Yesterday's party affiliation announcement by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has sent the blogs, the MSM, and political junkies everywhere into a frenzy of speculation. Having been a life-long Democrat prior to his Republican conversion makes both sides nervous, and will likely send every 2008 Presidential campaign back to their strategy discussions.
Will Bloomberg draw more votes from Republican voters, with whom he has been more recently allied? Or will his Democratic history and liberal leanings on some issues disproportionately siphon frustrated moderates away from the Democratic nominee? No one knows, and the only certain thing is that his personal wealth allows him to mount a credible candidacy without any party backing.
With his net worth estimated at $5B, a Bloomberg presidential candidacy is a curve ball to both sides, presenting risks that neither party quite knows how to manage. And in that uncertainty lies a hidden opportunity that progressives should recognize and embrace. More on the flip...
Two important voter reforms favored by progressives just might be viable in the context of a Bloomberg candidacy. Namely, Instant Runoff Voting and Public Campaign Financing. Let's take the easier one first...
Public campaign financing, sometimes referred to as "Clean Elections", is major reform that would completely change the election finance system. An organization called Public Campaign says that:
Clean Elections is a practical, proven reform that puts voters in control of elections. Rather than being forced to rely on special interest donors to pay for their campaigns, candidates have the opportunity to qualify for full public funding which ends their reliance on special interest campaign cash. Being freed from the money chase means they have more time to spend with constituents, talking about issues that matter to them. When they enter office, they can consider legislation on the merits, without worrying about whether they are pleasing well heeled donors and lobbyists.
Republicans generally hate this idea since it neutralizes their traditional fund raising advantage over Democrats. It also violates their "principle" of limited government, but we all know they are willing to jettison their principles when acquisition of power is at stake. With 2008 shaping up to favor the Democrats in fund raising, and with the terrifying prospect of Michael Bloomberg spending a billion dollars to lure Republican voters, there is a unique opportunity. If there was ever a time to persuade Republicans that this reform is in their best interests, that time is now.
Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) encourages third-party candidacies by allowing voters to rank the candidates in order of preference. Here is how it works:
In an IRV election, if no candidate receives an overall majority of first preferences, the candidates with fewest votes are eliminated one by one, and their votes transferred according to their second and third preferences (and so on) and all votes retallied, until one candidate achieves a majority.
You want to vote for Ralph Nader in 2000? Fine. Assuming that Al Gore would be your second choice, we end up with a Gore Presidency under an IRV system. Why would Republicans agree to go along with this idea? Because a Bloomberg candidacy threatens to put them at the wrong end of the sword. The idea that a third party candidacy could swing the election to a Democrat echoes a nightmare from the past. Many Republicans believe that Bill Clinton was elected because Ross Perot took more Republican votes than Democratic votes, so this is a very real threat to them.
What makes Instant Runoff Voting more difficult is that the Constitution governs how our presidential elections are run, and an IRV system would require either an amendment to the Constitution, or agreement by a sufficient number of states to select their electors based on national instant runoff results. A Constitutional amendment is always an uphill battle, and recent efforts to implement a "popular vote" system for electing the President has been unable to coordinate the states in selecting their electors.
But neither of these obstacles should dissuade progressives from pushing for IRV at the state level and for Congressional elections.
For more reading on these reforms, see:
Now is the time to push!