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New Ways of Thinking on Election Reform

Portland Oregonian By David Sirota May 16, 2007 "Ah, beer," says Homer Simpson. "The source of, and the solution to, all of life's problems." The same kind of thing can be said of politics: There's no limit to what can be blamed on it, or on what we might achieve through it. But before we disengage, it's worth asking why our experience of politics has been so negative, and if there are simple reforms to our campaign finance and election laws that will help us have the thrill of elections without the nasty hangover. Oregon has made tremendous strides toward increasing voter participation, leading the nation with its vote-by-mail system. But problems remain. In a complex, media-saturated world, voters often don't know enough about candidates, and suspect the real decisions have already been bought and paid for. Meanwhile our representatives must decipher the public interest from ambiguous poll results, and are subject to the never-ending pressure of lobbyists and contributors. Surely American democracy can be improved ”“ and Oregonians can once again help lead the way. First, we must change how our democracy is funded. Thanks to the donations of large corporations, rich individuals, and well-funded special interests, the principle of "one person, one vote" is under assault. Though it is impossible to completely remove private money from politics, we can counterbalance it with public money that does not come to politicians with the expectation of legislative favors. Portland's Citizen Campaign Commission recently reported that the city's new public financing system has driven down campaign spending and reduced the influence of special interests. The cost of public financing is modest, and the potential policy gains would be large for Oregon if the legislature took Portland's lead and expanded public financing statewide like other states such as Arizona and Maine. Another potentially powerful reform is called "fusion" voting. This is currently under consideration by the Oregon legislature as HB 3040, with 15 co-sponsors (9 Democrat, 6 Republican). As I travel across America as a writer and organizer, folks always tell me they believe too little gets done to address the bread-and-butter issues that affect our everyday lives. Fusion is a simple reform being used by states like Connecticut and New York to address this problem head on. Under fusion voting ”“ once legal in Oregon, as it was in every state ”“ voters get to choose a candidate and a party. Candidates can run as the nominee of more than one party ”“ usually one major and one "third" party. When candidates run on more than one party line, voters can vote for them on whichever party line they prefer without fear of wasting their vote. The votes are then added together for the candidate's total. Fusion, which is also being considered in Maine, provides more information for voters by letting them know where candidates stand on the specific issues that fusion parties focus on. This also helps reduce legislative logjams. A fusion party oriented towards health care, for example, helps voters know which candidates support health care reform. If that health care party gets a decent chunk of votes on its line, that will help persuade legislators from both major parties that there is serious voter interest in sensible compromise. Fusion allows voters to shine a spotlight on certain issues, and gives legislators a way to get more insight into what voters are concerned about most. Politics won't ever cause ”“ or be the solution to ”“ all of life's problems. But by enacting campaign finance reform and fusion voting, Oregon legislators can make sure the political process does a lot more to solve our problems than it does now.