If you haven’t yet wondered this election season, whether it is time to abandon this attempt at democracy and see if Vladimir Putin wants to make a real estate acquisition, you’re the problem. Run along now, I’m writing to the rest of us. The ones who feel like the cruelest of pranksters has locked us in an asylum for the more-than criminally insane and thrown away the key. The ones who can’t figure out how our choice came down to a candidate that no one really likes, a candidate that terrifies everyone with sense enough to feel terror and an ersatz revolutionary socialist. Political imagination has been replaced with the oozings and rumblings of a reptilian hive-mind, and the reptile doesn’t know whether it’s hungry, horny or comatose (in no particular order). The truth is, American electoral politics has always aped a corpse on puppet strings, held first by slaveholders, then robber barons and now hedge fund managers. I refuse to pretend that the present farce is some kind of fall from grace, unless grace has mutated into an obscenely rich slaveholder with a head full of rotted out teeth. After George, “the process” elevated a succession of genocidal drunks, petty wanna-be aristocrats and one pseudo-intellectual rapist named Thomas. When the country finally came near developing the spine to put a stop to congenital laziness’s greatest abettor, the institution of slavery; an uncharacteristically principled move for a country founded by seafaring reprobates: It signaled this by electing a plodding (if clever), rubber limbed Illinois farm boy, who signaled his commitment to the cause by proclaiming that he would save the union by freeing every, some or no slaves, ya know, what ever works. With such lukewarm enthusiasm for the liberation of four million people, it can’t surprise us that the next hundred years unleashed horrors unspeakable onto the descendants of America’s unfortunate captives; while the greater part of the only country delusional enough to claim freedom as a favorite son, rocked to and fro upon its corn fed, whiskey soaked ass. I won’t speak of the New Deal and Frank’s kindergarten socialism or Jack’s commitment to playing spaceman while Mississippi longed for intelligent life to assert its dominance here on earth. If you think I’m being insensitive or boorish, I thought I told you to run along. The average American prefers truth in small doses and morality transmogrified into empty talk, I’ll not abide.
But, I’m not just here to call out the system, I’m here to fix it. Here’s how we can create the condition for true revolutionary politics in America: Abolish winner-take-all apportionment of delegates in the electoral college. If that doesn’t sound exciting, it isn’t, that’s why it has a decent shot of happening. Here’s a quick outline/reminder of how the system works currently: On the first Tuesday in November we vote for the president. Not really though. Actually, we vote for slates of electors representing the candidates on the national ballot. Each state sends one elector to the electoral college for every congressional seat it holds, so, Tennessee with 9 representatives and 2 Senators gets 11 electors. Whichever party gets the most votes gets the exclusive right to send its entire slate of electors to represent the state one month later when the grownup presidential election occurs. As a result, if 49.9% of a state’s voters support party A and 50.1% supports party B, party B gets to pick 100% of the state’s representatives in the electoral college, as though 49.9% of the electorate simply didn’t exist. Consider California. In 2008, 13 million+ voted, 8 million+ of those for President Obama, 5 million+ for Senator McCain. Obama got all of California’s 55 electoral votes, the equivalent of completely ignoring a state the size of Colorado. Of course, the benefits of a winner-take-all system are shared across the partisan landscape. In Mississippi, during the same election, the 554,000 voters who preferred Barack Obama were effectively silenced as Mississippi gave all 6 of its electoral votes to John McCain, the same for Texas and its 38. Across the South, almost 9 million Blacks who vote Democrat along with other non-Whites are effectively disenfranchised in the presidential contest, the equivalent of ignoring every voter in a state with 2 million more people than Illinois. (9 million Blacks voted, 62.3% of voters participated nationwide, which means that 9 million voters would represent roughly the number in a state with 14 million people) That the disproportionately non-White, liberal urban bastions in states like New York, and Illinois tend to disenfranchise the predominantly White rural areas is no serious consolation prize. The electoral image we have of the country is skewed to favor the two main parties.
At this point, you’re probably thinking: “Yeah, that kinda sucks, but it probably balances out, and in any event, you promised me revolutionary politics, not enfranchised farmers!” To which I say: Cool ye first your jets! The crux of revolutionary politics is feasibility. The mass disenfranchisement argument is how we’ll get this thing through the minefield of inertia into reality. Now here’s the revolution: If you recall, a state receives one electoral college vote for each member of its congressional delegation. There are 535 seats in the House and Senate, there are 308 million people in America as of the 2010 census, that’s 538 when we add in D.C.s three electoral votes (no congressional representation so they get the minimum, 3.) 308 million divided by 538 is 572,490 that’s the approximate number of votes a party would have to get in a given state under a system of proportional representation to be able to send a delegate to the electoral college …….. in a hypothetical world where every man, women and child is eligible, registered and inclined to vote.
Because we don’t live in that world, let’s take Tennessee and its 11 electors. In 2008, 2,601,982 votes were cast, including 35,386 cast for non-major parties. 2,602,982/11= 236,544 that’s how many votes a hypothetical third party would have to earn to receive an elector. (The legal principle one person one vote dictates that voting districts be drawn around areas with reasonably equal populations) If 35,386 to 235,544 seems like a large leap for third parties to make, it is, but recall, that our national obsession with the presidency combined with the massive obstacles which currently stand in the way of third parties, lead to common cultural belief that voting for a third party is the equivalent of throwing a vote away. In light of the winner-take-all system, this belief is well justified. For one thing, even though third parties are reasonably viable on the local level with its much smaller electorate, most people don’t have the time or the energy to split their political energies between two or more parties on the local, state and national levels. In a world of bills, debt and mind-numbing wage labor, it’s just easier to ally yourself with a vaguely defined national party to the left or right of an amorphous center and vote straight down ticket, during those infrequent times when your battered spirit can pull itself away from reality television; than to divide your waning energies between a local third party with no chance of having any impact on the presidency and a national party.
On presidential viability, consider our least populous state, Wyoming with its 586,187 residents and 254,658 voters in 2008. In order to represent the nation’s least populous state in the electoral college, a party would have to receive 127,583 votes (assuming no more than two parties running) in our winner-take-all system, to say nothing of larger states. Therefore, it seems reasonable to expect that the current marginalization of third parties would decrease once they begin to have an impact upon the electoral process, leading to more voters being willing to consider them. From there, instead of effectively being forced into two massive partisan hog pens, in a world of rapidly proliferating consumer choice, voters would be free to align themselves according to compelling visions of the world instead of conveniently meaningless partisan constructs. Here is this new world as I imagine it: Let us assume: that 40% of the 69+ million people who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 would vote for a third party if given the chance along with 50% of the 30 million that voted for McCain: (the DNC itself has 43 million members so 140% of their membership supported Obama, 150% of the RNC’s membership supported McCain and for the sake of argument, I’m assuming that DNC voters who aren’t members are the most weakly affiliated, though there could be movement both ways, the same for the RNC and its 30 million members).
Those who read my essay on the “Browning” of America know that I know how fraught trying to predict the future is, they also know I’m going to try anyway. The 42 million theoretical third party voters combined with actual third party voters in 2008 would equal 36% of the electorate. To control for the electoral pendulum I’ll suppose that the remaining 64% is evenly split. Instead of extrapolating from party membership, I might have simply counted the 42% as of Americans that identify as independent as likely third party voters, both methods have flaws, I’ll stick with mine. The fact that the two numbers, one arrived at from extrapolation and the other from actual polling hew so closely gives me confidence. In any event, we have a roughly 60/40 split between major and minor parties. Imagine a scenario where 60% of the 538 electoral votes are won by the two major parties, 323 total. As is the case now, in order to avoid having the election decided in the House of Representatives, a candidate has to receive 270 electoral votes. With 323 votes available to the 2 parties, the margin of error for a winning party shrinks precipitously, the less popular major party would only have to win 53 electoral votes to deny the more popular major party the presidency on the basis of the popular vote. Based on our previous calculations dividing the actual 2008 turnout by the 538 electoral votes, a party would need approximately 13 million votes to receive 53 electors. This means that in any election year where one of the two major parties doesn’t completely annihilate the other, the election will be decided between the first Tuesday in November when the nation votes and the Monday after the second Wednesday in December, when the electors vote. In the intervening month, coalitions would be built, tested, broken and reconstituted in a feverish effort to keep the election out of congress.
Though it’s very difficult to know in advance how the political landscape will be laid out once the rules have been so radically reformed, we should probably imagine the two major parties at the center, with a series of far and farther left parties opposite the Democrats and increasingly far right parties to the extreme of the Republicans. Right wing and left wing libertarian parties, Christian fundamentalists and secular humanist parties, Marxist, Socialist, Communist, Leninist, White nationalist and Black liberation parties. Along with a plethora of single issue parties: Gun control and gun rights; family parties for the : working families, military families, same-sex partnered families; pro-life, pro choice, disability rights and more that we can scarcely imagine. In all likelihood, some of the more esoteric will lack a sufficiently large electoral base in individual states to be able make a showing in the electoral college. But, the great strength such parties will have is that they are dominated by the single minded, as a result, their leaderships will be able to heavily translate party endorsements into votes. Additionally, with “third parties” newly legitimized, they will be in a position to exert influence at the local level, not just as interest groups, but as viable members of the electoral process. This decentralization of political focus may prove to be the most powerful aspect of the new politics.
Obviously, what excites me most about this scheme is the prospect of an All-African Peoples Party. If every Black voter that cast a ballot for Barack Obama in 2008 had instead voted for my hypothetical party, it would have controlled 66 electoral votes, more than the state of California controls under our present system. (This number may be reduced by Blacks who live in states with fewer than 250,000 Black voters, even with this reduction, we’d probably still have more votes than any single state does now, since the majority of us live in states with sizeable Black populations) Not enough to elect a president by itself obviously, but more than enough to be a serious coalition builder. And most importantly, the All-African People’s Party would be a place for us to develop an independent political voice, for us to figure out what is actually best for us, and working from there, we could negotiate and compromise if necessary. Instead of beginning from a middle-brow Democratic platform developed by predominantly White elites and nibbling around the edges to exact minuscule, grudging, concessions, we could begin to seriously envision our own way forward.
On the local level, in the Black belt and predominantly Black congressional districts across the country, milquetoast Democratic politics could be replaced with true Black politics. Instead of sending Black faces to high places as members of the Democratic establishment, where they have to respond to that establishment to gain influence and keep support, our Black politicians would instead advance and gain favor in the context of a fundamentally Black institution, which would fundamentally change the type of people that can claim to represent the us. In a system strangle-held by two parties, only politicians willing to fundamentally kowtow to the national committee can even get into a position to become viable. The All-African Peoples party’s influence would extend from the electoral college to congress to state houses to mayor’s offices to court houses to city councils, any place where Black electoral influence is felt currently. The possibilities are endless, imagine using our electoral votes to extract a commitment to reparations from a future president. Imagine being able to send a candidate representing a party whose platform includes the Black Panther’s ten point platform to congress. Imagine Angela Davis, and Bobby Seale of California sitting on a dais alongside Barbara Lee of Texas and Jim Clyburne of South Carolina at a political convention in Detroit, live streamed across Black america, with Black dignitaries debating how the party can best strategically deploy its electoral votes this election. To zoom out once again, one of these non-major parties would have several viable options for disposing of their influence.
The most obvious would be to cast a ballot for the party’s own candidate. It’s easy to forget that electors are not legally bound until they cast their final vote in December. Therefore, a party that doesn’t have enough support to send its own candidate to the White House could either use its electoral votes to extract concessions from one of the two major parties in exchange for votes, band together with other small parties to back a single coalition candidate, or, as I said earlier, they could just vote for their own candidate and effectively remove those electors from the process. Which wouldn’t be a waste, because enough electoral votes withheld could force the election into the House of Representatives where congresspeople from the various parties could continue to argue, horse-swap, extract and concede until a single quasi-mandated candidate finally emerges, a powerful statement. Speaking of congress, in a world with viable third parties represented directly in the House and indirectly via coalition candidates in the Senate (Since most senators would at least have to negotiate with third parties to gain a statewide plurality.) The notions of “party loyalty” and “party discipline” which force politicians that want to be viable to balance their loyalty to their constituencies and their actual beliefs (to say nothing of their lobbyists) with loyalty to one of two massively compromised and shoddily constituted parties, will be replaced by loyalty to one of several groups wherein politicians can come a lot closer to actually expressing their true beliefs and, more importantly, those of their constituents. (Hopefully some of those true beliefs will come together and deal with the lobbyist problem.)
Does the system I have outlined guarantee “revolutionary politics.” No. But, it does guarantee an electorate which will now have a reason to be involved, truly involved, in the electoral process. Surely the complexity of what I’ve just laid out has not been lost on you, gentle reader. This complexity, or should I say, intricacy, dictates that voters will need to be more deeply engaged than they are now for the system to work. A reasonably informed voter must not only think about the platform of her own party, she must be aware of where it stands in the overall partisan landscape, whom it would make sense to coalition build with. I could imagine parties using special proprietary software which would allow members to vote on such questions from home using biometric technology, or not. Free from duopolistic constraints, small parties could become “laboratories of democracy” much as the states are now, and in areas far more important than voting by fingerprint. In the making and unmaking of coalitions, unorthodox parties and their unorthodox ideas would be in an excellent position to introduce themselves to the general population in the context of the media’s obsession with horse race reporting. The final question to consider is, how do we get here? There are three options as I see it: Constitutional amendment, individual state legislative action and a congressional statute making winner-take-all illegal (or a block grant offering federal funds to any state that abolishes it in favor of proportional representation.) They all have pros and cons, which I’ll consider in an addendum at a later date. Until then, enjoy the partisan cluster fuck.
If you’ve connected with this work, your donation can help me create more of it.