By What Authority:

January 2009

By What Authority

Elections for Radicals

A Call to Democratize U.S. Elections

by David Cobb

Last November, the American people elected the first African-American president in our history. The inauguration of President Barack Obama certainly does not mean that racism is over, but we should still stop to celebrate and savor this profoundly important achievement.

Let us also acknowledge that a burgeoning progressive movement nominated and ultimately elected Obama. Candidate Obama's early and vocal opposition to the illegal, immoral and unconstitutional Iraq War inspired and animated both new-era bloggers and old-school precinct organizers, as did his call for health care for all, and pledges to revisit international trade agreements and to protect the environment.

Obama's slogan, "Change We Can Believe In," became such a powerful message that every candidate of every political party attempted to evoke it. The real and tangible demand for change allowed Democrats not only to take the White House, but also to win majorities in both the House and the Senate. It really was a watershed election.

For those committed to a fundamental transformation of society, however, this moment is not so much a victory as it is a possibility. It is our task to take advantage of the opportunity and outline what real change would look like.

Despite the excitement and energy created by Barack Obama, let us not forget that just over half of adult Americans actually voted in this election.

That sobering truth underscores the schizophrenic attitude many Americans have towards elections. Many social change agents in this country assert that voting is irrelevant as a tactic. Others act as if casting and counting ballots is the sum total of democracy.

Both perspectives are under- standable. They are both partly right, and therefore ultimately wrong.

Elections are certainly the place where the state legitimates itself. It is the time when most Americans actually pay attention to political ideas. Elections provide a time and a space to contest for ideas.

As such, it is no surprise that the ruling elite have done their best to create an election process that ensures that fundamental change is rarely an option at the ballot box.

If we are serious about creating an actual democracy—one in which "We the People" actually rule our own lives—voting should be understood as a mechanism to meaningfully participate in making the decisions that affect us.

That is why I proudly join the call for a broad and deep people's movement to "democratize" elections in this country. Only a powerful new voting rights movement can organize and exercise the political power it will take to implement the fundamental and systemic electoral reforms outlined below.

1. Count Every Vote

Sadly, there is a long and sordid history of election fraud in this country, perpetrated by members of both establishment political parties. In the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 millions of votes were simply not counted, allegedly undervotes, overvotes, or spoiled ballots. The uncounted votes came disproportionately from people of color, reminding us that voting problems are often indicative of the racial justice problem in this country.

To ensure an open and transparent system for counting votes, every ballot in the United States must be cast on an actual paper ballot. We should abolish so-called "Black Box" DRE voting machines and ensure that all voting machines incorporate "open source" code that is tested by an independent agency to guarantee transparent and fair counting.

To get involved in this effort, check out Verified Voting (

2. Implement Instant Runoff Voting (IRV)

IRV eliminates the so-called "spoiler" effect and guarantees an actual majority winner (as opposed to a winner that simply has 'the most votes'). Under IRV, voters rank candidates in order of their preference: first, second, third. If a candidate wins a majority of first choice votes, that candidate is the winner. If no candidate gets a majority of first choices, the lowest vote-getting candidate is eliminated. Votes for the eliminated candidates are transferred to the voter's second choice. Counting continues until a candidate receives a majority.

IRV also makes it possible to conduct the runoff count without the need for a separate and expensive runoff election, saving taxpayers millions of dollars. IRV is already in use around the world, including many cities in the United States.

To get involved in this effort, visit the people at FairVote (

3. Publicly Financed Elections

In a system where the amount of money a candidate spends is directly related to their likelihood of winning, it is not surprising that many people assume politicians are more concerned with big campaign contributors than with individual voters.

Corporate political contributions are most charitably thought of as "investments" for which the corporations receive obscene returns on their investment at the expense of the public good. More accurately, corporate political contributions are a form of legalized bribery.

We need to create a system of full public financing for all ballot-qualified candidates. We should require the broadcasting corp-orations that license our public airwaves to provide airtime for debates and free time for all ballot-qualified candidates and parties.

Elections are the infrastructure of our democracy. "We the People" must create and control that infrastructure.

To get involved in this effort, examine the work of Public Campaign (

4. Guarantee Equal Access to Elections and Debates

In our current electoral system, independent parties and independent candidates face a host of barriers designed to limit voter choice and voice.

Ballot access laws and exclusive debates prevent voters from hearing "other voices," which discourages voting and undermines the legitimacy of our elections. In most cases, the established parties have themselves not met the signature requirements they impose on independent parties.

We must eliminate prohibitive ballot access requirements, and replace the partisan Commission on Presidential Debates with a nonpartisan Citizens Debate Commission.

To get involved in these efforts, explore Ballot Access News ( and the Citizens Debate Commission (

5. Allow Former Felons to Vote

The permanent disenfranchisement of former felons, a practice that falls outside of international or even U.S. norms, is an unreasonable and dangerous penalty that weakens our democracy by creating a subclass of four million excluded American citizens. The practice has also been used to purge voter lists of hundreds of thousands of citizens never convicted of any felony. Because the criminal justice system disproportionately pen-alizes African American males, this disenfranchisement is racist in its impact and constitutionally suspect. Those states that permanently disenfranchise felons must amend their laws and practices to restore full citizenship to ex-offenders.

To get involved in this effort, look up The Sentencing Project, (

Note that these demands are both moral and pragmatic. They are moral because they are needed to fulfill the as yet unrealized promise of democracy in the United States.

They are pragmatic because each reform is concrete, tangible and achievable. Taken together, they can expand and deepen the meaning of elections and of democracy itself.

David Cobb was the Green Party candidate for President in 2004. He is a principal with the Program on Corporations, Law & Democracy (POCLAD) and an organizer with Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County (DUHC). He can be reached directly at

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Let Us Shed Tears of Gratitude for This Moment of Grace. It Will Be Brief

by Mike Ferner

My friend, Lucy Bohne, an English professor at a state college near Erie, Pennsylvania, wrote to her daughter in New York City the day after Barack Obama's victory. Lucy did a fine job describing how many people felt the day after the Senator's historic success at the nation's polls.

"Thank you for calling last night," Lucy wrote. "It sounded like NYC had gone mad with joy!

"I spent that night in a roller coaster of feeling, shadowed by despair, counting the days between your birth and MLK's murder -- twelve to be exact. It was a joy to realize that 40 years later your generation would hand the White House over to the leadership of a black American. That is an amazing thing!

"This amazing thing that happened in America, that only we as Americans can understand and share, won't make a difference to the world, to the children of Baghdad, Beirut, Gaza, Teheran, and all other places in the crosshairs of our guns, unless we make that difference. Might as well be brave and strong and admit that there is work to be done, struggles to embrace, disappointments to endure.

"But for the moment, let us shed tears of gratitude for this moment of grace. It will be brief. Love, Mom"

Considering that race has always been the subplot to the American story, many of us surely will "shed tears of gratitude for this moment of grace," no matter how brief.

As we move beyond today's fleeting joys, I will recall how often during this presidential campaign people asked if I thought an Obama administration would be a good thing. My response was always this: the best thing about an Obama victory would not be his policies. He's shown too often they differ little from the status quo. The best thing his campaign and election could do would be to inspire millions of people to become active, to expect more, to work long hours in the company of others toward something larger than ourselves. In short, his victory could fuel a sense of purpose among the people.

Then, if Obama's inspired grassroots campaigners discover in their hearts that citizen vigilance and organizing are every bit as important as elections; that creating democracy from the bottom up is more important than our quadrennial extravaganzas; that marginal change is permissible in our country, but fundamental change strikes fear and loathing; that investments of time and energy must continue long past election day's excitement; that we all need to hope less and demand more, only then will we see change significant enough to make Obama's election more than a historical footnote.

Who knows today what forces the hopes and dreams of this campaign may have unleashed? Who can say what historical events may unfold in the months ahead, or how far those events may take us if we make conditions right for their growth?

More importantly, when our moment of grace turns out to be too fleeting and we must regroup over and over again for the long haul, will these new, hopeful campaigners be savvy enough to overcome the American appetite for instant gratification that today comes only in shopping malls and headache remedies?

That, I believe, is the challenge faced by all of us who want schools and healthcare not empire and warfare; who want to "make a difference to the world, to the children in Baghdad, Beirut, Gaza, Teheran, and all the other places in the crosshairs of our guns."

It is a tall challenge indeed. But if we are not up to it, who is?

Mike Ferner is a principal with the Program on Corporations, Law & Democracy (POCLAD, President of Veterans for Peace, and author of Inside the Red Zone. He can be reached directly at

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