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Eighteen percent is all you need

"Remember, democracy never lasts long. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. The jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing. There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free 'government' ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty." – John Adams

March 11,2008
by Rob Lafferty

Democracy is a wonderful thing. We should get one. The electoral process we have in America isn't democratic because it doesn't provide full representation of the wide variety of views that any nation of 300 million citizens will naturally hold.

Instead we have a state-by-state, winner-take-all system that requires our president to be selected by electors, not by the direct vote of the people. It's riddled with arcane rules that are enforced differently by each state and political party. The end result is a kind of semi-controlled chaos that favors the best manipulators instead of the best representatives.

As Cynthia Boaz, writing in the Perspective last month, pointed out, "Consider the case of Ross Perot. He received 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992 - a very respectable showing for a third party candidate. But he failed to receive one solitary electoral vote."

Boaz outlined several inherent problems with the Electoral College and suggested a variety of ways to improve elections in America. If you aren't familiar with the EC and how it works, you'll have to do some homework because you won't read an explanation of that outdated system here. But it doesn't take long to learn all you need to know, which is this: the Electoral College has got to go. It isn't a democratic institution, it's an unnecessary tool that actually prevents true democracy.

The EC was born out of fear, and it was flawed from birth. Many of the political players in the early days of America were gentleman farmers from lightly-populated rural states, and they didn't like the multitudes of city folk having the power to choose the president. The EC was designed to compensate for that population imbalance and became the key to presidential elections, despite the undemocratic nature of its very purpose.

After all, it wouldn't make the least bit of difference where a voter lived if we actually had a one person, one vote national system where each vote was counted. Almost every other presidential democracy across the globe uses a direct, popular vote to choose their president. We might want to give it a try ourselves.

Yet none of this should matter, really. The presidency was not designed to be the office of Our Nation's Leader, it was meant to be a kind of CEO position, an operations director who could assume military commander-in-chief duties during a time of war. National leadership was expected to come from the Senate, our board of directors. They were to act in response to the voice of the People, the workers, as expressed through their Representatives, who are the equivalent of department heads in a large business.

It was those members of Congress who were charged with setting national policies and writing the laws of the land. The presidency was given the task of implementing those policies within those laws. Our first three Presidents understood that; the rest have been complicit in accumulating power and abusing it in pursuit of their own vision for the nation.

Today we have a "unitary executive" philosophy, a tidy phrase for the concentration of power that occurred gradually over two centuries but has increased dramatically during the past seven years. And now it may no longer be possible to dismantle the structure sustaining that power.

But there are several ways to fix the the sorry system we use to elect our president today. Here's one: print simple paper ballots and use the same format and general election rules in every state. Make it easy for voters to mark their choice clearly by writing in the name of their preferred candidate. Count those ballots honestly, in public, and allow everyone who cares to watch the process. Hold the count in an auditorium, televise it, broadcast it on the Net, do whatever it takes to open the process fully.

Do that in every precinct, and don't worry about how long it takes – we don't need an answer right away, tomorrow or the next day will do. Publish all the numbers for each precinct and each county as they come in, then add 'em all up across each state. Add up all those state totals and announce a winner.

If the process were that simple and transparent, there would seldom be any need for a recount. We don't need voting machines and voting software and mysterious black boxes connected to computers to record our votes. We just need to take the time to do the process honestly.

It would also help democracy if a majority of us voted. At the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in Stockholm, Sweden, researchers studied elections across the globe during the years 1945 through 2001, looking for the percentage of registered voters who actually cast a ballot. According to their numbers, the U.S. ranked 120 in the world with an average of 66.5 percent rate of participation by registered voters in our last 17 national elections.

Australia leads the way with a 94 percent turnout rate for registered voters in 22 elections over the past 55 years. The Aussies are just ahead of Singapore at 93 percent. Indonesia can claim a 91 percent rate. New Zealand and Italy are both above the 90 percent level, along with Belgium and Austria. In almost every European country, 75 percent or more of registered voters will do their civic duty in every election.

In addition, the study compared the number of registered voters in every country to an estimated number of eligible voters. We rated even worse here: number 138 in the world with only 47.7 percent of our voting-age citizens willing to participate in the most fundamental act of democracy.

Start with 100 potential voters and follow this recipe to win an election: first, set aside 50 potential voters who didn't register. Take the 50 remaining voters and set aside 16 of them who won't show up on Election Day. Of the 34 votes left, you now need only 18 to win. So if you want to be the next American President, you can get there with the solid support of 18 percent of the adult citizens. Just make sure that your 18 percent can all get to an election booth...

As for the 82 citizens who didn't vote for you, well, why should you care what they think? You don't need them, really; you just need to pacify them or silence them in various ways so that you can get on with whatever agenda you and your 18 percent brought to the White House with you. The base of support that got you elected once will get you elected again if you can keep them together.

There's a simple fix for that problem, too. As soon as a large majority of eligible voters in the country become actual voters, the entire election and representation business will change dramatically for the better. A special interest group can have a lot of influence when it represents one of 18 voters. It's a lot harder to influence a politician when you're just one voice out of 100.

There's a dozen or more reasons for becoming a member of the Non-Voting Party, and most of them seem valid. But if you're a Non-Voter, you're one of the 100 million reasons why America is not a Democratic Republic. Everyone who does vote can blame you for the seven ugly years we've just endured as a nation.

Even the supporters of George W. Bush – the worst American president ever – don't hold as much responsibility for the neoconservative revolution that has bankrupted our Treasury as those Americans who abdicated their civic duty by choosing not to vote. People should be forgiven for making a mistake if they were honestly trying to do the right thing. There's no excuse, however, for the failure to try.