Rock the vote

Smug liberals (as represented by NPR) and smug conservatives (as represented by KVI) agree: The nail-biting presidential vote and, to a lesser extent, the increased voter turnout and tight senatorial race in Washington are not only a wonderful civics lesson, with which to indoctrinate the young (Every vote counts!), but also a marvelous tribute to American democracy, the best governmental system in the world.

Oh, barf.

Not that the close election didn't have its virtues. It proved that when it gets down to the nub, most of our country's citizens do care who governs them. But mostly what it proved—in its entirety, not just on Nov. 7—is that the way we elect our political leaders is deeply flawed. Let's review:

*Out of a population of over 260 million, Americans were presented with a choice between two wealthy white Southern sons of political dynasties—both candidates having nearly indistinguishable ideologies. Both campaigned as if they were owed the job; nobody else, not even Ralph, mattered. Moreover, despite their generating dissatisfaction even within their own parties, each of these two corporatist clones had his party's nomination sewn up before any primary votes were cast. What narrowed the field? The corporations that flooded the campaigns with up-front cash. Some democracy in action.

*Speaking of floods of cash: Federal races alone cost some $3 billion in hard and soft money this year. State races were another $1 billion. That's up 50 percent from the record set in 1996. Most of it came in big chunks of soft money, through PACs, or from wealthy individuals like Maria Cantwell. Cantwell notwithstanding, this explosion of money—it's too extreme to be called a "trend" anymore— almost always protects incumbents, no matter how nutty or incompetent. It also protects corporate interests, even through officeholders with no apparent need to raise money—or are you a member of Jim McDermott's $1,000 club?

*Speaking of incumbents, did you notice that farther down the ballot, we didn't even have a choice between Tweedledums? Of the statewide offices, only secretary of state, insurance commissioner, and commissioner of public lands were seriously contested. Our incumbent governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, auditor, treasurer, and superintendent of public instruction all coasted to reelection. In the state Legislature, we have a special name, "swing districts," for places where your vote actually counts. If you live in Seattle (Democrats) or the suburbs (Republicans), you have no choice; only a couple of districts in the entire metro area were seriously contested. In the rest, candidates got 80 percent to 100 percent of the vote. We used to laugh when the Soviet Union held elections like this. Now, we pat ourselves on the back.

*And it's an old canard, but it's true: In most elections, most people don't vote. They might not care, they might not like the choices, they might think that voting only encourages politicians, but for whatever reason, US voter turnout, even in presidential races, is much lower than in every other Western democracy.

Of course, those democracies weren't designed in the 18th century. Ours was. The Electoral College is getting the most attention now, but it's only the most visible way in which our leaders, true to the spirit of 1787, haven't trusted the citizenry to make truly independent choices about who governs them. It's not as though we don't know how to do this better—one need only look at all those other countries. There have been hundreds of bills to reform the Electoral College since 1787; they've all failed.

Radical problems demand radical solutions. Here are a few, in no particular order:

1) Shorter elections, please.

2) Abolish the Electoral College. Popular vote is good enough for every other office in the land; it should be for the White House, too. In theory, it keeps smaller states relevant. In practice, it means every state where one contestant is polling over 55 percent is ignored by the candidates and votes for the losers don't count.

3) Amend the constitution to specify that campaign contributions are not a constitutionally protected form of free speech.

4) Ban all political TV and radio ads, recorded phone calls, too. That's right, ban them. We do it with tobacco ads, which are a lot less harmful. There are plenty of news sources now that can publicize the candidates' records, promises, and themes. All the ads do is jack up the cost of campaigns and give candidates the chance to lie so often that it becomes perceived truth.

5) Open up the process to third, fourth, fifth, and sixth parties. At every level of our campaigns, from ballot access to debates to funding, the two major parties have the decks stacked in their favor. It overrepresents the status quo, the ideological middle, and the wealthy, and leaves everyone else unrepresented. And speaking of which . . .

6) Implement proportional representation. Our winner-takes-all system also creates losers, for no good reason. True democracy would bring everybody to the table.

There are plenty of other ideas. The problem isn't that ideas are lacking; it's that our present lawmakers have, ex officio, been well-served by our current system. Only a massive public outcry can lead to change—an outcry that's never going to happen as long as we keep congratulating ourselves on our oligarchy.

Easy money

When you're rich, it's easier to get richer. When you're really rich, you get more money because you're rich. On Oct. 26, news broke that billionaire Bill Gates had purchased 1.4 million shares, or 5.3 percent, of Alaska Air Group. The news of Gates' purchase sent the stock up 62 cents that day, meaning that Gates made $868,000 simply by announcing he had purchased the stock. That's more than most working-class folks make in 20 years.

 
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