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To Nader or not to Nader, that is the question. A debate over whether Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader is a savior or a spoiler has raged for months among progressives. Neither argument satisfies, however, because both are partly right. Votes for Nader instead of Al Gore in a close election really could elect George Bush, with negative consequences for women, minorities, workers and the environment. Yet without Nader, centrist Democrats could bury progressivism even deeper.
Given Nader's remarkable career and the potential of his campaign to build on new movements for fair trade, fair elections and fair wages, the very debate over his campaign reveals a serious flaw in our antiquated electoral rules: Voting for your favorite candidate can lead to the election of your least favorite candidate. Providing the means to express one's real views and insuring majority rule are basic requirements of democracy. But our current system badly fails these tests.
Fortunately, the British, Australians and Irish have a simple solution: instant runoff voting (IRV). They share our tradition of electing candidates by plurality--a system whereby voters have one vote, and the top vote-getter wins--but they now also use IRV for most important elections. Mary Robinson was elected President of Ireland by IRV. Labor Party maverick Ken Livingstone was elected mayor of London. The Australian legislature has been elected by IRV for decades. States could implement IRV right now for all federal elections, including the presidential race, without changing federal law or the Constitution.
IRV simulates a series of runoff elections, but in a single round of voting that corrects the flaws of runoffs and plurality voting. At the polls, people vote for their favorite candidate, but they also indicate their second, "runoff," choice and subsequent choices. If a candidate receives a majority of first choices, the election is over. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and a runoff round of counting occurs. In this round your ballot counts for your top-ranked candidate still in the race. The eliminated candidate is no longer a "spoiler" because the votes of that candidate's supporters go to their runoff choice. Rounds of counting continue until there is a majority winner.
Imagine this year's presidential race with IRV. Nader supporters worried about George Bush could rank Nader first and Gore second. Suppose Bush won 45 percent of first choices in a key state, Gore 44 percent, Nader 9 percent and the rest 2 percent. Under current rules, Bush wins. But with IRV, after Nader loses in the instant runoff, his supporters would propel Gore above 50 percent and defeat Bush. Rather than contribute to Gore's defeat, Nader could help stop Bush, while delivering a message to Gore: Watch your step on trade, political reform and the environment.
Freed from the spoiler stigma, Nader could more easily gain access to the presidential debates, inform and mobilize a progressive constituency and win more votes. Higher turnout and increased attention to progressive issues could move the political center and help Democrats retake Capitol Hill. The Green Party could gain a real foothold. In other words, his campaign would be a win-win, rewarding the energy of young activists, whose belief in electoral politics would be put at risk by a weak Nader performance.
Surveying past elections, it's intriguing to consider what might have been. What would have happened with IRV in 1968, when the anti-Vietnam War movement was left without a champion in the general election and Richard Nixon narrowly edged out Hubert Humphrey? Might Jesse Jackson in 1996 have pursued his proposed independent candidacy, forcing Bill Clinton to justify his moves to the right? What might socialists Norman Thomas and Henry Wallace have achieved in the thirties and forties?
Of course, IRV isn't only for liberals. This year it could have encouraged John McCain to ride his Straight Talk Express over to the Reform Party, and in past years it could have boosted Ross Perot. IRV has no ideological bias, as has been proven by its shifting partisan impact in eight decades of parliamentary elections in Australia. Its virtue for all sides is that it doesn't punish those ready to challenge the status quo.
At the same time, IRV is proving a winning argument for both Democrats and Republicans when they are confronted with potential spoilers. Worried by the fact that strong Green candidacies have split the Democratic vote in two of the state's three House seats, prominent New Mexico Democrats are backing IRV, and the State Senate decided in 1999 to give voters a chance to enact IRV for all state and federal offices. In Alaska the Republican Party, also beset by split votes, has made a sweeping IRV bill for all state and federal offices its number-one legislative priority, and advocates have already collected enough signatures to place IRV on the statewide ballot in 2002. Vermont may hold the most immediate promise. Boosted by public financing, a progressive third-party candidate is mounting a strong challenge in the governor's race, and an impressive coalition from across the spectrum supports IRV for statewide elections. Public financing and IRV are indeed well matched: With IRV, clean-money candidates could run from across the spectrum without inviting spoiler charges.
Cities are also good targets for IRV campaigns. A charter commission in Austin, Texas, has recommended replacing two-round runoffs with IRV. Voters in Santa Clara, California, and Vancouver, Washington, recently approved ballot measures to make IRV an explicit option in their charters.
For all IRV's benefits, ours remains a majoritarian system, and minor-party candidates aren't likely to win office much more than under plurality rules. To achieve truly fair representation would require other reforms, such as campaign finance reform and proportional representation for electing legislators. But IRV is the best way to eliminate the spoiler dynamic that suppresses candidacies--and the debate and participation they could generate. If progressives learn one lesson from campaign 2000, let it be that the next presidential campaign should be conducted under fairer rules. Real democracy needs a rainbow of choices, not the dull gray that results in one of the lowest voter turnouts in the democratic world.
In campaign speeches George W. Bush repeats Al Gore's defense of his 1996 campaign fundraising phone calls from his government office--"there is no controlling legal authority"--so often that it's become a stock line in Bush's stump remarks. Attorney General Janet Reno's recent refusal of Republican requests to refer Gore's alleged violation of federal law to an independent counsel gave the GOP an opening to heap even more verbal abuse on Gore. Gore's words, spoken at a press conference three years ago, although including a phrase common enough among lawyers, were widely perceived at the time as defensive or evasive. His use of the phrase was judged by many commentators to have been a political mistake of the first order.
Ironically, it was also a legal mistake. There was and is "controlling legal authority" that actually favors Gore: It is the Constitution of the United States. The law he allegedly violated--Section 607 of the US Criminal Code--would very likely be found unconstitutional if it was ever tested in court.
Section 607 makes it a felony "for any person to solicit or receive any contribution...in any room or building occupied in the discharge of official duties." Attorney General Reno determined that Section 607 covers only "hard money" campaign contributions. Gore testified that he believed that the sums he was soliciting were "soft money." Thus, Reno concluded there was nothing to prosecute and no reason to appoint a special prosecutor.
But Reno's narrow technical explanation for exonerating Gore did not dispel, and may have compounded, the fallout from the "no controlling authority" rationale. A compelling constitutional authority is a much firmer vindication.
The constitutional failing of Section 607 is that it does not require proof of criminal intent. Section 607 says "any person who violates this section shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both." The three-year maximum sentence makes every violation of Section 607 a felony--even when those involved had unintentionally failed to comply with the law's technical requirements. The Federal Criminal Code (like that of most states) defines a felony to include any offense punishable by imprisonment of more than a year. Every felony is also an "infamous crime" as that term is used in the Constitution. (The Fifth Amendment guarantees that no person may be prosecuted for an "infamous crime" unless a grand jury votes to charge him in an indictment.)
The concept of a felony that does not require criminal intent is jarring to every law school graduate who studied Justice Robert Jackson's classic opinion in the Supreme Court case Morissette v. United States (1952). In his ruling, Jackson traces back to Blackstone's famous eighteenth-century book of Commentaries the Anglo-American concept that a crime requires a "vicious will" in addition to a prohibited act. Jackson states the governing principle this way: "The contention that an injury can amount to a crime only when inflicted by intention is no provincial or transient notion. It is as universal and persistent in mature systems of law as belief in freedom of the human will and a consequent ability and duty of the normal individual to choose between good and evil."
Applying this principle, the Supreme Court threw out the conviction of Morissette, who had been found guilty of the crime of "converting" (i.e., stealing) government property because he had taken and sold some rusty and apparently abandoned bomb casings that were lying around the grounds of a military bombing range. The Court roundly rejected the trial judge's instruction to jurors that Morissette's belief that the casings had been abandoned by the government was no defense against the criminal charge of stealing government property. The Supreme Court ruled that proof of a criminal intent on Morissette's part was required to convict him of being a thief.
The due process clause of the Fifth Amendment was designed to preserve the fundamental principles of fairness that the Anglo-American legal tradition recognized in Thomas Jefferson's time. The lawyers who framed, adopted and ratified the due process guarantee of the Bill of Rights were steeped in the study of Blackstone and would surely have considered a requirement to prove criminal intent for an infamous crime a fundamental principle of Anglo-American jurisprudence, a part of the "due process of law" that their Bill of Rights guaranteed.
The due process clause, along with Blackstone's Commentaries and cases such as Morissette, thus provides "controlling legal authority" that should protect the Vice President, or any other officeholder or citizen, from being prosecuted under the felony-without-fault provisions of Section 607. The Vice President and the nation would have been better served had the Attorney General recognized this as a controlling basis for denying the requests for an independent counsel--and had she done so three years ago, before Gore invoked the infelicitous phrase that there is "no controlling legal authority."
The project of racial reconciliation and historical correction is "constitutional" in the deepest, multiple senses of that word.
Right now, there are three votes on the Court to get rid of Roe altogether and often four or five to impose costly, chilling and burdensome regulations on the exercise of that right by the patient and her doctor.
The future of the Supreme Court is the most important issue in the most important election year since 1932. Progressive Americans should treat it that way. The radical right does.
At stake is whether the twenty-first-century First Amendment will be a protector of the powerful or a resource for the weak and disfranchised.
To date, the Rehnquist Court's environmental record has been mixed. While no darling of the greens, neither has it been consistently "brown."
I still think third-party politics is mostly a crock, but then, so is two-party politics.
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