By David Sirota
The Oregonian (Permalink)

“Ah, beer,” says Homer Simpson. “The source of, and the solution to, all of life’s problems.”

The same kind of thing can be said of politics. So it’s worth asking why our experience with the political process has been so negative of late, and if there are simple reforms that could help us have the thrill without the nasty hangover.

Oregon has made tremendous strides toward increasing voter participation, leading the nation with its vote-by-mail system. But problems remain. Even in our media-saturated world, voters still don’t always know enough about candidates, and many suspect the real decisions have already been bought and paid for. Meanwhile, our representatives face the never-ending pressure of lobbyists and contributors. Surely American democracy can be improved, and Oregonians can help lead the way.

First, we should change how our democracy is funded. Thanks to the donations of large corporations, rich individuals and well-funded special interests, the principle of “one person, one vote” is under assault. While it is impossible to completely remove private money from politics, we can counterbalance its influence with public money, money that doesn’t come to politicians with the expectation of legislative favors.

Portland’s Citizen Campaign Commission recently reported that the city’s new public financing system has driven down campaign spending and reduced the influence of special interests. The cost of public financing is modest, and the potential policy gains would be large for Oregon if the Legislature took Portland’s lead and expanded public financing statewide such as Arizona and Maine have done.

Another potentially powerful reform is called fusion voting. This is under consideration by the Oregon Legislature (as House Bill 3040) with 15 co-sponsors — nine Democrats, six Republicans.

As I travel across the United States as a writer and organizer, folks often tell me they believe too little gets done to address the bread-and-butter issues that affect our everyday lives. Fusion is a simple reform being used by states such as Connecticut and New York to address this problem head-on.

Under fusion voting — once legal in Oregon, as it was in every state — voters get to choose a candidate and a party. Candidates can run as the nominee of more than one party — usually one major and one “third” party. When candidates run on more than one party line, voters can cast a ballot for them on whichever party line they prefer without fear of wasting a vote. The votes are then added together for the candidate’s total.

Fusion, which is also being considered in Maine, provides more information for voters by letting them know where candidates stand on the specific issues that fusion parties focus on. This can also help reduce legislative logjams. A fusion party oriented toward health care, for example, would help voters know which candidates support health care reform. If that health care party gets a decent chunk of votes on its line, it might help convince legislators from the major parties that there is serious interest in sensible compromise.

Politics won’t ever cause — or be the solution to — all of life’s problems. But by enacting campaign finance reform and fusion voting, Oregon legislators can make sure the political process does a lot more to solve our problems than it does now.


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