Time for real choices, not echoes

It’s election time. Although most congressional races are so lopsided that incumbent re-election rates will continue to rival those of the former Soviet Union, citizens face critically important choices: elections for governors who must make tough decisions in these tight fiscal times, House and Senate races to determine control of a narrowly divided Congress, and a host of ballot measures.

In this great democracy of ours, one might expect a surge of voter participation to show the world just how proud we are of self-government.

Think again. By all indications, voters are not excited or engaged. In fact, experts are predicting barely a third of adults will go to the polls. That’s one of the lowest voter turnouts in the established democratic world for elections of a national Legislature.

A host of reasons can be fingered, but there’s an essential one that many overlook. Our two-party system has reached a dead end. The two-party system has its advocates, but any advantages it may once have provided are swamped by problems that are inescapable with today’s marketing technology and expertise.

As long as we limit credible choices to two, most campaigns will sink into a distasteful concoction of poll-driven sound bites, negative attacks and avoidance of important issues.

Democrats and Republicans may fight bitterly in Washington, but it’s getting nearly impossible to distinguish them during election season. In desperate bids to be all things to half the people, both parties blur lines on everything from corporate malfeasance and Social Security to even something as momentous as war.

First, we should adopt instant run-off voting to give independents and alternative parties a fair chance to compete without being “spoilers.” Attractive third-party candidates and independents could try to build majority support without threatening major party candidates by their mere presence.

Second, we must consider following the lead of most modern democracies in adopting forms of proportional representation, in which both those in the majority and minority win a fair share of representation. Only then will we have a truly muscular democracy, with credible candidacies across the spectrum that ensure important issues – and the 28 people who care about them – are not left behind.

In an era when the public itself has practically become a bystander to elections, with decreasing participation and declining expectations, our “winner take all” system has failed us. A two-party system too easily can mean no choice at all. We need bold reforms to reverse these alarming trends.

John Anderson is a former member of Congress (1961-1981) and a former presidential candidate. He is now president of the Center for Voting and Democracy.