Thursday, November 5, 2015

America's Big Election Night

Although a number of important—and under-reported—elections just took place in the U.S., the election that might ultimately matter most to Americans happened last month in Canada.  There, the Liberal Party executed an ’08 Obama-like ousting of the governing Conservative Party.

Three aspects of the Canadian election are particularly notable and inspiring—if not downright revolutionary.  One is the Liberal Party’s promise to change Canada’s winner-take-all elections; two is the re-election to Parliament of Green Party leader Elizabeth May; and three, is the inclusive Cabinet appointed by the new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau.

Canada, like the U.S., is one of the few remaining countries to still use winner-take-all elections.  In both countries, a candidate need not earn a majority of the vote in order to win election.  The candidate with the most votes wins.  That, on the surface, might sound fair enough until you consider a three way race where a candidate can with 34% of the vote.  Winner-take-all, in a situation like this, means that 66% of the voters—the vast majority—will vote for a losing candidate.  That’s hardly democratic and it happens with an alarming frequency in both countries.

Elections in the U.S. and Canada take place in hundreds of electoral districts (known as “ridings” in Canada).  In each individual district, a candidate can win with less than a majority producing a distorted result.  When you aggregate the vote totals of all the local districts, the combined results can create an even greater distortion at the national level.  That’s how Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party won a majority of seats in Canada’s Parliament with only 39% of the vote.  That’s also how the Republican Party won a majority of seats in the U.S. House in both 1996 and 2012 despite losing the national popular vote to the Democrats.
One of Trudeau’s campaign promises was that the recent election would be Canada’s last using winner-take-all.

Two alternatives that will be considered to replace winner-take-all in Canada will be Ranked Choice Voting, also known as Instant Runoff Voting, and Proportional Representation.  Although there are a variety of proportional election systems, the basic idea behind all of them is that a political party’s share of seats in the legislature should correspond to the share of the vote that party received.  In other words, if a party receives 10% of the vote, it should be awarded 10% of the seats in the legislature.  Most of the world’s democracies use some form of Proportional Representation.

Ranked Choice Voting is used to avoid “vote-splitting” or the “spoiler” dynamic as well as to more accurately reflect the will of the voters.  With Ranked Choice Voting, instead of voting for just one candidate, you rank the candidates in order of preference—“1” for your first choice, “2” for your second choice, “3” for your third choice and so on down the line.  If a candidate wins a majority of first choice votes, that candidate wins.  If no candidate receives an initial majority, the candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated and the votes for the eliminated candidate are redistributed among the remaining candidates according to the voters’ second preferences.  The process repeats until one candidate has a majority.  Ranked Choice Voting is used in a number of U.S. cities including Oakland and Minneapolis; in Australia and Ireland; and by the Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—in other words by the folks who award the coveted “Oscar.”  Many places which use Ranked Choice Voting experience greater voter turnout and more civil campaigns.

The prospects of our neighbor to the north radically revamping its national electoral structure within the next four years is a political earthquake that the U.S. cannot ignore.  America’s archaic electoral institutions will come under even greater scrutiny and pressure to reform.

The re-election of Canada’s Green Party Leader, Elizabeth May, to the national Parliament is another reason for pro-democracy activists in the U.S. to cheer.  May is seemingly universally recognized in Canada as a conscientious and diligent legislator who works across party lines to get things done.  Many Canadians—whether Green or not—look to her as the voice of the environment and some consider her “Canada’s conscience.”  Her stature will only be boosted when she attends the upcoming U.N. Conference on Climate Change later this month in Paris.  May’s accomplishments demonstrate that a small political party can have a big voice.  When Canada changes to a more inclusive electoral system, the Green Leader’s hard work may translate into an even greater role for the Green Party.  These developments will hopefully illuminate the potential for a genuine multi-party democracy in the U.S.

The U.S. could also learn plenty from Prime Minister Trudeau’s cabinet appointments: Trudeau just appointed the most diverse cabinet in the history of Canada.  Half of the appointees are women and the cabinet also includes two aboriginal individuals and three Sikhs.  And, for the first time, the environmental minister carries the new title of Minister of the Environment and Climate Change.

With an amazingly inclusive cabinet, a focus on Climate Change and the promise of transformative election reform, Canada is demonstrating what democracy in the 21st century should look like.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Classiest Damn Act in Sports Today

The vast readership of this blog (both of you) might be surprised that I’m writing about something as seemingly mundane as “sports” since I usually write about politics and elections.  Well, let me tell you, last night I witnessed not only one of the most exciting basketball games of all time, but I also got to see the classiest damn act in sports today—Coach Wayne Tinkle and the Oregon State Beavers men’s basketball team.

For those of you who don’t know, Wayne Tinkle took over a team that could charitably be described as “in transition.”  Before Coach Tinkle took the helm, players had bailed in droves—whether they transferred or graduated or whatever, the operative guiding principle seemed to be to get out of Dodge.  The Exodus, in part, seemed to prompt the sudden dismissal of last year’s Coach and the program was left in tatters.

Enter Coach Tinkle who promised only an emphasis on fundamentals, teamwork and dedication.  The team, many said, had “no stars” left; no high-scoring players, no big names.  But, like me, the fan base seemed to react to Coach Tinkle’s approach—and so did his players.

Coach Tinkle’s roster appeared to be light on just about everything—from experience to the number of players who had actually been recruited.  To fill out the roster, the team held open tryouts—an almost unbelievable consideration for a Pac-12, Division I team.  A handful of players made the roster as walk-ons with the promise of nothing other than being able to be part of the team for a year.

Last night, Coach Tinkle rewarded those walk-ons—most of whom hadn’t played a minute all season—with the distinction of starting in one of the most important games of the season:  the final home game; the Civil War with the rivals from down the road, the dreaded Ducks.  It was an incredible gesture—all the more dramatic for what was on the line.  The near-capacity crowd at Gill Coliseum couldn’t have cared less if it was a risky—or even reckless move.  We roared our approval when the line-up was announced and did so again when the starting five—all Oregon kids—came out of the game and were replaced by the usual starters.  There was no finer way to honor the contribution those players made to the team and to the unexpected success the team has enjoyed this season.  

I haven’t enjoyed any “spectator” sport this much since I was a kid (although, as much as I scream and cheer at the games, maybe I’m more than a mere spectator). Whether the sportswriters consider the Beavers’ players to be stars is absolutely irrelevant:  there is a wealth of talent, athleticism and teamwork on the court.  And the atmosphere in Gill Coliseum has been nothing short of electric all season.  Beyond all that, with last night’s gesture, the Beavers and Coach Tinkle showed us that sportsmanship is about much more than just playing a game.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A View from Oregon

I feel sorry for John Kitzhaber—the soon to be ex-Governor of Oregon.  He’s accomplished a lot, he loves this great state of ours and he seems like a decent enough guy.
I’m not saying I agree with him politically—I ran against him as the Green Party nominee for governor in 1998—or that he shouldn’t have tendered his resignation.  But he is taking the fall for a media-driven “crisis” that owes more to stupidity than corruption.
Kitzhaber is an interesting political character.  A former ER physician, his trademark accomplishment was creating the Oregon Health Plan; a state-based forerunner of the Affordable Care Act established long before “Obamacare.”  In his third term, he also refused to enforce the death penalty.  But there’s a lot about Kitzhaber’s tenure that is not as laudable.  For example, he’s been far too cozy with the timber industry and, back in his first term, he signed a bill to re-criminalize the possession of small amounts of cannabis.  (Shortly after Kitzhaber signed the bill into law, it was overturned by the voters).  Prior to becoming governor, Kitzhaber served in the Oregon House and as the President of the Oregon Senate.  This past November, he was elected to an unprecedented fourth term as governor—though, per Oregon law, the terms were not consecutive.  In short, he has enjoyed as fairly remarkable political career; the stuff of which legacies are made.
His downfall came fast and furiously.
A rule of thumb in politics is to avoid the appearance of impropriety.  One should avoid not only impropriety but even the appearance of it.  And that’s where the Governor blew it.
The accusations against him center around what some have labeled “influence peddling.”  The amounts in question—less than a couple of hundred thousand dollars—are laughable especially when compared to, say, the $889 million dollars the Koch brothers are reported to be planning on spending legally in the next presidential election.  The “influence” was in the form of consulting contracts his companion Cylvia Hayes had with non-profit organizations which were promoting sound public-interest public policy. 
It was unquestionably stupid of the Governor and Ms. Hayes to blur so many lines of public and private roles.  Especially when it could be argued that “the private”—advocating for cleaner energy and greater sustainability—was really in the public interest.  But it gets back to that old “avoiding even the appearance of impropriety” thing and the Governor and Ms. Hayes, seemingly through a mixture of recklessness and arrogance, clearly failed to do that.  They provided more than enough fodder for The Oregonian, a once-mighty, now shrinking and rightward-drifting publication, to call for Kitzhaber’s resignation.  Once The Oregonian did so, it pounded a continual drumbeat which became hard for the political establishment to ignore.
Interestingly, the story about Ms. Hayes’ consulting contracts was first broken by Willamette Week.  In fact, The Oregonian has a history of being scooped on scandals and big stories.  It’s one-time motto—“if it matters to Oregonians, it’s in The Oregonian”—was spoofed by the Washington Post when the Post broke the Bob Packwood scandal a couple of decades ago and recast the motto as “if it matters to Oregonians, it’s in the Washington Post.”
Willamette Week “broke” the story just this past summer.  Ms. Hayes had been seemingly blurring public and private roles throughout the entirety of the Governor’s third term.  So where the hell was Oregon’s press corps for the previous three years?  So much for investigative journalism and the Fourth Estate.
John Kitzhaber was just re-elected in an election where Oregonians famously legalized cannabis and not so famously denied drivers’ licenses to undocumented individuals who pick the grapes for Oregon’s fabled Pinot Noir.  That election also saw a ballot initiative to protect consumers by requiring the labeling of GMO food products.  That initiative lost by a mere 837 votes—but only after a recount and after Monsanto, DuPont and friends spent a record-breaking $19 million to flood airwaves and mailboxes with propaganda in opposition.  That’s not a crime.  But it should be.
Yes, the Governor let us down.  But so did the press who let this go unreported for so long.  And in comparison to the legalized bribery that passes for “campaign finance,” the financial aspects of the Governor’s or Ms. Hayes’ transgressions amount to chickenfeed.
Oregon’s Secretary of State Kate Brown will be sworn in as our new governor on Wednesday.  I like Kate.  She has taken steps to expand voter participation and has been open to protecting and expanding the role of independent political parties.  She will have to run in a special election in 2016 in order to stay on as governor.  On Wednesday, she’ll have to hit the ground running and it won’t be long before she has to stand for election on her own.  But she can do two important things during that brief period of time.  One, she can appoint a successor Secretary of State who shares her commitment to opening up the political process to all Oregonians.  And two, she can take the lead in protecting our democratic process from the pernicious effects of private money which drowns the voices of public citizens.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Measure 90 is Dangerous and Deceptive

As one who has worked for twenty five years in Oregon to increase voter choice and participation, I can say this about Measure 90:  it is one of the most dangerous and deceptive election “reform” proposals I have even seen.

Whether or not the Big Money proponents of this ill-conceived measure intend to sabotage the democratic process and silence the voices of independent voters, that will be its effect.  Considering that this measure is supported by some of the biggest lobbying groups in the state (who, in turn, receive support from the Koch Brothers), that could well be the intent.  Why else would Associated Oregon Industries pour $50,000 into this proposal?  This is the group that has fought every minimum wage hike tooth and nail.  AOI and the Koch Brothers interest in democratic reforms begins and ends with how “democratic reforms” can benefit AOI and the Koch Brothers.

Still, politics does make for strange bedfellows and some good citizens have been caught up in the ridiculous rhetoric and nonsensical claims of the measure’s proponents.   Although Measure 90 will allow all voters to vote in the primary, that election is usually a waste of time that few people bother participating in.  Measure 90 won’t change that.  The real change will come in November—when all voters will be restricted to having the “choice” of just two candidates in each race.

Here’s what will happen if Measure 90 passes:  if you’re an independent voter, you’ll get to vote in the primary.  However, only two candidates for each office will be on the ballot for the election that really counts—the main election in November.  In November, when you vote for Governor or Congress or the U.S. Senate, there will be only Republicans and Democrats on the ballot.  There will be no independent candidates; no Greens, no Libertarians, no other “third party” candidates.  In some races, only Republicans will be on the ballot; in others, only Democrats.  The proposal that is supposedly all about empowering independent voters will give independent voters the “choice” of voting only for Republicans and Democrats in November—at the one election that really matters.  When Washington and California have used this same system, no third party or independent candidate for statewide office has ever been on the November ballot. 
The sad truth is that our elections are broken and in desperate need of reform.  Measure 90’s backers are exploiting this desperation.  What is unfortunate is that there are any number of reforms that would increase diversity and participation in elections and would do it without the many ill effects of Measure 90.  If “closed” primaries prevent participation, we could open them up.  Or, better yet, do away with primaries altogether.  The voter turnout rate is laughable, few races are actually contested, and taxpayers subsidize what should really be an internal function of the Democrats and Republicans.  So let’s just kill the primary altogether.  No one will be excluded, we’ll save a ton of money, campaigns will be shorter and we won’t have to worry about this Measure 90 nonsense.

Elections are about a lot more than winning and losing.  Elections are—or should be—about public policy, big ideas and a healthy debate about the future of our country.  Although “third parties” may not often win, they have been responsible for introducing “radical” ideas—such as marriage equality, cannabis legalization, and the abolition of slavery—into mainstream politics.  If Measure 90 passes, Oregon’s elections will be over in May—before most voters are even paying attention.  Come November, there will be only Republicans and Democrats on the ballot.  There will be no independent voices heard from May to November; no debate over issues like undeclared wars, NSA spying and the corporate control of our government.

Democracy is about choices.  Measure 90 limits our choices when choices matter most.  Protect democracy’s most precious right:  Vote No on 90.

This column was published in Eugene Weekly and on-line at