OP-ED: The Conquest of Ballots

In January 2018, the Democratic Socialists of America adopted an ambitious new electoral strategy. It denounced both the Republican and Democratic parties as “organs of the capitalist ruling class,” and declared that its goal was to build “independent socialist political power.” The resolution was a clear break from the strategy of DSA’s founder, Michael Harrington, who hoped to gradually realign the Democratic Party to the left.

However, the resolution did not call for DSA to reconstitute itself as an independent political party. It remained open to running candidates in Democratic primaries, and even to local chapters endorsing non-socialist politicians on a case-by-case basis. This flexible approach is helping DSA members win unprecedented electoral victories—most notably with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning upset in a New York congressional primary. But it also has its fair share of detractors who argue that any engagement with the Democratic Party is misguided and opportunistic.

Whether this assessment is accurate or not, DSA’s decision to avoid an all-out break with the Democrats has a rational basis. As the organization stated before its leftward shift, “the process and structure of American elections…[have] doomed third party efforts.” The United States has perhaps the most repressive electoral system in the developed world. Most states enforce draconian ballot access requirements on third party candidates and strictly regulate the organizational structure of political parties. Meanwhile, gerrymandering by both major parties has seated undemocratic legislatures, entrenched incumbent politicians, and made many elections uncompetitive.

Perhaps most importantly, nearly all American elections are based on plurality voting in single-member districts. This system creates the media-hyped “spoiler effect” in which marginal candidates draw voters away from one of the two major parties and unintentionally help the other. In 2000, the spoiler effect made an infamous contribution to George W. Bush’s presidential victory. More recently, it helped the vicious reactionary Paul LePage win two gubernatorial elections in Maine—once with less than 38% of the vote. Over time, the spoiler effect has frightened the public away from voting for third parties, contributing to their near-total marginalization.

Only extensive reforms can remove these obstacles to third party success, but the Republican and Democratic parties are both firmly invested in the existing political order and will never willingly change it. To most observers it seems like a hopeless situation, and even some socialists have called on the American Left to accept that we must work within the two-party system.

We should reject this defeatist outlook. The socialist project has always strived to “win the battle of democracy,” to achieve universal suffrage and other reforms that challenge the capitalist class. If our goal is to build a principled socialist movement with revolutionary ambitions, the very idea of two-party rule should be noxious to us and we must fight it tooth and nail. We need to conquer the ballot—to force a democratizing overhaul of the American electoral system.

And in Michigan, a grassroots campaign is showing us how.


The VNP Campaign

In December 2017, a Michigan activist group called Voters Not Politicians (VNP) announced that it had collected enough petition signatures to put a novel initiative on the ballot in November 2018. If it is passed, it will alter the state’s redistricting process by stripping the Republican-dominated legislature of its power to draw congressional and state legislative districts. Instead, redistricting will be conducted by an independent panel of citizen volunteers, selected by lot in a manner similar to juries. In a state like Michigan where gerrymandering is rampant, this would represent a groundbreaking democratic reform.

The success of the signature drive is particularly impressive because it was an all-volunteer campaign run on a shoestring budget, without a single paid petition circulator. Over 425,000 people have signed the initiative and polls indicate that a clear majority of Michigan voters support it. If they are given the chance, they will almost certainly pass the initiative—which is why its opponents, backed by the state’s Chamber of Commerce, fought bitterly to block it in the courts. In July this year, they lost, with the Michigan Supreme Court ruling that the measure would remain on the ballot in November.

Despite right-wing attempts at obstruction, the lessons of the VNP campaign are clear. Even with limited resources, grassroots organizers can use ballot initiatives to bypass establishment politicians, fight for electoral reforms, and win.

Eyes on the Prize

Twenty-four states, Washington, D.C., and countless local governments allow for some form of citizen-led ballot initiative. If one group in Michigan could mount such an intriguing campaign, what could a national organization like DSA accomplish if it adopted a strategy for electoral overhaul through ballot initiatives? What kind of electoral reforms should socialists demand and which are the most important?

If we want to use ballot initiatives as a springboard for mass mobilization, we should emphasize broadly democratic reforms like the Michigan anti-gerrymandering measure. American voters on both the Left and Right are acutely aware of gerrymandering, and they universally hate it. They also hate the influence of corporate money in politics, so we should demand extensive public financing of elections to make races more egalitarian. If we tap into popular rage against the political elite, the public will increasingly view socialists not as a threat to democracy, but as its greatest champions. We could establish ourselves as a unique force willing to challenge both Republican and Democratic hacks, winning over a mass constituency not only from liberal demographic groups, but also from traditionally conservative ones.

The same principle applies to reforms that more directly challenge the two-party system. Over 60% of Americans and 71% of Millennials feel that the United States needs a competitive third party. With their support, we should push initiatives to scrap unfair ballot access requirements and deregulate the structure of political parties. Ending plurality voting in single-member districts will be another crucial task. In state legislatures, we could implement proportional representation (PR), an electoral system that gives political parties representation directly tied to their percentage of the vote. Under PR, even single-digit support can often guarantee a party at least a few legislative seats. For a fledgling socialist group seeking a political foothold, this would be a godsend. There are many different types of PR—some of which would be more palatable to American voters than others—but all would represent an improvement over the current system.

At first glance, it might even seem possible to pass an initiative in a given state to have its members of Congress be elected with proportional representation. Nothing in the Constitution forbids a state from doing this. But sadly, federal law does: since 1967, it has mandated that all House representatives be elected in single-member districts. This means that at least in the beginning, our efforts to win proportional representation will have to focus on state legislatures and local governments.

Thankfully however, federal law does not require that representatives be chosen by plurality vote. This opens up the possibility of an alternative federal-level reform: instant-runoff voting, which allows voters to rank multiple candidates in order of preference instead of choosing only one. If no candidate receives a clear majority vote, a series of simulated runoffs are conducted until one candidate emerges as the victor. Instant-runoff voting does not produce proportional representation, but it helps third party candidates compete by largely eliminating the spoiler effect. Last year in Minneapolis, where instant runoff has been used for nearly a decade, Ginger Jentzen ran for city council on a Socialist Alternative ticket, with additional support from the local DSA chapter. She won 34% of the vote in a four-way race, with more people selecting her as their first choice than any other candidate. Jentzen did not win the election, but her performance was excellent when compared to the single-digit results of most American third party campaigns.

Working state by state, we could implement instant-runoff voting for both House and Senate elections. Just a few successful initiatives could have tremendous political implications: Florida and California both allow ballot initiatives, and together they account for almost 20% of the seats in the House of Representatives.

In summary, our electoral reform program should raise five key demands: citizen-controlled redistricting to counter gerrymandering, public financing of elections, elimination of restrictive ballot access laws, deregulation of political parties, and an end to plurality rule in single-member districts—which could entail proportional representation in state legislatures and instant runoff voting at the federal level. Taken individually, these reforms would be policy tweaks that any liberal technocrat could propose. But if we push them collectively, as part of a broader radical movement, they could revolutionize working class politics and smash the two-party system forever.