Steven Hill

The future of work is here — and disturbing surveillance is raising alarm bells

The future of work is here, ushered in by a global pandemic. But is it turning employment into a Worker’s Paradise of working at home? Or more of a Big Brother panopticon?

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Here Is a Bold Idea for Hillary - Voters Will Love It

Hillary Clinton is ahead in the polls, but it's more due to Donald Trump’s many blunders than excitement with Clinton. She is benefiting at the moment from being the anti-Trump, but her campaign is badly in need of a bold issue that fires the imagination of voters. Otherwise, if Trump stops the bloopers and regains his economic populism, this race could tighten very quickly.

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The 7 Biggest Myths and Lies About Social Security

The following is an excerpt from the new book Expand Social Security Now! by Steven Hill (Beacon Press, 2016): 

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Uber Is a Nightmare: They’re Selling a Big Lie and the New York Times Keeps Buying It

Uber has been slowly rolling out its latest “trust me, I’m saving the world” product, this one a service that allows its Uber-taxis to pick up multiple passengers in serial fashion. Much like a commercial airport shuttle, strangers share part of the same ride and pay a reduced fare for just their part of the ride. It’s called UberPool, as in carpool, and CEO Travis Kalanick touted its alleged environmental and labor positives in a recent interview with the New York Times, saying that “reducing traffic was part of Uber’s mission.” If true, this is a welcome change from the CEO whose previously stated mission was to flood the streets with Uber cars to win his war for market share with Big Taxi and ridesharing competitor Lyft.

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The 'Uber Model' Isn't Working: Why Silicon Valley's Dream of Destroying Your Job Won't Become Reality

The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo recently wrote an oddly lamenting piece about how “the Uber model, it turns out, doesn’t translate.” Manjoo describes how so many of the “Uber-of-X” companies that have sprung up as part of the so-called sharing economy have become just another way to deliver more expensively priced conveniences to those with enough money to pay. Ironically many of these Ayn Rand-inspired startups have been kept alive by subsidies of the venture capital kind which, for various reasons, are starting to dry up. Without that kind of “VC welfare,” these companies are having to raise their prices, and are finding it increasingly difficult to retain enough customers at the higher price point. Consequently, some of these startups are faltering; others are outright failing.

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The Sharing Economy? Or the Share-the-Crumbs Economy?

In the aftermath of the economic collapse in 2008, a significant factor in the decline of the quality of jobs in the United States, as well as in Europe has been employers’ increasing reliance on “non-regular” workers — a growing army of freelancers, temps, contractors, part-timers, day laborers, micro-entrepreneurs, gig-preneurs, solo-preneurs, contingent labor, perma-lancers and perma-temps. It’s practically a new taxonomy for a workforce that has become segmented into a dizzying assortment of labor categories. Even many full-time, professional jobs and occupations are experiencing this precarious shift.

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Airbnb Is Contributing to the Displacement of Long-Term Tenants in San Francisco

The following is an excerpt from the new book  Raw Deal by Steven Hill (St. Martin's Press, 2015): 

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America Ranks 98th in the World? The Shocking Dismal Number of Women in Elected Office

This article originally appeared in The Nation, and is reprinted here with their permission.

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Don't Cut Social Security -- Double It

This article originally appeared at The Atlantic.

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Why America Can't Pass Gun Control

This article originally appeared at The Atlantic.

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Why on Earth Would Americans Vote the Old Bush-Cheney Agenda Back into Power? Europeans Are Perplexed

For several weeks before the recent U.S. election, there was much nervous speculation among Europeans as they watched the fluctuations of the poll numbers.  Now that the results are in, Europeans are perplexed by this turn back toward the politics of the Bush-Cheney era.

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The China Superpower Hoax

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Five Lies About the European Economy Debunked

In the global economy, today's winners can become tomorrow's losers in a twinkling, and vice versa. Not so long ago, American pundits and economic analysts were snidely touting U.S. economic superiority to the "sick old man" of Europe. What a difference a few months can make. Today, with the stock market jittery over Iraq, the mortgage crisis, huge budget and trade deficits, and declining growth in productivity, investors are wringing their hands about the U.S. economy. Meanwhile, analysts point to the roaring economies of China and India as the only bright spots on the global horizon.

But what about Europe? You may be surprised to learn how our estranged transatlantic partner has been faring during these roller-coaster times -- and how successfully it has been knocking down the Europessimist myths about it.

1. The sclerotic European economy is incapable of leading the world.

Who're you calling sclerotic? The European Union's $16 trillion economy has been quietly surging for some time and has emerged as the largest trading bloc in the world, producing nearly a third of the global economy. That's more than the U.S. economy (27 percent) or Japan's (9 percent). Despite all the hype, China is still an economic dwarf, accounting for less than 6 percent of the world's economy. India is smaller still.

The European economy was never as bad as the Europessimists made it out to be. From 2000 to 2005, when the much-heralded U.S. economic recovery was being fueled by easy credit and a speculative housing market, the 15 core nations of the European Union had per capita economic growth rates equal to that of the United States. In late 2006, they surpassed us. Europe added jobs at a faster rate, had a much lower budget deficit than the United States and is now posting higher productivity gains and a $3 billion trade surplus.

2. Nobody wants to invest in European companies and economies because lack of competitiveness makes them a poor bet.

Wrong again. Between 2000 and 2005, foreign direct investment in the E.U. 15 was almost half the global total, and investment returns in Europe outperformed those in the United States. "Old Europe is an investment magnet because it is the most lucrative market in the world in which to operate," says Dan O'Brien of the Economist. In fact, corporate America is a huge investor in Europe; U.S. companies' affiliates in the E.U. 15 showed profits of $85 billion in 2005, far more than in any other region of the world and 26 times more than the $3.3 billion they made in China.

And forget that old canard about economic competitiveness. According to the World Economic Forum's measure of national competitiveness, European countries took the top four spots, seven of the top 10 spots and 12 of the top 20 spots in 2006-07. The United States ranked sixth. India ranked 43rd and mainland China 54th.

3. Europe is the land of double-digit unemployment.

Not anymore. Half of the E.U. 15 nations have experienced effective full employment during this decade, and unemployment rates have been the same as or lower than the rate in the United States. Unemployment for the entire European Union, including the still-emerging nations of Central and Eastern Europe, stands at a historic low of 6.7 percent. Even France, at 8 percent, is at its lowest rate in 25 years.

That's still higher than U.S. unemployment, which is 4.6 percent, but let's not forget that many of the jobs created here pay low wages and include no benefits. In Europe, the jobless still have access to health care, generous replacement wages, job-retraining programs, housing subsidies and other benefits. In the United States, by contrast, the unemployed can end up destitute and marginalized.

4. The European "welfare state" hamstrings businesses and hurts the economy.

Beware of stereotypes based on ideological assumptions. As Europe's economy has surged, it has maintained fairness and equality. Unlike in the United States, with its rampant inequality and lack of universal access to affordable health care and higher education, Europeans have harnessed their economic engine to create wealth that is broadly distributed.

Europeans still enjoy universal cradle-to-grave social benefits in many areas. They get quality health care, paid parental leave, affordable childcare, paid sick leave, free or nearly free higher education, generous retirement pensions and quality mass transit. They have an average of five weeks of paid vacation (compared with two for Americans) and a shorter work week. In some European countries, workers put in one full day less per week than Americans do, yet enjoy the same standard of living.

Europe is more of a "workfare state" than a welfare state. As one British political analyst said to me recently: "Europe doesn't so much have a welfare society as a comprehensive system of institutions geared toward keeping everyone healthy and working." Properly understood, Europe's economy and social system are two halves of a well-designed "social capitalism" -- an ingenious framework in which the economy finances the social system to support families and employees in an age of globalized capitalism that threatens to turn us all into internationally disposable workers. Europeans' social system contributes to their prosperity, rather than detracting from it, and even the continent's conservative political leaders agree that it is the best way.

5. Europe is likely to be held hostage to its dependence on Russia and the Middle East for most of its energy needs.

Crystal-ball gazing on this front is risky. Europe may rely on energy from Russia and the Middle East for some time, but it is also leading the world in reducing its energy dependence and in taking action to counteract global climate change. In March, the heads of all 27 E.U. nations agreed to make renewable energy sources 20 percent of the union's energy mix by 2020 and to cut carbon emissions by 20 percent.

In pursuit of these goals, the continent's landscape is slowly being transformed by high-tech windmills, massive solar arrays, tidal power stations, hydrogen fuel cells and energy-saving "green" buildings. Europe has gone high- and low-tech: It's developing not only mass public transit and fuel-efficient vehicles but also thousands of kilometers of bicycle and pedestrian paths to be used by people of all ages. Europe's ecological "footprint," the amount of the Earth's capacity that a population consumes, is about half that of the United States.

So much for the sick old man.

AlterNet is making this material available in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107: This article is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.

End Lifetime Appointments

Should U.S. Supreme Court justices serve life terms? The question is raised whenever there is a vacancy on the Court. At 50 years of age, Judge John Roberts -- President Bush's Supreme Court nominee -- could serve for decades.

Perhaps more than any single factor, this "until death do we part" constitutional requirement has been responsible for bruising confirmation battles. On the partisan chessboard, nailing down one of nine Supreme Court spots is a major victory.

But a survey of judicial appointment practices in other democracies suggests there may be better methods for selecting the U.S. Supreme Court. For instance, some democracies employ judicial term limits. High court justices in Germany are limited to a 12-year term, and in France, Italy and Spain, a 9-year term.

There's American precedent for judicial term limits, with judges on the U.S. Court of Federal Claims limited to 15-year terms. Also, members of the Federal Reserve Board, shielded from politics because they oversee the nation's economy, serve 14-year terms, with their Chairman Alan Greenspan appointed for a four-year term.

Some nations require that high court justices retire at a certain age. In Israel and Australia that age is 70; in Canada it's 75. A few American states also have established a retirement age for judges: 70 years in Minnesota and Missouri. If that age limit were applied to the current Supreme Court, three justices would have retired already, with two more stepping down next year.

Interestingly, for America's first 20 years Supreme Court justices averaged 13 years in service. But between 1989 and 2000, the average term for Supreme Court justices doubled, to about 26 years. Two current justices have been on the high court for more than 30 years, including the Chief Justice. In recent years, the average retirement age has risen from 67.6 years to 78.8 years, according to Northwestern University law professors Steven Calabresi and James Lindgren.

Beyond judicial term limits and a mandatory retirement age, it's also worth considering multiple appointing authorities. In France, Germany and Italy, no single person or institution has a monopoly on appointments to the constitutional court. In Spain, four judges are appointed by the upper-house, four by the lower house, two by the government, and two by a Judges Council.

Bipartisan appointments also hold promise. The Senate might review only nominees proposed through a bipartisan selection procedure. As a step in that direction, one option is to require a confirmation vote of 60 Senators instead of a simple majority. Since no one party usually would have 60 votes that would nudge the parties towards bipartisan consensus.

Requiring 60 votes also would be an acknowledgement of how distorted is representation in the U.S Senate. Out of 100 senators, only 14 are women and five are racial minorities. But they aren't the only constituencies underrepresented in the Senate.

According to Professor Matthew Shugart of the University of California-San Diego, for the past three election cycles more than 200 million votes were cast in races electing our 100 senators. Republicans won 46.8 percent of the votes in these elections -- not a majority. The Democrats won more votes, 48.4 percent. Yet the GOP currently holds a lopsided 55 to 44 majority. In 2004, Democratic senatorial candidates won over 51 percent of the votes cast, yet Republicans won 19 of 34 (56 percent) contested seats. So the minority party holds a majority of Senate seats.

This GOP over-representation is due to Republican success in low-population, conservative states in the West and South that are given the same representation -- two senators per state -- as high-population states like California. The 52 senators confirming Clarence Thomas in 1991 represented only 48.6 percent of the nation's population, showing that senators representing a minority of voters can confirm a justice for life. A body as unrepresentative as the United States Senate should not be confirming lifetime appointments, especially by simple majority vote.

Defenders of the status quo undoubtedly will view any tampering as an assault on judicial independence. But the bitter partisanship of the current process has deeply undercut all notions of justice and fairness.

Judicial term limits, mandatory retirement ages, higher confirmation thresholds and multiple appointing and confirming authorities would help to decrease the politicization, create a modest amount of turnover and ensure that one party doesn't monopolize the process. In these times of extreme partisan polarization, that would be good for America.

The Mainstream Crying For Election Reform

The day following Election 2004, retiring NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw indicated the need for strong national standards in how we count the votes. In an unusually serious interview with David Letterman, Brokaw said point blank, "We've gotta fix the election system in this country."

In a message to supporters, former presidential candidate John Kerry echoed this sentiment, calling for new "national standards" for elections and saying "It's unacceptable that people still don't have full confidence in the integrity of the voting process." In Ohio, Reverend Jesse Jackson also called for reform, emphasizing the need for a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote, a right guaranteed by most established democracies. Every returning member of the Congressional Black Caucus has signed onto Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr's HJR 28 to provide a constitutional right to vote.

The 2004 elections underscore the urgent demand to modernize our elections and bring them in line with international norms. Without such modernization, we will fail to establish a vital democracy and remain vulnerable to electoral breakdowns.

Consider these reforms:

1) Non-partisan election officials. At the top of the list must be nonpartisan election officials. It hardly matters whether the method of voting is with paper and pen or open-source computerized equipment if election administrators are not trustworthy. The secretaries of state overseeing elections in three battleground states – Ohio, Missouri, and Michigan – were co-chairs of their state's George Bush reelection campaigns. In Missouri, that Secretary of State was running for governor – he oversaw elections for his own race! A highly partisan Republican Secretary of State ran elections in Florida, as did a partisan Democrat in New Mexico. A Mexican observer of the 2004 election commented, "That looks an awful lot like the old Mexican PRI to me." Election administrators should be civil servants who have a demonstrated proficiency with technology, running elections, and making the electoral process transparent and secure.

2) National elections commission. The U.S. leaves election administration to administrators in over 3000 counties scattered across the nation with too few standards or uniformity. This is a formula for unfair elections. Most established democracies use national elections commissions to establish minimum national standards and uniformity, and to partner with state and local election officials to ensure pre-election and post-election accountability for their election plans. The Elections Assistance Commission established recently by the Help America Vote Act is a pale version of this and should be strengthened greatly.

3) Universal voter registration. We lack a system of universal voter registration in which citizens who turn 18 years of age automatically are registered to vote by election authorities. This is the practice used by most established democracies, giving them voter rolls far more complete and clean than ours – in fact, a higher percentage of Iraqi adults are registered to vote than American adults. Universal voter registration in the U.S. is now possible as result of the Help America Vote Act which mandated that all states must establish statewide voter databases by 2006. It would add 50 million voters to the rolls, a disproportionate share being young people and people of color.

4) "Public Interest" voting equipment. Currently voting equipment is suspect, undermining confidence in our elections. The proprietary software and hardware are created by shadowy companies with partisan ties who sell equipment by wining and dining election administrators with little knowledge of voting technology. The government should oversee the development of publicly-owned software and hardware, contracting with the sharpest minds in the private sector. And then that open-source voting equipment should be deployed throughout the nation to ensure that every county – and every voter – is using the best equipment. Other nations already do this with positive results.

5) Holiday/weekend elections. We vote on a busy workday instead of on a national holiday or weekend (like most other nations do), creating a barrier for 9 to 5 workers and also leading to a shortage of poll workers and polling places. Puerto Rico typically has the highest voter turnout in the United States, and makes Election Day a holiday.

6) Ending redistricting shenanigans by adopting full representation. Most legislators choose their voters during the redistricting process, long before those voters get to choose them. 98% of U.S. House incumbents again won re-election, and 95% of all races were won by noncompetitive margins. The driving factor is not campaign finance inequities but winner-take-all elections compounded by rigged legislative district lines. As a start, redistricting must be non-partisan, driven by nonpolitical criteria. But by far the best solution is full representation electoral systems which make voters far more important than district lines.

7) Abolish the Electoral College. The Electoral College enables presidential campaigns to almost completely ignore most states. It allows a shift of a handful of votes in one or two states to decide the presidency, inviting corruption and partisan election administration. It can deny the presidency to the candidate with the most votes. We need to support Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr's HR 109, to institute direct election of the president with a majority victory threshold.

8) Pry open our democracy. Our "highest vote-getter wins" method of electing executive offices creates incentives to keep third-party candidates off the ballot as potential spoilers. Battles over Ralph Nader's ballot access demonstrated that our system is not designed to accommodate three or more choices, yet important policy areas can be completely ignored by major party candidates. Most modern democracies accommodate voter choice through two-round runoff or instant runoff elections for executive offices, and full representation electoral systems for legislatures. Instant runoff voting had a great first election in San Francisco this November and passed in other places like Burlington, Vermont and Ferndale, Michigan.

A number of organizations are highlighting reform packages, among them Progressive Democrats of America and Common Cause. We can't win all these reforms at once, but we can make advances if we keep our eye on the prize and pursue opportunities that emerge. We urge people to visit FairVote's website at fairvote.org to find out how to get involved. Whether you're a Democrat, Republican, Green, Libertarian or independent, you can be part of one big party: the "Better Democracy" party.

A Safe Seat for Twenty Grand

What if you could pay $20,000, and for that modest sum end up with lifetime employment at a salary of $158,000 annually, with the best health and retirement benefits, frequent travel to Washington D.C., and staff and paid expenses, all on the public's dime? What a deal, eh?

As the most recent election results show, that's the situation for California's congressional delegation as a result of gerrymandering their own legislative district lines. The 2001 redistricting in California was a travesty. The Democratic incumbents paid $20,000 apiece to the political consultant drawing the district lines – who happened to be the brother of one incumbent – to draw each of them a "safe seat" where they would easily win re-election. It was like paying protection money to a Mafia don for your turf. Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, knowing a bargain, told a reporter, "Twenty thousand is nothing to keep your seat. I usually spend $2 million every election."

Then, to the dismay of national Democrats, the California Democrats controlling the line-drawing gave the GOP incumbents safe seats too, in return for their acceptance. The fix was in. It was a bipartisan collusion against California democracy and the voters. And it worked. In the recent November election, 51 out of 53 congressional seats were won by huge landslide margins.

The Democrats also drew safe seats for the state senate and assembly districts. Those resulted in 90 percent of state legislative races won by landslide margins in the recent election. The incumbents literally did away with most legislative elections in California. Forget about "money buying elections," most elections are decided during the line-rigging process, when the politicians use sophisticated computers to handpick their voters before voters pick them.

But that's not all. This backroom redistricting has produced a government where hard-core partisans dominate the legislature and fewer moderates get elected. It has exacerbated a red vs. blue California marked by regional balkanization, where the high population coastal blue areas are dominated by Democrats and the low population Red interior by Republicans. Not that there aren't Democrats in red areas and Republicans in blue areas – as well as independents and third party supporters – it's just that they rarely win representation. Purple California gets smothered in the zero-sum game of winner-take-all elections.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Republican recall activist Ted Costa and others have proposed taking redistricting out of the hands of a partisan legislature. This makes sense, but the devil is in the details. For instance, the Costa initiative would immediately reopen redistricting instead of waiting until the end of this decade, as is customary. And it would create an unwieldy process that requires any redistricting plan to receive voter approval. This is a formula for bitter partisan battles that will disrupt the remainder of the decade.

More importantly, even the best-intentioned "public interest redistricting" will have limited impact in addressing redistricting's many ills. Because at the end of the day the problem is not just who draws the legislative lines, it's our antiquated, single-seat district, winner-take-all system.

The Democratic vote has become so highly urbanized and concentrated that even the fairest redistricting will make only a handful of districts more competitive. And there is a tradeoff between making more seats competitive and allowing "communities of interest" such as minorities to elect their chosen representative. Winner-take-all elections pit everyone against each other – Democrats, Republicans, independents, different racial groups – all trying to win a limited commodity – representation.

So what can be done? Political scientist Arend Lijphart from University of California-San Diego says "the best solution is to evolve from winner-take-all elections toward some moderate form of proportional representation." For example, in the state senate, instead of electing 40 individual district seats we could elect 10 districts with four seats each, elected by a proportional method where a party's candidates wins legislative seats in proportion to their percentage of the popular vote. Twenty percent of the vote wins one seat, 60 percent wins three seats, and so on.

According to Professor Lijphart, that would make all parts of the state competitive for both major parties, occasionally even a third party. Rural areas would elect some Democrats and coastal areas some Republicans. And moderates and independents running grass roots campaigns outside party machines would get elected. Purple California would have a voice. Illinois' state legislature has used such a system, and their experience shows it's a better way to foster competitive elections, elect more moderates, reduce balkanization and provide minority representation.

If Governor Schwarzenegger and others really want to do something about the ills of redistricting, simply changing who draws the district lines won't accomplish much. It's necessary to get rid of California's antiquated winner-take-all system, and adopt some version of the more modern proportional representation system.

How to Handle Nader

In 2000, Al Gore beat George W. Bush in the state of New Mexico by a mere 356 votes – a slimmer margin than in Florida. Ralph Nader polled 21,000 votes. Nader not only nearly cost Gore the state, but forced him to expend valuable resources there in the campaign's waning days, draining his effort from Florida.

Flash forward to 2004. Once again the Democratic and Republican candidates are locked in a tight race nationally. Once again Nader's entry into the race threatens Kerry's hold on New Mexico. And once again two candidates who share many views and bases of support – and who ideally could work together to challenge George Bush on the economy, the war in Iraq, the future of social security, the environment, political reform and health care – instead are players in a Cain and Abel drama, courtesy of the all-or-nothing, winner-take-all nature of our presidential election method.

Yet there is a way out – if New Mexico Democrats decide they want one. Democrats control New Mexico's state legislature, and one of Kerry's leading vice-presidential contenders, Bill Richardson, is governor. Democrats could pass into law – right now – a runoff or instant runoff system with a majority requirement for president to ensure that the center-left does not split its vote between Kerry and Nader.

Here's how. The Constitution mandates the antiquated Electoral College system for electing the president, in which there is a series of elections in the fifty states and the District of Columbia rather than one national election. But the Constitution specifically delegates to states the method of choosing its electors. States historically have used a variety of different approaches, including letting the state legislature appoint electors, as threatened by Florida Republicans in 2000. Nebraska and Maine, for example, award two electoral votes to the winner of the statewide vote and one vote to the winner of the popular vote in each congressional district (a flawed approach that would boost Republicans if in place nationally).

The remaining states use a statewide winner-take-all plurality method where the highest vote-getter wins 100 percent of that state's electoral votes, even if that candidate wins less than a popular majority. With plurality voting, a majority of voters can split their vote among two or more candidates and end up winning nothing. Indeed because of the presence of Nader and other candidates like Pat Buchanan, nine states in 2000 awarded all their electoral votes to a candidate who did not win a popular majority. Fully 49 of 50 states were won without a majority in 1992. It is the lack of a majority requirement that leads Nader and Kerry forces to clash so bitterly.

To be sure, Republicans may cry foul if New Mexico Democrats suddenly switch to a runoff system, but even if Democrats' action is self-interested, it's also in the public interest to protect majority rule and allow for voter choice. One approach would be to adopt a runoff system similar to that used in most presidential elections around the world, most southern primaries and many local elections: A first round with all candidates would take place in New Mexico in early October. The top two finishers would face off in November, with the winner certain to have a majority.

Better still would be to adopt instant runoff voting (IRV). Used in Ireland and Australia and recently adopted for city elections in San Francisco and for congressional and gubernatorial nominations by the Utah Republican Party, IRV has drawn support from Howard Dean, Jesse Jackson Jr. and John McCain. By allowing voters to rank the candidates (for example, a 1 for Ralph Nader and a 2 for John Kerry), IRV can resolve the spoiler problem. Voters are liberated to vote for their favorite candidate without helping to elect their least favorite. IRV also saves candidates the campaign costs of a runoff election and preserves more voter choice in the decisive November election when voter turnout is highest.

New Mexico's state senate in fact already passed IRV legislation in 1999 in the wake of Democrats losing two congressional seats due in part to Green Party candidacies. Despite support from the AFL-CIO and Common Cause, the proposal died because of concerns about costs of implementing it and because some Democrats would rather destroy Greens than allow for co-existence.

Democrats also call the shots in the presidential battleground states of Maine, West Virginia and Tennessee. With one vote of the legislature and a stroke of the governor's pen, these states could accommodate the reality of the Nader candidacy. The question is: What is stopping them?

While Ralph Nader may be ready to risk a repeat of 2000 – and could do much more to make multi-party democracy a viable option by highlighting reforms such as IRV – most Greens don't want to be spoilers. They consistently support reforming winner-take-all elections, and their presidential frontrunner David Cobb promises to focus this fall on safe states, in recognition of Greens' interest in defeating George Bush. But only Democrats and Republicans have the power to change the rules of the game.

Democrats' failure to use that power poses the question: Would they rather engage in name-calling and suppressing candidacies, even at the risk of costing themselves the presidential election, than allow new political voices to join the fray? More people, Democrats and non-Democrats alike, should begin asking party leaders: Why not IRV?

Dropping Out of the Electoral College

Every presidential election matters, but 2004 has particular significance. Re-election of George W. Bush with the return of Republican majorities in the U.S. Senate and House could tip the ideological balance of the Supreme Court and federal courts for a generation. It could trigger a wave of Democratic retirements in the House that might cement Republican domination on Capitol Hill for decades. It could unleash a wave of hard-right policy initiatives.

So everyone should be involved, right? In a democracy, it's one person, one vote?

There's just one problem: that's not the way we elect the president. We cling to a thoroughly outmoded Electoral College that divides us along regional lines, undercuts accountability, dampens voter participation and can undermine legitimacy when the electoral vote trumps the national popular vote. As the bumper sticker notes, Democrats have to RE-defeat Bush this year because the Electoral College denied Al Gore's popular vote advantage of a half-million votes in 2000.

Instead of a simple national election, we hold 51 separate contests in the states and the District of Columbia, with each state having a number of electoral votes equal to its number of U.S. Senators and House members (ranging from three electoral votes in the states with the fewest people to 55 electoral votes in California). This arrangement awards more electoral votes per capita to low population states which tend to be conservative, giving Republican candidates an unfair advantage. It's like having a foot race where one side starts10 yards ahead of the other.

A presidential candidate needs to receive the highest number of votes in the right combination of states to win a majority of the Electoral College vote.The perverse incentives created by this method are painfully obvious from this year's campaign – most states already are effectively ignored by the candidates and groups seeking to mobilize voters because in a competitive national race, most states are dominated by one party or the other. Most campaign focus and energy – and increasingly, even the candidates' messages for how they plan to govern – are pitched to undecided swing voters in the key battleground states. If you feel like your issues and concerns are being ignored, chances are it's because you live in the wrong state and/or are not part of the faceless slice of undecided swing voters.

The Electoral College's democratic deficit is compounded by the use of plurality elections – the candidate with the most votes wins 100 percent of the electoral votes from that state, even if less than a majority. Plurality elections mean that a popular majority can be fractured by the presence of a third party candidate. Far more than any ballot corruption in Florida, Al Gore was hurt by the nearly hundred thousand voters in Florida who supported Ralph Nader.

So what can be done? Over the years, leading national political figures like Strom Thurmond, Orrin Hatch, Ted Kennedy, Kweisi Mfume, Hillary Clinton and John McCain have supported approaches to amend, reform or scrap the Electoral College. The time has come to institute a national direct election.

While there are serious proposals that would keep the Electoral College, fundamentally, the only transparent solution to this anti-democratic mess is to have "one person, one vote" jall across the nation. Every American voter should count as much as every other voter; it shouldn't depend on where you live. All would have the same incentive to vote, no matter your postal address.

There are important questions to resolve for a nationwide direct election, however. One of them is related to our antiquated plurality tradition where the highest vote-getter wins, even if less than a majority. This has happened in several gubernatorial elections in the past decade. That possibility occurring for a nationwide presidential election presents problems of legitimacy.

To prevent this problem, most direct election amendments call for a second "runoff" election between the top two finishers if no candidate receives at least 40 percent of the vote. But 40 percent is an arbitrary standard that is too low for winning our highest office. A strong leader should be able to reach out effectively to enough voters to command majority support.

Two-round runoffs also pose problems. Candidates would have to scramble for extra cash to run a second campaign, and additional costs to election officials for a nationwide election could be a half billion dollars. And voters would have to trudge out to the polls one more time.

Rather than mandate a low 40 percent threshold and two rounds of voting, any amendment to the Constitution should allow electoral mechanisms to determine a majority winner in a single election, such as instant runoff voting. IRV simulates a two-round runoff in one election by allowing voters to rank their "runoff" choices along with their first choice, 1, 2, 3. Instead of having a second election, ballot-counters use the rankings to determine the runoff choices of those voters whose first choice failed to advance to the runoff. The system is used for major elections in Great Britain, Australia and Ireland, and this year in such diverse settings as the Utah Republican Party state convention and city elections in San Francisco.

With large majorities of Americans against the Electoral College, Democrats have nothing to fear in picking up on Hillary Clinton's call in November 2000 for a constitutional amendment for direct election. And they have much to gain: a unique opportunity to end an anti-democratic, 18th-century anachronism.

Ensuring a Fair Presidential Election

Many pundits and activists have finally figured out what political insiders always knew: our presidential election is not a national election at all. The battle for chief executive will be fought in 15 battleground states, none either solidly Republican red or Democratic blue, each fought as individual contests that will be too close to call. This political geography presents important lessons for partisans and reformers alike.

In a likely replay of the 2000 election, the battleground states are Florida (of course), Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, West Virginia, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Arizona. Some add Louisiana, Tennessee and Nevada, making 18 states.

These states' concerns will drive much of the campaign debate. Those in the Midwest's rust belt have been hit hard by job losses, particularly in well-paying manufacturing jobs, making states like Ohio competitive. More Latino voters in New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada create dilemmas for Republicans on issues like immigration. With the prominence of Florida and its senior citizens, we'll hear a lot about Medicare and Social Security. And don't expect John Kerry to highlight gun control or other pet liberal issues when the almighty swing voters in battleground states mostly oppose them.

Key issues of concern to those in other states -- even large states like Texas, New York, Illinois and California -- will get short shrift because they are not in play. Just as in our largely non-competitive congressional races, most Americans effectively will be on the political sidelines.

But that doesn't mean those voters can't be involved in certain ways. They can make sure friends and relatives in the battleground states are registered to vote. They can hold house parties to raise campaign cash for the close states. Some might even be able to travel to a nearby battleground state and volunteer.

Most immediately, voters everywhere can highlight the need for fair elections. With the two sides so close, we could be looking at another "Florida" happening in any number of battleground states, perhaps in several of them. The political geography of battleground states allows the presidential candidates to target not only their resources and campaigning -- but also their attempts to steal the election. Changing the results in one battleground state, particularly a large state like Ohio or Pennsylvania, will make a difference in the outcome.

So advocates of fair elections similarly must target our efforts to lessen the chance of another Florida happening. That means working in the 15 battleground states with civic groups like People for the American Way, the League of Women Voters and Advancement Project to:

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The Challenges to Creating a New Democratic Majority

In their recently acclaimed book, The Emerging Democratic Majority, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira make the case that long-term demographic trends favor the Democratic Party. Given the electoral letdown suffered by the Democratic Party in the 2002 and 2000 elections, and also throughout the 1990s as the Democrats lost control of the Congress and the presidency, Judis and Teixeira's themes have offered a ray of hope in a dismal political landscape.

But a stable Democratic majority in the Congress or the Presidency is not likely to emerge anytime soon, and here's why: Because even if Judis and Teixeira are correct that the demographics are shifting toward the Democratic side, structurally our 18th century winner-take-all political system will continue to favor conservatives and the Republican Party. Unless confronted by reformers, that structural bias trumps the shifting demographics.

Electoral battles for the House, the Senate and the presidency are fought out district by district and state by state in winner-take-all contests -- not on a national basis. So the national polls on which Judis and Teixeira rely for their analysis are less and less meaningful.

The problem is where Democrats and Republicans live. Democrats tend to live heavily concentrated in the Blue America urban areas, with Republicans more evenly dispersed in the Red America rural areas as well as suburban areas. The fact is, when the national vote is tied, Republicans still win a healthy majority of Congressional seats.

Indeed in 2000, even as Al Gore beat George Bush by a half-million votes, and the combined center-left Gore-Nader vote had an even bigger lead, Bush beat Gore in 227 out of 435 U.S. House districts and in 30 out of 50 states. New U.S. House districts are even more lopsided, with Bush's advantage now rising to 237 to 198. It's no coincidence that Republicans currently hold 229 U.S. House seats.

An issue like gun control is a great example. National polls have shown for some time that, nationally, the public wants gun control. But that doesn't make a bit of difference, because most of those people who want gun control live in states and congressional districts that already are locked up for the Democratic Party, particularly in the urban areas of Blue America. What matters are the battleground states (for the presidency and Senate) and battleground congressional districts (for the Congress), and those electorates either don't care as much about gun control or actively oppose it. In the aftermath of Election 2000, many Democrats now believe that Gore's pre-campaign support for gun control may have cost him such rural states as West Virginia, Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio, Arkansas and his own state, Tennessee.

Even if there are more Democratic voters, to make a difference they need to be moving into areas now held by Republicans, not into current Democratic strongholds. If the "Democratic majority" emerges mostly in states and districts where Democrats already are strong, it just increases their winning majorities in those areas -- without changing the outcome of presidential winners or congressional majorities. If it occurs in states and districts where it's not enough to overcome safe Republican majorities, again no electoral results will change. Ultimately it will take a supermajority of Democratic voters to win a bare majority of Democratic seats -- particularly progressive Democratic seats.

Also, the distortions resulting from the redrawing of legislative district lines can turn a statewide partisan majority into a minority of legislative seats, and Republicans seem more conniving and successful at this backroom dealing. For instance, Virginia Democrats in 2001 won their first gubernatorial race since 1989, but Republicans went from barely controlling the statehouse to a two-thirds majority. How? Republicans drew the district lines. In Florida, Democrats were strong enough to hold both U.S. Senate seats and gain a virtual tie in the presidential race, but with full control over redistricting Republicans went from a 15-8 edge in U.S. House seats to an overwhelming 18 to 7 advantage. Republicans also have won lopsided shares of seats in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania due to control over redistricting, and now the Tom DeLay-led GOP in Texas is seeking to re-redistrict their House districts to pick up another 5 to 7 seats.

Moreover, the Democrats did not leave themselves very many opportunities for retaking House seats. In states like California, where the Democrats controlled redistricting, they opted to protect their incumbents rather than try to gobble up more seats as the GOP has done in other states.

Teixeira and Judis try to account for these factors to some degree on pages 69-72 of their book, but their analysis of this is brief, overly optimistic, and unconvincing. Also, they and others point to the increasing migration of Latinos to the heartland, as well as states like California, Florida, and Texas, as a trend that will overturn the Republican applecart. Certainly, the Latinization of the U.S. is one of the "hopeful" scenarios, but the horizon for that is more like 20 years, not ten.

Similar arguments also can be made for the presidential election, which is won or lost in a handful of battleground states, and the U.S. Senate. Both of these have a structural bias that awards more per capita representation to low-population states, which in turn favors the Republican Party and its candidates, and will tend to frustrate any emerging Democratic majority.

Thus, due to the distortions, peculiarities, and the lack of proportionality built into our 18th-century winner take all, geographic-based, political system, winning a majority of votes does NOT necessarily mean you end up with a majority of seats. Winner-take-all means "if I win, you lose," and in that zero sum game the Democrats will continue to come out on the short end of the stick. The Republican Party and its think tanks seem to understand this much better than the Democrats.

Relying on our analysis, one can make a strong case that the hope for the Democratic Party lies in enacting full representation electoral systems. With full representation (also known as proportional representation), the Democrats as well as the Republicans will win their fair share of legislative seats that matches their proportion of the popular vote. Redistricting and demographic trends will not distort outcomes and produce such exaggerated results. Only with full representation systems will the types of demographic shifts identified by Judis and Teixeira, that perhaps over time should favor an emerging Democratic majority, ever have a chance to win at the ballot box.

Steven Hill is a senior analyst at the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org) and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics," which is out in paperback this month (www.FixingElections.com). Rob Richie is executive director of the Center.

For more information about CVD's upcoming national conference, "Claim Democracy," November 22-23 in Washington, D.C., backed by a broad range of pro-democracy groups, visit www.democracyusa.org/events/conference.html.

The co-authors of this article, Steven Hill and Rob Richie, are both with the Center for Voting and Democracy. Steve is the author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics" (Routledge Press, www.FixingElections.com), and Rob and Steve are co-authors of Whose Vote Counts (Beacon Press, 2001).

The Ups and Downs of European Politics

Several months ago, American media outlets were sounding shrill alarms over the rise of the far right in Europe. But recent election results in Germany, Sweden, Austria, and elsewhere reveal that the panic button was pushed prematurely.

In Germany, the largest economy in Europe, the red-green coalition of Social Democrats and the Green Party eked out a close victory in September. In Sweden, the ruling Social Democrats scored an unexpected victory, handily beating the predictions. Recent elections saw center-left governments take the reins in Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.

Meanwhile, the fortunes of the far right have fallen on harder times. Following the media frenzy over France's Jean-Marie Le Pen making the runoff in their presidential election, his party failed to win a single seat in the National Assembly races. In Austria, the bogeyman of Europe who started the far-right alarm, Jorg Haider of the Freedom Party, saw his party plummet. After a stunning upset in the Netherlands for the assassinated Pim Fortuyn's party, bickering internal politics led to its collapse and Fortuyn's party is expected to virtually disappear when new elections are held on Jan. 22.

So the scary forecasts of the American media were overblown considerably. But this is not that unusual. Unfortunately American reportage on Europe often is fraught with half-truths and Hogan's Heroes stereotyping. And this in turn has led to profound misunderstandings between the two continents.

For instance, rarely do American journalists point out that Europeans still enjoy free health care for all, cradle to grave; free education through university level; comparatively generous retirement for their elderly; an average of five weeks paid annual vacation, more sick leave, parental leave, and a shorter work week with comparable wages for their workers (French workers, with their 35-hour work week, work nearly a full day less per week than American workers, who now work on average 42 hours per week). Social spending in Europe runs some 50 percent above that in the United States. Environmental, food safety and labor laws are the envy of activists in the U.S.

In fact, what was lost upon the U.S. media is that the leaders and political parties known as the "far right" in Europe for the most part do not seek to overturn the European social state or its proactive government regulation. On the contrary, they accept its existence to a degree even the Democratic Party doesn't accept today. In some countries the far right parties attained their recent electoral successes by defending the welfare state that the center-left parties had been rolling back the last few years. Their leaders called for things like a re-commitment to quality public health care, elderly care, mass transit, subsidized housing, and the protection of the public pension and education systems.

Thus, in many respects, Europe's multiparty politics do not fit the old left-right axis typically employed by American journalists. It's comparing apples and oranges. Yet American media routinely fail to distinguish these unique political characteristics of the European landscape. Instead, much ink dwells on the very real anti-immigrant sentiment that, while cause for concern, is hardly unique to Europe.

The two sides of the Atlantic both are founded on their own variant of capitalism, but in crucial ways follow different social models. The United States is noted for our freewheeling, free enterprise economics, while Europe's social democracies seek to regulate capitalism for the general welfare and to spread the benefits around. While American observers tend to disparage the constraints on growth and higher unemployment that may result from the European model, Europeans scratch their heads over America's income inequalities, our consumerism, and our readiness to sacrifice the social contract for individual material gain.

The net result is that neither side knows each other terribly well. And yet, in this age of globalization, never has it been more important that we learn to cooperate on issues of security, trade, human rights, and the global environment. The European and American nations share much in common. Hopefully we can learn more about those mutual aspects, and get past media stereotypes that perpetuate trans-Atlantic misunderstanding.

Steven Hill is senior analyst for the Center for Voting and Democracy and author of a new book, "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics" (Routledge Press).

Are Young People Too Smart to Vote?

This election season, once again young people will not vote in very great numbers. In the 1998 midterm election, only 12 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 8.5 percent of 18-19 year olds voted, and this year will be about the same.

And yet a recent study funded by Pew Charitable trust found that young people are volunteering in their communities more than ever. Young people are not apathetic, but most find little connection between volunteering and voting. While volunteering is viewed as a way to "give back" and help one's community, voting doesn't inspire the same sentiments.

So why don't young people vote? Perhaps young people don't vote because they have a better sense than adults that our political system truly is broken, particularly from the point of view of a young person.

For instance, a recent survey conducted by Harvard University found that 83.5 percent of 18-24 year olds said that they had not been contacted by any political party during the 2000 election season. On the other hand it is well documented that both parties went out of their way to connect with the 65-and-over population.

Why are candidates going after one group of voters and relegating the other to the political sidelines?

One obvious reason is that seniors vote in greater numbers than young people. Politicians court likely voters, and that creates a vicious cycle: Young people don't vote because they aren't courted, and they aren't courted because they don't vote.

But a more careful reading reveals something more broken about our "winner take all" political system. In close electoral contests -- such as our last presidential election, or in a handful of races that will determine control for the U.S. House and Senate -- a small minority of voters has much greater influence than the rest of us. This is the group known as the almighty "swing voters." Swing voters are undecided voters, and in close races politicians court them because swing voters decide which candidate will win .

It just so happens that, not only are seniors more likely to vote than young people, but also many of them are fiscal conservatives who are more likely to be swing voters than young people. Think back to the presidential election, what were the issues that mostly were addressed -- Medicare, prescription drugs and Social Security lockboxes. All important issues, but there were a lot more issues out there and constituencies that cared about them, yet they were overlooked. Why? Because in the zero-sum game of "winner take all" politics, polls and focus groups are used to figure out which group of voters to talk to, and which group of voters to ignore.

As one twentysomething said during the last presidential campaign, "I feel like if you are not 65 years old and have arthritis, these candidates have nothing to say to you."

"Winner take all" campaigns have become a matter of targeting the right demographic using polls and focus groups. But as Mario Velasquez, president of Rock the Vote, which registers young people to vote, has said: "Demography, I like to say, is the death of democracy. If you have precision demographics, you are only talking to people who vote, not to the entire country."

Young people aren't the only ones being left out by the "precision demographics" of our "winner take all" system. Racial minorities and poor people also usually are excluded from candidate appeals. The incentives of our "winner take all" system fragment our nation, as politicians and their consultants use polls and focus groups to slice and dice the electorate. In the process, whole swaths of people -- potential voters -- are dropped from the invite list of our 'invitation-only' elections. Demographics, it turns out, is destiny.

Change certainly is needed. Other nations experience much higher voter turnout rates because they don't use our "winner take all" system. Instead they use what is known as proportional representation, which creates multi-party democracy where voters have more political choice, more competitive elections, and more people's issues are addressed by the various parties and their candidates.

Other necessary changes include instant runoff voting, Election Day as a national holiday, Election Day voter registration (Prop. 52 on the California ballot) and public financing of elections. Not surprisingly, nations that employ these practices enjoy much higher rates of voting among all people, including young people, poor people, and others who are left out of our political system.

More than adults, young people seem intuitively to recognize that our political system is broken. And they register their awareness on Election Day by not bothering to participate in what to them is a pretty meaningless exercise. So when you see the low numbers for voter turnout this time, don't think of it as apathy. Think of it as the wisdom of youth.

Steven Hill is senior analyst for the Center for Voting and Democracy and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics" (Routledge Press). Rashad Robinson is the Center's field director.

Major Victory for Voting Reform

The first Tuesday in March marked the starting gun for this year's critical off-year congressional elections. In California, Democratic and Republican primaries ended the political careers of scandal-ridden Congressman Gary Condit, who was running for re-election, and former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, running for Governor.

But the biggest bang may have been ground-breaking votes on instant runoff voting in hip, urban San Francisco and more than four dozen towns across rural, independent-minded Vermont. Instant runoff voting has the potential to crack open electoral politics to new voices and better choices.

San Franciscans voted 56 to 44 percent to pass their city's "Proposition A" and become the first major city in the United States to use instant runoff voting (IRV) to elect its local officials. The comfortable margin caught city observers by surprise, given editorial opposition from the paper's dailies and a slick, well-funded opposition campaign from political consultants and downtown business leaders fighting for traditional "delayed" runoffs.

In Vermont, more than 50 town meetings debated adoption of IRV for statewide offices. Of the 51 reporting results, 49 towns gave a big thumbs up, most by overwhelming margins. Several bigger towns like Burlington supported the issue by two-to-one margins. The Vermont League of Women Voters led the campaign, but backers include a range of supporters, from Governor Howard Dean and Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz to 2000 Republican gubernatorial nominee Ruth Dwyer, Progressive Party leaders and the Grange.

The San Francisco campaign, a grassroots effort that garnered endorsements from a range of civic players, was spearheaded by the Center for Voting and Democracy. Supporters included California House Assembly Leader Kevin Shelley -- an upset winner in the race for the Democratic Party nomination for Secretary of State -- 1999 mayoral candidate Tom Ammiano, Democratic Party, Common Cause, NOW, California PIRG, the Sierra Club, Green Party, Libertarian Party, Reform Party, San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO, Congress of California Seniors, Asian Week, Chinese for Affirmative Action, Harvey Milk Democratic Club, United Farm Workers and over three dozen others.

Why did all of these groups -- often political enemies -- come together behind IRV? Consider our current electoral laws. When several candidates run for a particular office, the winner often receives less than majority support. A quick flashback to the presidential election of 2000 recalls not only that George W. Bush won with less than a majority of the popular vote, but the center-left majority split itself in states like Florida and New Hampshire between Al Gore and Ralph Nader. Allowing the "plurality" winner to take office can deny the majority its right to decide single-seat elections, and at the same time stifle support for underdog candidates who are too easily pigeon-holed as "spoilers."

Delayed runoff elections are a flawed alternative used in many cities and southern primaries. If no candidate receives an initial majority, voters must return weeks later to choose between the top two vote-getters. Supporters of the two advancing candidates must show up again to reconfirm their initial vote, while backers of eliminated candidates must generate enough enthusiasm to vote for their preference among the top two.

Not surprisingly, voter turnout in runoffs often drops precipitously, particularly once the candidates start battering one another in negative campaigns. This allows special interest contributors who fund those negative ad blitzes to gain more leverage over winners.

Instant runoff voting, also called "same-day" runoffs, provides an effective alternative. Used for major elections in Australia, Ireland and Great Britain, IRV ensures that candidates win single-seat offices with majority support in one efficient election. Voters indicate both their favorite and their runoff choices on the same ballot. If no candidate receives a winning majority of first choices, the weak candidates are eliminated. As in a traditional delayed runoff, their supporters choose among the runoff finalists according to the preferences marked on their ballots. Voters who ranked one of the finalists first continue to have their votes count for their favorite choice.

Imagine if instant runoff voting had been in place in 2000 when Ralph Nader and Al Gore together won a clear majority of the presidential vote, both in Florida and nationally. Many voters for Gore or even for Bush might have supported Nader if they had not been worried about the "spoiler effect." Not only would Nader's vote have been a truer reflection of his level of support, but ultimately the Nader vote would have pushed Gore to clear wins in Florida and the national electoral count.

Among its benefits, IRV could be particularly helpful in cities with racially diverse populations. Last year, runoff elections between white and non-white mayoral candidates exacerbated racial division in cities like Houston, Los Angeles and New York. Instant runoff voting would have promoted coalition-building in a single round of voting, rather than the charged politics of a one-on-one runoff election.

The March 5 wins for instant runoff voting could start a national trend. California is developing into a hotbed of enthusiasm for instant runoff voting, with strong interest in Oakland, Pasadena, Santa Clara County and San Leandro. Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg last year introduced legislation to implement IRV for special elections to fill congressional and legislative vacancies.

Vermont's grassroots success promises to boost state legislation already backed by the governor and secretary of state. Instant runoff voting advocates in states like Alaska, Florida, New Mexico and Washington are poised to capitalize on the San Francisco victory and the clear message from Vermont's towns.

Even as Congress moves toward apparent passage of bills to ban soft money in campaigns and modernize the way we run elections, the thirst for more responsive, open, and accountable democracy will not cease. In cities and states around the nation, democracy advocates are ready to push beyond their current efforts to lessen the impact of money in politics and improve electoral mechanics. As so often in our history, we can count on dedicated reformers at the grassroots to keep pushing us toward a stronger, fully realized democracy.

Rob Richie, Eric Olson and Steven Hill work for the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org), a national nonprofit organization. Steven Hill was the campaign manager for San Francisco's Proposition A.

Redistricting Returns with a Vengeance

Voters, beware. Redistricting is back. Every 10 years it revisits us like a recurring plague. This year's shenanigans show just why the renewed civic pride in the wake of September's terrorist attacks won't bring many disenchanted Americans back to the polls.

After the release of new census numbers, all legislative districts in the nation must be redrawn to make sure that they are closely equal in population. In a large state, that means about 640,000 residents for each U.S. House district.

Whichever political party controls the line-drawing process has the God-like powers to guarantee themselves majority control and make or break individual political careers. They rely on "packing" and "cracking": packing as many opponents into as few districts as possible, and "cracking" an opponent's natural base into different districts. Powerful computers and software have made this process of unnatural selection ever more sophisticated and precise.

Does it make a difference? You bet it does. In Virginia, the Democrats in 2001 won their first statewide race for governor since 1989. But Republicans went from barely controlling the statehouse to a two-thirds' majority. How? That's right -- Republicans drew the district lines.

One of the best examples of partisan gerrymandering was California's congressional plan in the 1980s. The late Congressman Phil Burton, its chief architect, called it his "contribution to modern art." One district was a ghastly looking, insect-like polygon with 385 sides.

The result? In the 1984 elections the Democrats increased their share of California's house seats to 60 percent even as Ronald Reagan's landslide win helped Republican congressional candidates win more votes than Democrats in the state.

This year in various states one party indeed has stuck it to the other -- just ask a Republican who was mugged in Georgia or Maryland or a Democrat roughed up in Michigan or Pennsylvania. In all those states and more, one party or the other used their redistricting advantage to wipe out seats of the opposition.

But this year the real story is that both parties have often colluded to take on their real enemy: the voters. This year will go down in political history for the crass way it has raised "incumbent protection" to a whole new level. With half the states finished with redistricting, the current round may be the most anti-democratic ever.

Take California. The California Democratic Party controlled redistricting, and its leaders decided to cement their advantage rather then expand it. Incumbents took no chances. Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez acknowledged to the Orange County Register that she and most of her Democratic U.S. House colleagues each forked over $20,000 to Michael Berman, the powerful Democratic Party consultant in charge of redistricting.

The money was classic "protection money." Sanchez stated "$20,000 is nothing to keep your seat. I spend $2 million (campaigning) every election. If my colleagues are smart, they'll pay their $20,000, and Michael will draw the district they can win in."

California's Republican Party, which has vociferously opposed past Democratic redistricting plans, was largely mute. That's because their pliant incumbents also were bought off with the promise of safe seats. The one incumbent facing a tough re-election battle promptly announced his retirement; the rest are likely free from serious competition for the next ten years.

The story has been the same in state after state. The Wall Street Journal in a November editorial on "The Gerrymander Scandal" estimated that as few as 30 of the 435 U.S. House seats will be competitive next year. Already fewer than one in 10 House seats were won by competitive margins in 1998 and 2000.

The ones hurt by these back-room deals are the voters. For most voters, their only real choice in the next decade will be to ratify the candidate of the party that was handed that district in redistricting. One-party fiefdoms will be the rule no matter what changes are made in campaign financing and term limits until we reform the redistricting process or turn to more innovative voting methods like proportional representation.

There once was a time when voters went to the polls on the first Tuesday in November and picked their representatives. But that's changed. Now, the representatives pick us first. Following on the heels of Florida's election debacle, this only further undermines confidence in our already shaky political system.

Rob Richie and Steven Hill are, respectively, the executive director and the western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org) and co-authors of "Whose Vote Counts?" (Beacon Press 2001).

When Machines Pick Our Presidents

More than a century ago, New York City party boss William "Boss" Tweed was infamous for using fraud to win elections. Popular legend also has it that President John Kennedy may have won his election via fraud, courtesy of the Daley political machine in Chicago. But the 2000 presidential election raises a whole new specter: electoral upset resulting from voting machine screw ups.

What if Al Gore really had more support from Florida voters than George W. Bush? But due to voting equipment failure and well-meaning human error enough votes were swiped from Gore's tally to overturn the election? Indeed, a precinct by precinct analysis conducted by the Miami Herald concluded just that, saying that in a less error-prone election Florida likely would have gone to Al Gore by as many as 23,000 votes.

This may be the first presidential election that will result in, not victory by fraud, but victory by, what shall we call it -- malfunction?

Without a doubt, the antiquated punch-card voting machines used to count votes in many Florida counties are prone to errors and irregularities. Even a Republican witness in one of the Florida court cases -- a designer of the disputed punch-card machines - admitted to the court that the devices malfunction and fail to record votes. This witness also testified that a hand count would be necessary in "very close elections."

Specifically, in Miami-Dade County, the punch-card machines failed to count nearly 10,000 ballots because the machines could not ascertain a vote for president. These orphaned ballots still are sitting in a pile somewhere, uncounted.

Those ballots alone may be enough to tip the election in a race as close as this one. If they ever get counted. Now add to that the poorly designed butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County that did not conform to Florida's legal specifications regarding the design of ballots, and apparently confused thousands of voters. A typical election has a spoiled ballot rate of about 1 percent of ballots. In Palm Beach, the spoiled ballot rate was over four times that number, more than 20,000 ballots were thrown out. So clearly something was amiss there as well.

These are just two of the many voting machine snafus and irregularities that, because the race was so close, acquired blockbuster proportions. Thousands of voters - 185,000, to be exact, 335 times Bush's margin -- have had their legal vote tossed aside due to the vagaries of outdated voting technology compounded by official decisions. But the quagmire gets deeper.

A recent precinct by precinct analysis by the Washington Post revealed that the Florida counties and precincts most affected were poor and minority. Heavily African American neighborhoods in Florida lost many more presidential votes than other areas because of outmoded voting machines and rampant confusion about ballots

Up to one in three ballots in black sections of Jacksonville, for example, did not count in the presidential contest. That was four times as many as in white precincts elsewhere in mostly Republican Duval County. A ballot that perplexingly spread presidential names over two pages led to many accidental double votes, which are automatically voided.

The Post reported that senior GOP strategists say privately that a key reason the Bush campaign did not ask for a statewide recount was it feared that Gore would pick up more votes than Bush, because of the high rate of ballot spoilage in black precincts.

Examining all the evidence, the picture that emerges is that voting irregularities and antiquated voting machines that disenfranchised thousands of minority voters is probably determining our next president. If we allow such a slipshod process for the highest office in the land, what kind of standard does that establish for future elections, especially at lower levels?

And how will that look to the rest of the world, to whom the United States has upheld the ideal that elections should be decided on democratic principles like fairness, the secret ballot and the "highest vote getter wins." What shall we say now -- "except when the voting machines mess up?"

However this election is eventually settled, the American public and politicians should speak as one voice to say: "Never again." Never again will we allow malfunctioning voting machines and poorly designed ballots to determine who wins our elections.

The new president and Congress need to step up to the plate and enact national standards for modernizing our elections infrastructure. That includes voting machines, ballot designs, procedures for recounts and other details of elections. And those counties too poor to foot the bill should receive federal assistance.

No cost is too great to make sure that every vote counts, and that every vote gets counted. As this presidential election has shown, a vote can be a terrible thing to waste.

Steven Hill is the western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. He is co-author of Reflecting All of Us (Beacon Press, 1999).

Scrap the Electoral College

The presidential election roller coaster ride has taken one of its oddest turns. Imagine if, after the conclusion of the Super Bowl or the World Series, it was announced that the "winner" didn't really win. That instead the championship would be given to, well -- the loser.

We have a long tradition of the person or team with the most points, runs or votes winning -- except when it comes to electing our president, the highest office in the land. How do we explain that to young people, already so disengaged from politics?

It's like two elections taking place, side by side, one open and the other hidden. And suddenly the nation is realizing that the one that counts is the hidden one. Nothing less than the legitimacy of the presidency is hanging in the balance.

The blame for this democratic anomaly rests with that 18th-century anachronism, the Electoral College. Created in less democratic times by our Founders, the Electoral College is a clumsy device that has been the subject of more proposed amendments than any other part of our constitution. It harkens back to a time when the U.S. Senate also was devised to be elected by our state legislatures, instead of a direct vote of the people. We changed the Senate to a direct vote in 1913 with the 17th amendment. But 200 years later we are still left with the ponderous Electoral College.

Here's how it works. Each of the 50 states' presidential races are conducted as individual contests, with its votes weighted to its population. The presidential winner does not need to win a majority of the national popular vote -- just more votes than other candidates in any piecemeal combination of states to win a majority of electoral votes. A popular majority can be fractured easily by the presence of a third party candidate, as Ralph Nader and Ross Perot have demonstrated.

The perverse incentives created by the Electoral College are painfully obvious from this year's campaign. States like New York that are locked up early are effectively ignored by the candidates. Consequently, voter turnout increased sharply by 10-15% in the "battleground" states, but was down in the rest of the nation. Nearly all campaign energy -- and increasingly, even the candidates' messages for how they plan to govern -- are pitched to swing voters in a few key battleground states.

So what can be done? Over the years, leading national political figures like Strom Thurmond, Orrin Hatch, Ted Kennedy and John McCain have supported approaches to amend, reform or scrap the Electoral College. The time has come to scrap the Electoral College and institute a national direct election.

There are important questions to resolve, however. What if the highest vote-getter only received 35 percent of the vote in a multi-candidate race? That possibility also presents problems of legitimacy. Consequently, some reformers call for a second "runoff" election between the top two finishers if no candidate receives at least 40 percent of the vote. But 40 percent is too low for winning our highest office. To avoid minority rule, the president should be required to command majority support.

Two-round runoffs also pose problems. Candidates would have to scramble for extra cash to run a second campaign, and the cumulative additional costs to local election officials would be more than a hundred million dollars. Weary voters would have to trudge out to the polls one more time.

Instant runoff voting is an efficient and inexpensive alternative. This method simulates a traditional runoff in one election by allowing voters to rank on the same ballot their top choice as well as their second and third "runoff" choices. If no candidate wins a majority of first choices, the weakest candidates are eliminated and their voters' ballots counted for their runoff choices. Rounds of counting continue until there is a majority winner.

The instant runoff corrects the defects of traditional runoffs, and improves on their benefits. The system is used in Great Britain, Australia and Ireland and likely will be the subject of a statewide ballot measure in Alaska in 2002 for its federal and state elections, including the president.

Win or lose, the challenge for both George Bush and Al Gore will be to bring the nation together. What better message to the American people than providing for direct popular election of the president -- preferably using instant runoff voting -- to ensure that the nation's chief executive commands support from a majority of voters. Let's join together and abolishes this 18th-century dinosaur.

John B. Anderson is a former presidential candidate and Congressman, and currently the president of the Center for Voting and Democracy. Steven Hill is the Center's western regional director.

Politicians Even Shake Down Their Own

Raising campaign funds today is done with religious fervor, as politicians shake down everyone from corporate CEOs and movie moguls to Christian PACs and Buddhist monks. But Congressional leaders recently set a whole new standard -- now they are shaking down their fellow House members.

The Republican House leadership announced recently that they are hinging the reward of leadership positions and chairmanships of powerful committees to those incumbents who raise the most money for the party. Since committee chairs have near-dictatorial powers to set committee dockets, dole out pork and establish the national agenda, this plan debases government to a whole new level of crassness and political patronage.

But beyond that, this sordid episode reveals something more fundamental about the role money plays in politics. The situation is so much more complicated than many campaign finance reformers make it out to be, and in some ways so much worse.

The typical campaign finance reformer rant is that "money buys elections." But if that were true, the Republican leadership would not be able to shake down their fellow Republicans. Nor would they want to, because these incumbents would need that money for their own re-elections. They would be robbing Peter to re-elect Paul.

But the fact is that most incumbents don't need the money for their own re-election. That's because they live in safe, non-competitive districts where incumbents have about as much chance of losing as a snowball melting at the North Pole. The respected Cook Political Report lists a whopping 87 percent of House Republicans as easily winning re-election in 2000.

Most of these safe seats were carved out of conservative areas of the country during the last redistricting. The decennial redistricting process, which is about to revisit us in 2001, is when all legislative lines are gerrymandered to make most congressional districts lopsided, either for Republicans or Democrats (90 percent of House Democrats also are safe). No matter how much money opponents raise in these carefully crafted districts, their chances of winning are about as good as that snowball's melting.

So Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert can twist the arms of these safe-seat Republicans to raise money they don't need -- and then hand over the money to party leaders. The leadership then will target this soft money like a laser to the two dozen competitive races that will decide control of the U.S. House. The Democrats do this too, but House Republicans have raised the bar by hinging these efforts to the awarding of leadership positions and committee chairs.

This creates a fund-raising pecking order, where the "Captains of Cash" are rewarded. This is how political machines and fiefdoms are created and maintained, with all its progenies of patronage, logrolling and pork-doling. The Captains of Cash sit atop the pile, dispensing favors and collecting fealty, both within their own personal districts and within the House of Representatives.

The corruptive effects on our democracy are obvious. But that's not the same as money buying elections. The fact of the matter is, most elections can't be bought. They already are too lopsided and non-competitive to even need to be bought. This allows safe-seat politicians to raise money far beyond their own needs, and then sprinkle it around to their colleagues needing a hand.

Such a pyramidal shape to our political landscape is much more distorting of our democracy than simply money buying elections. It means that political leaders can create their own political machines. It means that donors are giving money to candidates they know will win, because the district has been drawn to produce that result. Donors usually are buying access and influence, not elections.

If we don't understand the full complexity of how our system is malfunctioning, we will miss the mark when we try to reform it.

Internet Decency and the First Amendment

Now that a federal appeals court has blocked the part of the Telecommunications Act concerned with indecent material on the Internet, First Amendment advocates can all breathe a sigh of relief.Or can we?The parts of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that remain are far more damaging to the First Amendment than the sub-section known as the Communication Decency Act. Taken as a whole, the Telecommunications Act is a kind of "free trade" agreement for the corporate media. The bill deregulates the telecommunications industry and makes takeovers and mergers even easier, like Disney's takeover of ABC which created the world's largest media company. Many experts predict the Telecommunications Act will inevitably result in increasing media centralization and job losses as merging media corporations slim down. Why then, has so much of the protest and litigation focused singularly on the Communication Decency Act?Here's a further subtlety to ponder: the ACLU's lawsuit that defeated the Communications Decency Act used an anti-censorship argument to fight government regulation of Internet content. But the corporate media love to manipulate anti-censorship arguments. The Turner Broadcasting System used an anti-censorship argument in Turner Broadcasting System v. Federal Communications Commission to try and stop a 1992 federal law that requires cable systems to set aside up to one third of their channels for local broadcasts. Anti-censorship arguments have also been used to fight set-asides for minority-owned businesses of frequencies for cellular communication services, and to fight limitations on how much frequency any existing cellular companies can control in a given service area. Corporations and the ACLU have used anti-censorship arguments to block attempts at effective campaign finance reform, and to fight restrictions on commercial speech and advertising, and to sue "truth in advertising" laws that prohibit political campaigns from knowingly making false statements.Unfortunately, anti-censorship policies fit in perfectly with a corporate media agenda. As the fight over NAFTA showed, corporations want deregulated environments. When the corporations are media conglomerates, anti-censorship policies have the same effect as NAFTA. They become the opposite of anti-trust policies, creating a "free trade" environment where the wealthiest media companies can grab bigger and bigger chunks of an unregulated market.So, before we celebrate too wildly the federal appeals court's acceptance of an anti-censorship argument to strike down the Communications Decency Act, we better ask ourselves: have we won the battle only to inadvertently contribute to losing the war?Effective speech in the modern age is not free. In fact, it's quite expensive, and very few can afford it. Those with the most money end up with the most speech. Certainly one of the goals of the First Amendment should be to enhance -- in the words of free speech champion Justice William Brennan -- a "robust public debate" of significant social issues. The robust debate principle recognizes that sometimes in a crowd of speakers it is necessary to turn down the volume of certain loud and clamorous speakers -- like Disney, NBC, or Rupert Murdoch -- in order to give others a chance to speak. Or at the very least, it's necessary to turn up the volume of others who can't be heard, with policies like the Fairness Doctrine, a beefed-up public broadcasting system, the National Endowment for the Arts, and set-asides. And in certain cases, where there are one or two loud-mouths in the group completely dominating the discussion, it might be necessary to ask them to shut up for a little while. Who but the government has the capacity to act as a First Amendment referee in these instances? The government already acts as a referee in matters of civil rights, education, low-cost housing, and in some countries, national health care. Why not in matters of the corporate media and the First Amendment? If the government isn't allowed to regulate corporate behavior -- media or otherwise -- who can? Certainly not consumers or the free market.Yet this is exactly the type of regulation of corporate media that anti-censorship policies cut off at the knees. The entire Telecommunications Act should have been opposed, but not because the government does not have a compelling interest at times in acting as referee in matters of speech. Rather, it should have been opposed as an infringement on the public discourse and the First Amendment that is increasingly being dominated by multinational corporations and market forces. This would have required a more nuanced and sophisticated attack than an anti-censorship argument can muster.The First Amendment, in order to be useful in the modern age, must be able to distinguish between the "cheap" speech of most individuals and small institutions, and the "wealthy" speech of multinational corporations and rich individuals. It must also be able to distinguish between what is said, and how often and how loudly certain dominant speakers say it. Each of these should be guided by a different set of laws and policies. But the anti-censorship approach treats corporations like individuals, and treats volume like content. It has a single fundamentalist standard for the First Amendment that only seeks to handcuff the government in matters of speech. It does not recognize that market forces can also be an enemy of free speech.If we are to imbue the First Amendment with democratic and egalitarian values, we will have to divest ourselves of the naive notion that Big Brother comes only in the guise of government or law enforcement bureaucrats. Big Corporation is also watching you, and trying to gobble up all the public speech it can. And it is using anti-censorship arguments to further its goals. We should be wary about helping to fashion a legal hammer that will be used to bludgeon us over the head. Journalist Steven Hill works for an Internet service provider.

American Women Have a Long Way to Go

It has been eight years since the "Year of the Woman" nearly doubled the number of women in Congress. But it has been slim pickings ever since.A recent study found that the United States ranks 43rd in the world in its percentage of women elected to its national legislature. Currently, women hold only 12 percent of Congress, a lower percentage than such nations as Mexico, South Africa or Seychelles. In 1998, fewer than half of our states elected women to the House of Representatives.The study, conducted by the nonpartisan Inter-Parliamentary Union, shows Sweden leading the pack with 43 percent women in its legislature, followed by Denmark, Finland, Norway and the Netherlands, all at least three times higher than Congress. Women also fare poorly in executive offices. 47 of 50 states have male governors, and 24 of our largest 25 cities have male mayors.Given American women's success in many areas, why has politics proven such hostile terrain? Some propose that it's women's own reluctance to sacrifice their traditional home lives. Swanee Hunt, director of Harvard University's Women and Public Policy Program, suggests that many women don't think politics is a reasonable option because they don't want to give up being mothers and wives.Women also don't necessarily vote for other women. One recent survey revealed that both male and female voters still prefer a man over a woman for powerful offices such as governor, attorney general and president.While discriminatory attitudes certainly play a large role, they certainly don't explain why women do so much better in some nations than others. The key lies in the rules for how elections are conducted.A virtual laboratory is provided by nations that use both proportional representation voting systems and U.S.-style "winner take all" voting systems. Proportional representation systems use multi-seat districts where a political party or grouping of voters may need only 5 percent of the popular vote to win representation.For example, in Germany, Italy and New Zealand, women are three times more likely to be elected in seats chosen by proportional representation than in those chosen by winner-take-all. Sweden, Finland, Norway and the Netherlands, the world's leaders, all use proportional representation. In their first proportional representation elections last year elected 39 percent women.In fact, comparative research has shown that the leading predictor of women's success in national elections, when tested against all other variables, is use of proportional representation. When a majority of votes is needed, as in the U.S.-style single seat "winner take all" legislative districts, a small number of discriminatory voters can deny women candidates the margin they need for election. Women also are less likely to run when there is only one representative.Electing more women to legislatures is not only a matter of fairness. Practically speaking, the presence of women in legislatures makes a measurable difference in the types of legislation that are proposed and passed into law. Although outnumbered 8-1, women in Congress have been successful in gaining legislation long overlooked by men, including gender equity in the workplace and in education, child support legislation, and laws for prevention of violence against women. It was Congresswomen who ensured that the offensive behavior of U.S. Senators Bob Packwood and Brock Adams were not swept under the "good old boy" carpet.Most established democracies have rejected our "winner take all" system in favor of proportional representation because of the underrepresentation of women and other problems resulting from giving 100 percent of the power to candidates that win only 51 percent of the vote. Implementation of proportional systems in the United States at local, state and national levels does not require revising the Constitution. Changes in applicable local, state and federal laws will do. It is high time to seriously address why 52 percent of the population only has 13 percent of the representation.Rob Richie is executive director of The Center for Voting and Democracy and Steven Hill is the Center's west coast director.

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