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Dawning Digital Democracy

by Krist Novoselic // Published August 12, 2011

Michael Lind of the New America Foundation shared his views in an August 9 Salon article about the dysfunctional two-party system in the US. After starting with a view of how proportional representation voting systems accommodate more voices, he wrote about the need for a social movement to inject new issues into politics.

I agree we need a social movement and I read the piece as a call for more association. The information revolution is at the heart of the new forms of association. Lind says that, “Comprehensive, multi-generational, nation-rebuilding movements are rare”.  If we see the new forms of association as a movement itself, then we are at the beginning of that rare moment of change.

It’s no news to say that Facebook, Twitter and other social networking platforms are bringing the world together. And you’re probably aware of how technology is changing the nature of campaigning. So it should be no surprise that efforts like Americans Elect, No Labels and Ruck.us are vying to be the next big thing in digital democracy. Even though these groups go out of their way to say they’re not parties, they are still a form of political association. And it’s Americans Elect that recognizes the most important aspect of a party – oops! - I mean political association: providing voters a cue on the ballot itself.

Lind says it’s not possible in advance to predict which of the two major national parties will be most closely associated with reform. I’ll go further and say we cannot depend on either of the two crusty, soft money machines / state parties to bring change on their own.

The leading effort to reform presidential nominations is Americans Elect with their national on-line primary. This party – oops! – political group are planning on nominating then running a bi-partisan ticket with the Americans Elect imprimatur on the ballot. These folks deserve props for their landmark innovation within our blossoming digital democracy – the glaringly simple idea to use the ballot itself for a political message! It’s about the most critical phase of the election; the moment the individual voter is casting a ballot. And Americans Elect seeks to lead voters to this juncture with social networking.

But there still are many institutional barriers that benefit the two major parties. It’s not just about the rules; it’s also in the minds of voters. Ask our own John B. Anderson about catching fire in a presidential election as an alternative to the two parties. John knows first hand how voters become afraid that their choice of an alternative might spoil the election for one candidate or another. They then run back, quite reliably, to the major parties. It’s strategic voting - and that’s what will hurt an independent or third party effort on the ballot.

As a result of his 1980 election experience, John B. Anderson started promoting proportional voting and other election reforms. In 1992 he helped found FairVote and for many years served as chair of its board.

Metric Perspective

Michael Lind also says that “in a country that rejected the metric system in the 1970s as un-American, the replacement of our archaic, dysfunctional and undemocratic electoral system is not going to happen soon.”

We here at FairVote can relate to Lind’s sentiment. The American version of proportional voting has not only been off the political radar, there are also many myths and misunderstandings (1).

I promote election reforms like Choice Voting not because I like explaining thresholds or transfer values. I want to see election rules that accommodate political association. People coming together provide the balance to the concentration of power by big money interests. And things are quite out of whack these days. To restore a balance we need ballots and ways of counting them that are more sophisticated than what we’re used to.

Automobiles sold in the United States have both the Imperial and Metric scale built into their speedometers. I find this handy while driving my car in British Columbia. My point is that if a car can accommodate two systems of measurement, we need an election system that can handle the new forms of association with wider voter choices.

100 mph is a much faster rate of travel than 100 kmh. Like a speedometer that reads wrong, current election rules are not responding to the situation. This means Americans Elect can wreck the presidential election for one party or another. And, it’s the strategic thinking fostered by plurality voting that wrecks elections for new approaches like AE and others (2).

The 21st Century is about communication. The convergence of technology and our democracy makes space for more voices. As voters try to make the jump from digital democracy to our 18th century electoral system, they should see the gap. Proportional voting is here to accommodate the movement towards real choices and new voices. Micheal Lind wrote a great article and I hope he keeps promoting proportional voting.

(1)    American versions of proportional voting are different than European party systems. We have higher thresholds for election with ballots that are candidate based. Several cities in the US use proportional voting and versions of this kind of election have been used in Voting Rights Act settlements.
(2)    Let’s not forget that proportional voting is for legislative bodies and there’s no constitutional barrier to using it for the US House and state legislatures.