Does anyone feel like the election is still going on? It’s been a month now since Barack Obama took the stage at the annual site of Lollapalooza and announced that “change has come to America” to a crowd of approximately 14 zillion adoring fans, as fireworks exploded overhead and UFOs zipped joyfully across the night sky. But I still can’t shake the feeling that it’s not over yet. I know the media agrees with me.
Ravenous 24-hour news stations have grown fat and lazy after feasting on two years of presidential election like worms on a carcass, and since November 4, they’ve lurched forth in a bewildered haze, checking to see what Obama’s doing every twelve minutes, simply because they’ve forgotten how to report on anything else.
I’m not too worried. Any day now, they’ll find something new to swing a sledgehammer at, and the whole cycle will begin anew.
At any rate, there’s a perfectly legitimate reason that none of them have been talking about Minnesota’s ongoing senatorial election: nothing appears to be happening.
The race between Republican incumbent/John Kerry sound-alike Norm Coleman and Democratic candidate/snarky comment artist Al Franken is currently lumbering through an interminable statewide hand recount after Coleman won the initial count by fewer than 300 votes. The margin has since shrunk beneath 200 votes, and it really is anyone’s election at this point.
If Coleman wins this election, Democrats will almost certainly point to Independent candidate Dean Barkley as an important factor in the outcome. Dean Barkley pulled 15% of the electorate, receiving almost 440,000 votes from a voting base more closely aligned with the political views of Al Franken than those of his opponent. Had Barkley not run, the Democrats will argue, Franken would certainly have won.
They certainly have a fair case. As one of the people who did vote for Barkley, I can tell you that given a 50/50 choice between a scumsucker like Norm Coleman and anyone else, I’ll vote for the other guy nine times out of ten.
Some would argue that this makes my voting third party somehow irresponsible, that if I had any real interest in the race’s outcome, I would have voted for the more viable candidate. On Election Day, a friend of mine asked why I voted the way I did when it became clear just how close the race was going to be. I told him it that I thought Barkley was the best candidate for the job.
“But he didn’t have a chance of winning,” replied my friend.
It seems ironic for this election to have occurred the same day that 2000 presidential spoiler Ralph Nader spectacularly ended his fall from relevance, pulling only 1% of the popular vote, and then calling Barack Obama an Uncle Tom on television.
I was in seventh grade when Nader garnered 3% and Al Gore lost Florida by a minuscule margin, after winning the popular vote by a few hundred thousand. It seems like nobody really learned anything from that mess.
Despite how bitterly many Democrats complained about Nader voters yanking the rug from under Gore, what happened in 2000 was a third-party candidate doing exactly what a third-party candidate is supposed to. People voted for Ralph Nader because neither of the major parties was speaking to them. Ralph Nader had very little funding and almost no media exposure, but he swiped three million votes from Gore, and all it accomplished was scaring everyone out of voting third party in the future. The defeat should have made the Democrats take a closer look and find out what they were doing wrong. It didn’t—just look who they nominated in ’04.
So my question is this: what good are third parties if everyone is too jaded or nervous to vote for them, no matter how they feel about the issues? We are a nation of more than 300 million people, and yet nobody ever seems to question the ability of two monolithic parties to represent the country’s entire spectrum of political beliefs. We cannot have true democracy in this country without any viable alternative to the two major political parties, but our current system is stacked so heavily in favor of the big two that it’s almost impossible to happen on any meaningful level.
The plurality system currently in place for most of the country’s elections drastically reduces the power of so-called fringe candidates, limiting them to the role of spoiler, splitting the votes and causing defeat for the major candidate whose views are most similar to their own. Many countries (and some states) require one candidate to win by a clear majority. If no candidate pulls more than 50% in the initial vote, a runoff is held between the top two vote-getters, eliminating the possibility of a spoiler candidate and allowing people to vote their beliefs in any election, safe in the knowledge that they will be afforded a second chance to vote for the lesser of two evils if necessary. The downside is that runoff elections are expensive and time-consuming, but it seems a small price to pay for a more open democracy.
Also, if the 2000 election should have taught us anything, it’s that the electoral college is fatally flawed. However, the issue more or less vanished after a year or so of bitter complaining from Gore voters. The first-to-270 system is arbitrary, silly, and antiquated. The intent was to level the playing field for the states with lower population density, but its only impact has been to set about half of the electoral map in stone for any given year. It marginalizes huge numbers of voters, totally voiding the relevance of Republicans in states like Minnesota and New York, Democrats in Texas and Alabama, and Independents in, well, everywhere. The electoral college needs an update not just for the sake of the smaller parties, but for anyone who doesn’t want to go through another goatfuck of the kind we saw eight years ago.
The reason that I find the stigma of the third-party campaign as an unconditional lost cause to be so unsettling is because this is a country where our politicians are supposed to take their power from the people but how can we be sure when in the end everyone just feels like they have to vote for whichever two guys the major parties throw at them? As usual, George Carlin put it best:
There used to be seven oil companies. There are now three. It will soon be two. The things that matter in this country have been reduced in choice: there are two political parties, there are a handful of insurance companies, but if you want a bagel there are 23 flavors because you have the illusion of choice.
As it stands, the Democrats and the Republicans are very well entrenched and very powerful. They have all the funding and they hold all the cards, but in spite of all of their power, all their visibility, and all of their resources, the only reason they’re still there is because people keep voting for them.
So if the Democrats and the Republicans are not really earning your vote, I’m asking you to find someone else who is. The power in this country is supposed to belong to the people, but they will not work for us unless we make them. Vote for the candidate you want to win instead of against the one you don’t. You’re not betting on a horse race here. If your politicians are not using their power properly, stop giving it to them.