BPD Update Online, Fall 2004
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by Ralph Holcomb

Horse Race

As the election approaches I'm reminded again of the tricky and difficult difference between teaching and advocacy in social work education. At my best, I teach policy by presenting options based on ethical standards, and leave candidate advocacy to my time outside the classroom. This year I'll be thinking about challenging my policy students with a number of options involving electoral and legislative reform. Here's a laundry list of items I think are worth using class time to debate, as they all have to do with increasing social justice.

Eliminate the Electoral College. Ninety years ago the nation decided to eliminate indirect election of senators by passing the 17th amendment, and it's time to quit playing around with indirect election of presidents. The problem is clear to those who sport "Redefeat Bush in 2004" bumper stickers (obtainable from The Committee to Redefeat the President). At present there's no incentive to win big in most states - a 51% majority is sufficient to take all electoral votes for that state.

Change Election Day to both days of a weekend. Also, continue to explore other ways to increase turnout, such as easy mail-in ballots and universal same-day registration for voting. Academics think nothing of slipping out after class on a weekday to vote; try it if you're punching the clock at McDonald's. We make voting very inconvenient for working people, and that's about as clear a justice issue as it gets. I'm not giving up on internet voting yet, either.

Really publicly finance elections. There is simply no foolproof way to keep candidates from finding ever more creative means to outspend their opponent, but rigid and complete public financing of campaigns would return us to a semblance of sanity. Fundraising ability has become a proxy for electability.

Return the public airwaves to the public during election years. Government has pretty much abrogated its role as keeper of the airwaves. This means those renting bandwidth from We the People get to air Who Wants to Marry an Ax Murderer rather than conventions or candidate debates, or any of a hundred more creative ways networks can inform the public about issues. As a consequence we receive ever-more-distilled sound bites from candidates or their spin doctors. And the content! Fully 90% of electoral reporting is fluff, and that includes reporting on weekly fluctuations in poll numbers. The government should create an environment that encourages fuller reporting on issues, not personality or the election horse race.

Replace the House of Representatives with a Parliamentary form of rule. I don't know how else to introduce other voices into our outmoded two-party system. A parliamentary system would quickly spawn four parties for voters to choose from: a far right party, moderate or centrist Republican and Democratic parties, and a Green Party. Other smaller parties would flourish on the fringes. Parties would learn to form coalitions to rule and pass legislation. We'd still have a Senate, similar to a more active version of the Upper House in the British system, to put a brake on the wackier legislation coming out of the lower house. But more Americans would get excited about the democratic process if the parties more accurately reflected what they believed in, rather than some vague approximation of what they believed in.

There are other reforms, but these are a good start. I believe the process of electing a federal representative these days is about as cynical as it's ever been in the history of this country. It certainly has almost nothing to do with encouraging marginalized citizens to vote. We would do well to give our students some different ways to think about how we elect our federal and state representatives.

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BPD Update Online, Volume 26, No. 3, Fall 2004

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