Standing on the Threshold of a Third Party Dream

by Steven Hill

The following is an excerpt from a speech given to the annual national convention of the Green Party USA, July 29, 1995 and the annual national convention of the National Lawyers Guild, August 9, 1995.

This is an exciting time for the hopes of third parties. There is a window of opportunity presenting itself to third party efforts that we haven't seen in the United States since the early decades of this century.

We are facing a time of unprecedented voter apathy and alienation, even by the low standards of the United States and winner-take-all democracies. In the 1994 Congressional elections, eligible voter turnout was 36% -- 36%! That means two out of three people did not even go to the polls, and despite what Beltway-myopic pundits like George Will says, that's not because people are satisfied. Studies overwhelmingly show that those not voting are those with the lowest incomes and the lowest educational levels. In other words, those that have the least reasons to be satisfied. These people have simply given up voting, because they don't like what either of the two parties are offering.

But I also want to voice a word of caution. As I sat and listened to the previous panel of Green Party candidates for various elective offices around the country, I noticed a disturbing trend. Several of the candidates made exuberant statements such as "I received five percent of the vote last time I ran, and this time I received seven percent; or nine percent; or Roberto Mondragon from New Mexico received 11%, etc." And while I want to heartily congratulate these candidates, and commend them for their initiative and commitment, I want to remind them and all Greens of a fairly obvious fact: they were still 40-45% short of winning! They weren't anywhere near receiving a majority or even a plurality of votes necessary to win their seat.

I'm more than a bit concerned that the Green Party in the United States is becoming a party of underachievers. That we are unfortunately stuck to the fly paper of old ideas. To give you an idea of what I mean, I can assure that you when the Green Party of Germany gets together for their annual convention, the talk isn't about how individual Green candidates won 5 or 7 or 11% of the vote -- they talk and strategize about how many legislative seats their party will win in the next elections.

The German Green Party presently holds the third largest number of seats in their national legislature. The German Greens are successful in electing their members to legislatures, and the U.S. Greens are not, because of one primary and fundamental difference: Germany uses a proportional representation voting system. Here in the United States we continue to use an antiquated winner take all voting system that most major democracies have long since abandoned because of its unrepresentative and undemocratic nature.

There is no other structural change -- not campaign finance reform, not ballot access laws -- that is as important to the success and longevity of third parties as proportional representation. There are states where the ballot access laws are not as Draconian as others -- California has several ballot-qualified parties, the Greens being one of them -- and we still can't elect anyone. At local and state levels of government, where the cost of running is not as high as running in high profile federal race s, third parties still can't elect anyone. That is because it is virtually impossible for minority parties or candidates to win a seat in a majoritarian winner take all system, since by virtue of our being a minority we can not normally attract a majority of votes.

Still not convinced about the central significance of PR? Let me run a few statistics by you. Anybody care to guess how many seats are held by third parties in the fifty state senates? Out of 1935 state senate seats, how many are held by third parties, anyone know? Exactly zero. Out of 5440 state house seats, how many are held by third parties, anyone want to venture a guess? Three. Out of 535 Congressional and U.S. Senate seats, how many are held by third parties. One, that's right, Socialist Bern ie Sanders from Vermont. Now, in case you're thinking -- well, that's just how things are now, it wasn't always that way -- here's the bonus question: anyone care to guess how many third parties there have been in the two hundred year history of the United States? How many? Fifty? A hundred? Two hundred? The answer is over a thousand. And how many of these have you ever heard of? They are only a memory now, for trivia junkies and TV game shows.

Need I say more? Winner take all voting systems are notoriously hostile to the success of third parties and minority constituencies. The Green Party USA, as well as the New Party, a Labor Party, or any other third party, desperately needs proportional rep representation.

Proportional representation -- or PR, as it is called -- is the most popular voting system in the world today. Far more democracies use it than the U.S.-style winner take all voting system, and the trend in the world is toward PR and away from winner take all. In April 1994 South Africa became the latest nation to switch to PR. In 1993 New Zealand, Japan, Russia, Italy and Mexico adopted the German form of PR. Of all the countries of the former Soviet bloc, almost all of them chose PR over winner take all because they recognized what is obvious to all but those who have been steeped in the ideology of winner take all elections -- that PR is a fairer, more democratic, more representative and more modern voting system than the antiquated 18th century winner take all system.

Under PR, representatives are elected from multi-seat districts in proportion to the number of votes received. So, for example, under one type of PR -- there are several -- if a party receives 30% of the popular vote, they receive thirty percent o f the seats. Ten percent of the popular vote gets you ten percent of the seats, and so on. A party or candidate need not come in first to get elected. PR assures that political parties or independent candidates win the percent of legislative seats that reflects their public support. For this reason, voter turnout in PR democracies is typically 70-90%, far higher than winner take all democracies. PR voters aren't stuck choosing between the "lesser of two evils." They know their votes count.

Besides low voter turnout, the results of our winner take all elections are appalling. Our number of women elected is pitifully low compared to proportional representation democracies -- 11% in Congress and 8% in the U.S. Senate, compared to 25-40% in most PR democracies. The election of racial minorities just took a severe direct hit at the end of June when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that race-conscious gerrymandering was unconstitutional, continuing the attack against communities of color and affirmative steps taken to remedy historical and current-day inequality. In fact, the only constituency receiving adequate representation today is the 32% of white males -- they receive most of the representation! The demographics are astounding, when you stop and think about it. And depressing too, if you don't know how to interpret these numbers.

My interpretation is this: this is a demographics built to blow its lid! These are the seeds of the demise of the winner take all two party duopoly. But it's not going to happen by itself, the two parties are going to need a giant shove. And there's n o better organization, no better groups of individuals who stand to gain so much, or who are better poised to organize the grass roots to provide this shove, than the Green Party USA.

To convert our antiquated 18th century winner take all voting system does not require any changes in the U.S. Constitution. All that is involved is a change in applicable local, state -- and to change Congress to PR -- a single federal law. And in many states, these laws can be changed by voter initiative. So what I am proposing is that, after this convention, everyone here go back to our local communities and start voter initiative drives to change our local governments to PR. Some communities, like San Luis Obispo in CA with 40,000 residents, only need 2000 signatures to put an initiative on the ballot to change their local city council to PR. Only 2000 signatures! Five people working three hours a week for ten weeks can put that on the ballot. An d I can tell you from the experience of a Seattle initiative to change the city council there to PR, which I and others started and is gathering signatures at this moment -- half the signatures are gathered -- win or lose, there is no better educational campaign than a voter initiative. When you ask people to sign your petition, they will ask you about proportional representation, and they will pay attention to the issue.

By mounting these local initiatives, we are going to build a groundswell of support. We are going to plant the seed of an idea, and that seed will grow. Once we have built up enough grass roots support by waging initiatives at a number of localities, then we start at the state level, using the mailing lists and names and contacts we collected from our local initiatives.

There is some exciting local grass roots activity along these lines underway. I've already mentioned the Seattle voter initiative, and there is another voter initiative underway at this very moment in Eugene, OR to to change the city council there to PR. Cincinnati voters narrowly rejected such a voter initiative in 1991. An Elections Task Force in San Francisco, established by a voters proposition, has recommended that San Francisco voters be allowed to choose how they elect their local government by picking from among four competing voting systems, three of these being various PR systems. Charter commissions in Oakland, Santa Fe, Detroit, Miami Beach, Missoula (MT) and Cincinnati have recently given serious consideration to various proportional voting schemes. Pro-PR op-eds and exploratory articles have been popping up all over the place, in local and national newspapers and magazines, including USA Today, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, The New Yorker, and others.

The sparks for proportional representation are catching fire. We may soon have a full blown movement on our hands. There is something momentous happening in this country in the grass roots, and I hope you will be a part of it.

Copyright 1999 The Center for Voting and Democracy
6930 Carroll Ave. Suite 901    Takoma Park, MD  20912
(301) 270-4616 ____ cvdusa@aol.com