Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Democracy and the Two Major Parties

As the parties stifle competition, some voters limit themselves

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During the signature collection phase of a successful attempt to get on the ballot for Congress as an independent,a voter declined to sign my petition because, "You're either a Democrat or a Republican – there's nothing else." As she walked off, it made me sad to think that this voter limits herself to only two choices. Perhaps others do, too.

Part of the two-party mindset comes from the parties themselves as they try to limit competition and avoid waging campaigns against multiple opponents. That effort reveals itself in three areas: gerrymandering, ballot restrictions, and legislative caucuses.

The gerrymandering that arose from the 2010 Census gave the major political parties in Virginia the freedom to trade voting precincts like Halloween candy, each claiming the precincts that they could win with little disruption to the status quo. As a result, here in the 11th Congressional District there are areas where the district is one precinct wide and where neighbors in Centreville, Fairfax, Falls Church, Herndon Lorton, Oakton, or Springfield have different Congressmen. One extreme district – Virginia's 5th – stretches more than 200 miles from Danville on the North Carolina border to Marshall, just west of Centreville.

Ballot restrictions are a legislative play to bolster the strength of parties and incumbents. In order to get on the ballot, I was required to collect 1,000 signatures from qualified voters within the district. Difficult yet achievable. But once on the ballot, the parties play their games. In Virginia, a "recognized political party" must have a "state central committee composed of registered voters residing in each congressional district" and must have "received at least 10 percent of the total vote cast" in the two preceding elections. Why is this important? Because only candidates from these parties get listed at the top of the ballot, drawing voter attention and relegating other candidates to the second division. Instead of placing candidates alphabetically or randomizing ballot placement, the recognized political parties have legislated themselves as top dogs.

A Congressional caucus is a group of Representatives that meets to advance common political causes; not surprisingly, the largest caucuses are those of the two major parties. Caucuses further dilute the power of voters by bringing together like-minded, monotone legislators to advance their narrow agenda and stifle the progress of competing agendas. Someone once asked me – if elected – which caucus I would join. My standard response remains, "Whichever party is in the majority because it is the duty of independents to moderate the excesses of the majority."

Trust me – I'm not bellyaching about this election or my situation as a first-time or independent candidate; I knew the game before I started. Rather, I'm concerned that the electorate has withdrawn to a two-tone or even monochromatic way of thinking about politics, policies, and government services.  It's a chicken-and-egg situation: did we as voters want to limit our choices and solutions or were we dealt this construct where two parties control the political discourse?

I'm not trying to convince you to vote for me because I'm the alternative to a two-party electoral system propagated and codified by the parties themselves. I just want you to weigh all candidates and all issues on their relative merits to make your own decision. That is the essence of democracy: all voters with one vote each, making a personal decision on our future.