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  • John Q. Murray
    For the online version visit: http://www.greenpages.ws/v6i3/displayarticle.php?mediaId=587 Greens future depends on passing IRV We base this memo on three
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 3, 2002

      For the online version visit: http://www.greenpages.ws/v6i3/displayarticle.php?mediaId=587

      Greens' future depends on passing IRV

      We base this memo on three presuppositions. First, the United States desperately needs a viable progressive third party. Second, the Green Party has already demonstrated that it is the most promising third party project to emerge in the U.S. in the last fifty years, if not longer. Third, unless there is a crucial change in Green Party strategy, its prospects for success are very poor.

      Tue 10/01/02
      by Patrick S. Barrett and Robert W. McChesney
      GreenPages, Vol 5, No.3

      We base this memo on three presuppositions. First, the United States
      desperately needs a viable progressive third party. Second, the Green
      Party has already demonstrated that it is the most promising third party
      project to emerge in the
      U.S. in the last fifty years, if not longer.
      Third, unless there is a crucial change in Green Party strategy, its
      prospects for success are very poor.

      Indeed, without such a change, it will probably be a forgettable,
      entirely marginal operation within a decade.

      Points one and two are beyond dispute. This memo therefore deals with
      the third presupposition, which may be more controversial. Why are the
      Green Party's prospects so poor?

      One reason is that despite the substantial headway it has made in just a
      few short years, it has a long way to go before it develops into a
      well-organized operation with the capacity to vie for political power.
      Obviously, building such an organization would require long years of
      sustained party-building efforts anywhere in the world. Unfortunately,
      US political context does not allow for the adoption of a gradual,
      long-term party-building strategy. Even the most successful and
      well-organized third parties of the past did not survive more than two
      or three election cycles.

      This is because all
      U.S. third party projects face a major structural
      threat to their existence: the plurality, winner-take-all electoral
      system. This electoral system "which killed previous third party
      experiments" is no less forgiving today. In fact, in this latest
      go-around, it has helped to create a perception among core progressive
      constituencies that the Greens are simply immature protest voters with
      no sense of the high stakes involved in electoral politics.

      As a result, far too much of our time is wasted arguing about "wasted
      votes," rather than organizing around progressive issues and building a
      following that can contend for power. For far too many of the
      constituencies Greens need to reach – African-Americans, Latinos, women,
      environmentalists, labor – there is enough of a difference between
      Democrats and Republicans that they are unwilling to take Greens
      seriously. Now, we might adopt a "Screw you" attitude toward
      progressives who fail to see the light and persist in voting Democratic,
      but that would be self-defeating. Instead, it is our responsibility to
      demonstrate to these voters that voting Green actually makes sense.
      The problem is not merely that Greens spend a disproportionate amount of
      time talking about the flaws in the "lesser of two evils" argument
      rather than discussing the issues around which we wish to build. The
      problem is that any vision for the future that has the Green Party
      succeeding has to have many of the people currently voting Democratic
      voting Green.

      Right now, however, we are on the path not only to foreclosing that
      possibility, but also to transforming those who should be our core
      supporters into our sworn enemies. Indeed, among the Democratic
      constituencies the Green Party would ultimately need to become a viable
      electoral force, there are many who are enraged by the Greens' perceived
      alliance with Republicans in dumping Democrats.

      Therefore, when we do outreach, unless we are dealing with people
      entirely alienated from the electoral system, we need to move beyond
      calls to vote one's conscience and work instead to lower the strategic
      risks of voting Green.

      How can this be accomplished?

      The solution is actually both quite simple and very realizable in the
      near future: Instant-runoff voting (IRV). In some sense we are preaching
      to the choir, for there is already strong support for IRV within the
      Green Party. However, IRV must be transformed from something that is a
      good idea and deserving of Green support into something that should be
      at the very core, if not the cornerstone, of Green political strategy.

      For the Greens, the benefits of IRV are potentially enormous. With the
      spoiler effect eliminated, we would gain the support of millions of
      disgruntled Democratic voters, who would feel free to abandon the
      Democratic Party without any fear of electing the candidates whom they
      most fear. We would also gain the space we need to engage in the kind of
      long-term party-building effort that will enable us to contend for
      power. Moreover, we would benefit from an increase in voter turnout,
      especially among the millions of poor and working class voters who
      currently abstain from voting due to the absence of viable candidates
      that speak to their concerns. The Green Party would also shed its
      current negative image, and the animosity that many Democratic Party
      loyalists have toward Greens would be redirected toward their own party
      leadership. Indeed, something of an alliance between the Greens and
      progressive Democrats might result, as the emergence of a strong third
      party may provide the latter the leverage they need to prevail against
      their internal party rivals. The overall effect, in fact, might be to
      pull the entire party spectrum to the left, the Republicans included.

      The prospects for instituting IRV in the
      U.S. are very good. IRV faces
      no constitutional obstacles and would not necessitate federal
      legislation. Efforts to replace plurality elections with IRV in state
      and federal races are already well underway in numerous states,
      Alaska, New Mexico, Vermont, Washington, and California.
      Moreover, in March of this year, IRV was adopted by the city of
      , backed by a broad coalition headed by Greens and Democrats.

      Support for IRV might grow on the basis of its appeal to democratic
      principles alone. But it is more likely that its adoption will hinge
      primarily on the strategic efforts of the Greens and other "third"
      parties. This is the beauty of this strategy. The Greens do not need a
      lot of power to effect a dramatic change in the rules of the political
      game. With only a small following, we can turn the core problem of the
      current electoral system (the spoiler effect) into a strategic advantage
      by using it to force the adoption of IRV. In fact, the states where
      efforts to pass IRV have gone the furthest are precisely those states
      where a strong third party has created a spoiler effect by transforming
      a perennial winner into a loser.

      The Greens should therefore put IRV at the very center of our strategic
      plans. We should fully embrace the role of spoiler, but at every
      opportunity, publicly and emphatically link it to the strategic
      objective of passing IRV legislation. Without any hesitation, Greens
      should run candidates, in races where incumbents are running unopposed
      or face very weak opposition. However, this is not where the real energy
      and effort should be concentrated. For while we will no doubt gain some
      needed attention by obtaining 35 percent of the vote in a race that
      would otherwise be uncontested, we won't make any real headway in
      advancing a reform of the electoral system. Instead, the most important
      battleground will be those races where the outcome is in doubt and the
      Greens can decide the election. Since the decision to institute IRV will
      be undertaken by state legislatures, the primary target should be state
      office-holders, particularly those who are in a position of power and
      can influence the flow of legislation.

      To repeat, we need to be very candid about this by making clear that
      while we are spoilers, we are doing so with a very sound strategic, and
      fundamentally democratic, aim in mind. Moreover, we need to reach out to
      core progressive voting constituencies, explain to them what we are
      hoping to accomplish, and educate them about IRV. We should encourage
      organizations that represent these constituencies to push hard for IRV
      themselves. Even if these groups dislike the Greens, they could use IRV
      themselves to advance their interests. This will go a long way toward
      demonstrating that the Greens are genuinely concerned about their
      interests and working very deliberately to enable them to realize their

      We also need to refrain from running candidates against certain
      Democratic incumbents, including Dennis Kucinich, Jesse Jackson Jr.,
      Paul Wellstone, and others. Whenever a Democrat falls into the gray
      area, the wise course is not to run against her or him, except in rare
      circumstances where that Democrat actually has the power to push through
      IRV reforms but is unlikely to do so without pressure. Otherwise, pick
      on the mainstream Democrats and the Republicans. While this is a more
      controversial stance and may require convincing some Green supporters,
      taking out these Democrats would do possibly irreparable damage to our
      party-building efforts. Whatever one may think of Wellstone, for
      example, he is no Al Gore, and if he or someone even more progressive
      were to go down, we would be on the permanent defensive and any headway
      we make with IRV among the progressive voting constituencies mentioned
      above would be lost.

      Finally, we need to work in concert with the Libertarians and any other
      third party that is in the same boat as us. This is because the
      Democrats do not control every state.

      Taking out Democrats where they are in the minority will do little to
      advance the cause of IRV, because they're not in a position to do much
      about it. Thus, in states where the Republicans are in power, they too
      need to be spoiled by a third party and the Greens are not in a position
      to play that role. This is the lesson of
      Alaska, where the Libertarians
      have succeeded in building Republican support for IRV and the Democrats
      are opposed. The Greens should therefore convene a summit with the
      Libertarians and Reform party to map out IRV strategy together. We all
      sink or swim together. We all share the belief that if we open up our
      electoral system and make it more responsive to voters' wishes, our
      parties will prosper.

      By explicitly making IRV the cornerstone of our political strategy, the
      Greens can accomplish several objectives at once: Make a big splash by
      becoming the champions of democratic reform; shed our negative image as
      unsophisticated protest voters by linking our spoiling efforts to a
      sound strategic objective; offer a solution that would appeal to
      progressive voting constituencies and that could promote an alliance
      between them and the Greens; implement a reform that could alter the
      political playing field in a very fundamental way and in relatively
      short order; and give the Green Party the space it requires to embark on
      the long-term process of party-building.

      IRV therefore presents the Greens with an opportunity to make history.
      What we choose to do with this opportunity may well decide our own
      political fate, and quite possibly that of the nation. This mission is
      critical for the Greens, for without IRV, we don't see any route for
      success in the visible future.

      Patrick S. Barrett is Administrative Director of the
      A. E. Havens Center
      for the Study of Social Structure and Social Change at the University of

      Robert W. McChesney is a research professor in the
      Institute of
      Communications Research and the Graduate School of Information and
      Library Science at the
      University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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