughts
Stuck in the Middle with You
By Blair Bobier

Clowns to the left of me Jokers to the right Here I am Stuck in the middle with you

— Stealers Wheel

On the Tuesday following the first Monday in November, Americans dutifully engage in a time-honored tradition at the heart of the democratic process: voting. Unfortunately, this tradition has evolved into an often meaningless ritual, and mid-term elections in particular demonstrate the limitations of how we choose our elected officials.

Although commentators and cable channels attempt to generate excitement about the outcome, what happens on Election Day is as predictable as an apple falling from a tree. During mid-term elections, the party controlling the White House will lose congressional seats because we Americans, an impatient and demanding bunch, seem to have a recurring case of buyer’s remorse every four years. No sooner do we elect a president than do we decide that our national leader isn’t doing the job we want — or doing it fast enough. Since we can’t vote the president out, we take out our frustration on the president’s party in Congress.

In other words, we decide to throw the bums out.

It doesn’t seem to matter who the bums are — or that their replacements will be the bums we threw out in the last election — just so long as we throw them out. With only two “viable” choices on the ballot and two parties in Congress, Americans are condemned to an eternal ride on a political seesaw. There is never a middle ground or an opportunity for the parties to coalesce around common goals for the common good.

Polls and the rapidly rising number of registered voters who are unaffiliated with either of the major parties clearly indicate an interest in public policy seemingly beyond what the two-party system can produce. The “two party system,” however, is an artificial construct. Nothing in the Constitution or federal law requires two parties — or any parties at all. It is the two major parties themselves which have done a superb job of squashing potential competition by enacting a series of restrictive state laws designed to keep new parties and independent candidates off the ballot. If independent candidates are lucky, diligent or well-funded enough to make their way onto the ballot, then they have to contend with a vicious cycle: the press will ignore or ridicule them and the voters won’t take them seriously, which gives the press a rationale for ignoring them. The final nail in the coffin is our winner-take-all election system, where independent candidates will be perceived as “spoilers” and voters won’t want to “waste” a vote on an eminently qualified candidate with no perceived chance of winning.

While nothing short of a magic wand or federal constitutional amendment will change some of the more pernicious elements of our cash-drenched elections, Oregonians are fortunate to have one solution at our fingertips. Article II, Section 16 of the Oregon Constitution provides for the use of preference voting, which today is commonly known as instant runoff voting. Instant runoff voting eliminates the “spoiler” and “wasted vote” syndromes and allows voters to vote their hopes instead of their fears. Here’s how it works: instead of voting for just one candidate, voters rank the candidates in order of preference, marking their first choice, second choice, third choice and so on. A candidate who wins a majority of first-choice rankings is elected. If, however, no candidate receives an initial majority, the candidate with the fewest first-choice rankings is eliminated. That candidate’s supporters have their votes count for their second choice. This allows voters to support a long-shot candidacy without fear that voting for the candidate they like most will wind up electing the one they like least.

Instant runoff voting is used for municipal elections in Oakland, Minneapolis and San Francisco; for overseas voters from Arkansas and South Carolina; for judicial elections in North Carolina; and for national elections in Australia and Ireland. It is a politically neutral reform which encourages civility among candidates and a focus on issues rather than personalities. If used in Oregon, we could expect to see more viable candidates from the middle as well as on the fringe, giving voters more choices and stimulating public debate about the future of our state. More people would be interested in campaigns and more people would vote.

Unless we change how we conduct our elections the outcome will always be the same. What’s the point of throwing the bums out if all we’re doing is voting the same bums back in?

Blair Bobier is a writer and political consultant whose essays have appeared in The Oregonian, USA Today, Los Angeles Times and many other publications. He welcomes feedback, lunch invitations and lucrative job opportunities via blairbobier@hotmail.com.

© 2010 Blair Bobier

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