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Stateside With Rosalea: North To The Future

Stateside with Rosalea Barker

North To The Future

Well, beat me with a Klondike Bar if those independent-minded mainlanders up north don't make history this Tuesday, August 27. Alaska - the word means 'mainland' - is holding its primary elections that day and also on the ballot paper is an initiative aimed at implementing an alternative voting electoral system - preferential voting, or IRV - for state and federal elections, except governor.

Can you believe this - if passed and the initiative becomes law Alaska will have instant runoff voting for the President of the United States. Not only that, but IRV will be adopted for the primary elections. The Republicans who formed the backdrop to President Bush's visit to Stockton, California, this week would probably die for the opportunity to have such a system implemented in the California primaries - especially if it included the Governor's race.

IRV would have made it very difficult for the incumbent (Democrat) Governor to pick off the most likely Republican primary candidate and have an unknown quantity end up as the Republican candidate for the Governor of California as happened in March. It's no coincidence that the President had people, not prompts like "corporate responsibility", as his backdrop in Stockton. The unknown quantity, Bill Simon, is now only too well-known for his suspect business dealings.

But to get back to Alaska, which is where the real action will be this week, I hope that any Alaskans reading this will go to the polls and vote "Yes" to this initiative becoming law, whatever their political persuasion.

It's a method of electing a candidate who has the support of the majority of voters without the need for a costly second run-off between the two leading candidates if nobody gets a majority first time around. There are people who say that it eliminates "wasted" votes, but I have a philosophical opposition to that term on the grounds that no vote is wasted if it was made honestly.

The single most important thing about the vote is that every citizen has one, and the only way it can be wasted is for it not to be used. For political parties to invite voters to abuse it by voting "strategically" rather than honestly is an insult because it undermines the perceived value of democracy and engenders massive distrust of politicians and public disengagement from the democratic process. People stop going to the polls because they think it's a waste of time.

Well, it's not a waste of time. Ever. And it will be an even more non-waste of time for Alaskans if they vote to give themselves the opportunity to rank their choices for elected office. There are people who say IRV gets rid of the "spoiler" vote.

Again, I have a philosophical disagreement with that term. To vote for the person you think will best represent your view doesn't "spoil" anything - it honours your commitment to the things you believe in. But, there can be no denying that when you have more than two candidates in a race, the chance of any one person getting a majority of the votes diminishes, and the opportunity for vote manipulation increases. IRV reverses those two trends.

Its very purpose is to ensure the election of the candidate with whom the majority of the voters will be happy. And so much detailed poll information would be needed by political organisations that it becomes extremely difficult - and downright dangerous - for them to ask their supporters to vote, not according to their opinions, but to a game-plan.

The first words of the preamble to the United States Constitution aren't "We the politicians" or "We the pollsters" - they are "We the people", and you Alaskans have, on Tuesday, the chance to put this democracy - of which you, the people, are the centrepiece - beyond the reach of the manipulators and deal-doers who have unfortunately been able to hijack it.

When someone as powerful as Dick Armey comes out and says that he often voted for things he didn't agree with "to return a favour", you have to wonder if an electoral system that continually delivers only two parties to power is a good one.

It's like he banged up his car and took it to the only body shop in town, where the owner said: "OK, I'll give you a cut rate but only if you do me a favour." And who's to know what that favour was? If there was more than one body shop in town, Armey could have gone elsewhere to get the work done. And you can bet the public would soon have learned what the price was.

Finally, my dear Alaskans, please raise the standard for all the voters here in the lower 48 states who are suffering economic hardship because of the obsession by politicians and the media on terrorism. I know that your governor has just declared a state of economic emergency for Western Alaska because the bottom has dropped out of the salmon market.

Is your tourism industry stuffed as well? This month's official figures aren't out yet, but I know, for example, of a 180-bed tourist hotel right on the main street of San Francisco that usually turns people away every August, but has had an occupancy rate of less than 20 percent this August.

Who wants to come to a country that's forever in a flap over airline security; that has "evil-doers in our midst", as the President said this week, seeming to imply we might all be gassed at any minute or have our water poisoned; and with the FBI issuing bulletins about vague threats to national monuments and all the popular tourist destinations?

The United States economy will not survive another election year with terrorism and imminent war with Iraq as the only tactics the political manipulators can use to build support for the President, and by implication, all the Republican candidates in the election coming up in November.

Don't get me wrong - this isn't an anti-Republican thing. Any political party in the United States is capable of putting thousands of people out of work and doing massive damage to the economy in the interests of shoring up its political support base. The combination of the electoral system, the public's disenchantment with the value of voting, the way that campaigns are financed, and the inability of the media to move beyond a 19th century "boxing ring" view of politics is anathema to true democracy and the well-being of society and the economy.

Instant runoff voting gives voters choice and the opportunity to have their choices recognised. The detail in IRV election results reveals the substrate of the political landscape for all to see. Not just political organisations with their focus groups and polling techniques carried out behind closed doors, where the information is used to manipulate the current system so that election results have become a measure not of what the people believe in but of the success, or otherwise, of a particular consultancy firm.

Alaskans, your country needs you to lead the way! Storm those polling booths and vote yes on Measure 1!

Lea Barker
Sunday, August 25, 2002

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