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Working For a Fair Vote

Working For a Fair VoteATufts grad on the front lines of electoral reform talks aboutways to reform the political process and how he found himselffighting for changes to the system. Medford/Somerville,Mass.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [11.01.04] - Inan interview with E-News, Tufts graduate David Moon (CLA ’01),a program director at the Center for Voting and Democracy, talksabout his work for electoral reform and how individual citizenscan effect political change.

E-News:Describe your first voting experience. What did being of age tovote mean to you?

Moon:I grew up inside the Beltway following the [events on Capitol]Hill, so turning 18 was exciting for me. Yes, it meant registeringwith the Selective Service, but it also meant I'd be able to votesoon. I actually first voted in the 1998 midterm elections, whenI first arrived at Tufts. I voted absentee in Maryland, as I didn'tyet consider myself a Massachusetts resident. At the time, thecountry was beginning to come out of the whole impeachment mess,so for me there was an excitement about being able to use my voteto send a message about how I thought Congress was handling thewhole issue.

E-News:How did your experience at Tufts help guide you toward your roletoday with FairVote and your interest in the area?

Moon:At Tufts I majored in sociology, so my educational experienceled me to analyze social problems from a structural perspective.Particularly, I became interested in how social structures dictatebehavior. This lens has stayed with me since I left college. Aftergraduating from Tufts, I went straight into law school at AmericanUniversity, with an eye on public interest law. During the summerfollowing my second year of law school, I worked as a legal internwith FairVote, a non-partisan, non-profit electoral reform organization.While there, I was able to sharpen my critique of the U.S. electoralsystem, especially in realizing the many alternative methods ofconducting elections. It was quite a shocking experience to seethat on the spectrum of electoral systems, the U.S. actually hassome of the least democratic results in the developed world. Weroutinely elect presidents with less than 50 percent of votersupport and we have very few women and people of color in Congress.In contrast, most other nations use proportional or semi-proportionalelectoral methods to elect their legislatures, and clearly theU.S. could stand to do so too. In fact, proportional systems (whereseats are assigned roughly in proportion to the makeup of thepopulation) used to be fairly common in the U.S., and are evenstill used to elect the school board and city council in nearbyCambridge, Massachusetts. After graduating from law school, Iremained intrigued with the potential for bringing structuralreforms to our elections, so I started working full-time withFairVote.

E-News:What fostered your interest in working with a group like FairVote?

Moon:Well, through my experiences as a voter during my time in college,a lot of flaws with our electoral system came to light. When Ifirst voted in 1998, it was obvious that there was very littlechance that my vote would matter for the Congressional races inMaryland. We had completely entrenched incumbents running forre-election, and most were going to win by landslides. This (first)made me feel like the elections for most of the seats I couldvote on were really a mere formality. In those situations, votingoften seems to be more of an instrument of self-expression thanan activity of consequence.
After observing the effect of electoral systems design on outcomes,it seemed fairly obvious that our election methods and districtingsystems were basically relegating voters to the role of animalswith a Skinner box. On top of that, I've always been concernedabout the way our districting systems lead to under-representationof racial and ethnic minorities, women and third party perspectives.And of course, many of those problems can also be tied to thedesign of our electoral systems.

E-News:What sort of efforts have you been working on with FairVote asthe election season's been heating up?

Moon:With the elections coming soon, FairVote's had a full agenda,representing a range of electoral reforms. For one, we've beenmonitoring the numerous problems that the media have highlightedwith voting machines, absentee ballots, provisional ballots, ex-felonpurge lists, and so forth. All of these instances of officialerror and partisan misconduct are a great affront to democraticprinciples. In response, we've been demanding reforms and craftingpolicy solutions to these problems that would mitigate them inthe future, and create long-term systemic change. This means primarily,developing greater uniformity in voting procedures across thenation, and moving away from our current state-by-state, county-by-countysystem of regulating elections.

We've seen that in2000, decentralization led to great problems, and it continuesto do so in 2004. We don't want to see 2008 show Americans tobe unable to learn lessons from history. In addition, we've beenhighlighting the great discussion going on in the media aboutRalph Nader and the so-called "spoiler" effect thatthird party and independent candidates can play. We're particularlyinterested in this issue, because there are clear solutions thatexist, such as instant runoff voting (a.k.a. IRV). IRV allowsvoters to rank candidates, rather than choose just one, and itrequires candidates to win with a majority. It does so, by simulatinga series of runoff elections and eliminating the weakest candidates,whose votes are then transferred to their supporters' next choices.This system is taking effect in San Francisco city races thisNovember, thanks in part to FairVote's efforts, and we think itholds great promise in solving the spoiler problem for presidentialelections.

E-News:In 2000, there were many claims of voter fraud and the debateabout the popular vote versus the electoral vote. Have we madeany progress in the past four years in addressing those issues?

Moon:Very little progress has been made at actually solving these problemsat the root. In terms of voter fraud and voter disenfranchisement,I think that the key change made in the last four years is thatnow people know to expect the problems. This time, the civil rightscommunity is ready to take on any misconduct at polling locations.A national call center has been established by a coalition ofdemocracy activists, and they will be monitoring voting irregularitiesand dispatching attorneys to ensure every vote counts.

Unfortunately, thisdoes not mean that a long-term solution has been reached in thefour years since the Florida debacle. We cannot rely on civilrights groups to take the initiative to monitor misconduct everyelection cycle. At some point, the government needs to step inand overhaul the systems that are causing these problems. FairVotebelieves that time is now. One thing most voters don't realizeis that our Constitution does not provide an explicit, federally-protectedright to vote. The Supreme Court reiterated this in Bush v. Gore,and it has created all sorts of problems for voters, includingimpeding full voting rights for residents of the District of Columbia,as well as
ex-felons who have served their time.

Also, in 1992 Republicansblamed Ross Perot for "spoiling" the election, as theDemocrats likewise did with Ralph Nader in 2000. Neither party,unfortunately, has looked at solutions to this problem, such asrunoff elections or instant runoff voting. It seems they're contentto instead file a string of endless lawsuits every election cycle,but this really undermines voters' confidence in our system. That'swhy we're hoping that the numerous problems with the upcomingNovember elections will provide an opportunity for serious reassessmentof our electoral systems and the nature of our democracy. Bearin mind, of course, that even after the Florida 2000 problems,some counties are still using the punchcard machines that brought"hanging chads" to national prominence.

E-News:What's the most heartening sign you've seen this year of increasedinterest in and access to voting?

Moon:The most heartening sign I've seen this year is in the staggeringnumber of new voter registrations, especially in swing states.It shows that the issues of today, and perhaps the partisan divisiontoo, are motivating people to get involved. One downside to this,though, is that many jurisdictions have been unable to managethis overwhelming surge in voters, resulting in a massive backlogin processing forms. The turnout figures in states with "earlyvoting" have also been encouraging, and I think that we'llsee a jump in both youth turnout and general turnout numbers.The cynic in me still worries about the reports of voter intimidationand other attempts at disenfranchising eligible voters for partisangain. This has been an extremely nasty election cycle, and I thinka lot of us working in the electoral reform community are lookingforward to a more positive and serious dialogue from Nov. 3rdon.

E-News:How can colleges boost voter turnout among students, faculty andstaff?

Moon:One of the easiest methods of boosting turnout in a college communityis ensuring that polling locations are put on campus. This, ofcourse, must be accompanied by voter registration efforts aimedat getting the college community involved in local affairs. Whatwe've seen, though, is that in numerous college towns around thenation, local elections officials, working with local party leaders,are extremely hesitant to embrace increased involvement by collegestudents. They fear a "takeover" of local politics bystudents. It is rather unfortunate, because on the one hand wedecry the lack of youth participation in the political process,but at the same time, we erect enormous obstacles to studentsactually getting involved. In New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Washington,D.C., and Virginia, students have faced Jim Crow-era voter intimidation,including threats that if they voted they would be subject tocriminal penalties, fines, state taxes, car taxes, loss of in-statetuition status and loss of scholarship money.

E-News:What's the best reply to people who say that their vote doesn'tmatter or that they're just one person and can't affect the politicalprocess?

Moon:Well, I think this educational process has to start with honesty.Students are not naive enough to believe that every vote alwayscounts. Frankly, in this presidential election, millions of voters’opinions are totally insignificant. If you are a Texas Democrator a Massachusetts Republican, there is next to nothing you cando to change who your state's Presidential Electors go to, thanksto our Electoral College system. In most states, the presidentialoutcome has already been decided, but this does not mean thatvoters need not show up on Nov. 2nd.

First, there are anumber of close Senate and House races around the country whereevery vote does matter, and of course, those voting absentee inswing states know that their vote matters. But more importantly,even if your presidential vote is cast in non-swing state, youhave to remember that there are local races that should not beignored.

In fact, right therein Somerville, a Tufts alum, Carl Sciortino, challenged a long-timeincumbent in the Democratic primary for state house. Carl onlywon by around 100 votes. That's one example where the Tufts communitycould have been decisive. Not only that, the unseated incumbentis now waging a vicious write-in campaign against Carl, and themargins could again be potentially close in November. So, whenpeople say their vote doesn't matter, they're usually referringto Federal or statewide races but ignoring the important issuesbeing discussed in local races. Again, this is why it is so importantthat local communities embrace and encourage involvement by studentvoters, but I think as part of the deal, students should taketime to become true members of their communities and learn aboutlocal issues.




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