Voting: A Flawed System, but an Important One

Published: November 6th, 2012

By Sarah Parkinson

Donella Meadows’s writing showed that the American election system is far from perfect, but the privilege of voting is still too important to pass up.

The White House

Today, Americans vote to decide the next President in the White House. The voting system is imperfect, but our participation is important. (Image credit: MCS@flickr)

Voting, democracy, elections, and campaign reform were all common themes in Donella (Dana) Meadows’s Global Citizen newspaper columns. She wrote often about the importance of political engagement and the improvements we could make to our governing systems. America’s democracy has its flaws—voter suppression, corporate-funded campaigns, discarded and miscounted ballots, low voter turnout—and Dana wasn’t afraid to address them. But, despite all these flaws, Dana was clear in her writing that voting is an important way to declare your values and to influence our leadership.

It’s been a decade since Dana penned her last column, but our election system still struggles with many of the same issues it did then. Dana’s words about democratic reform and the power of a vote are as true today as they ever were.

Below, we present some of these ideas as an inspiration for Election Day 2012.

Dana on the ritual of Election Day:

November 16, 2000
What is it we are learning in the aftermath of this crazy election? How powerful a single vote can be?

Or how worthless a single vote can be, when 19,000 of them can be tossed out in one county? When boxes of ballots get lost? When recounts are demanded or stopped depending on their expected outcome?

Such a plunge, from the sublimity of voting day to the ridiculousness that followed!

No matter how far down the candidates have dragged the campaign, voting day still seems sublime to me. I feel I am participating in a sacred ritual. At the polling place my neighbors are transformed into dignified officials, overseeing a solemn process. The people file by, in work boots or office shoes, each one equal. There’s a sense of awe — 100 million people are having their say. One or another of those tinny candidates is about to be invested with our joint power.

Dana on the power of a vote:

May 25, 2000
What is a vote, anyway?  A chit we use to play political games, figuring the chances, trying to choose the least distasteful candidate who has some chance of coming out on top?  Or our one straight signal to our government telling it what we — we who pay the bills, we whose interests the government is supposed to represent — really want?

Dana on the importance of voting, even in a broken system:

October 17, 1996
It’s frightening how the noble idea of democracy has been reduced to gladiator contests in stiff, artificial settings that reveal nothing of the vision or morality or deliberation or decisiveness that it takes to lead a nation.

No wonder the public is turned off.  We’re not only bored, we’re insulted.  It’s tempting to refuse to dignify the polluted game of modern politics with either our attention or our vote.  “Don’t vote, it just encourages them,” some folks say, and more and more of us follow that advice.

But I can’t bring myself to do it.  I rarely get to vote for someone I really admire or something I deeply believe in, but my vote and yours still does make a difference too important to walk away from, especially in the arenas they’re not talking about.

Dana on voting for your values vs. voting against the candidate you most oppose:

May 25, 2000
But what does it mean to waste a vote?  I may disagree with Bush on just about 100 percent of all issues, but I disagree with Gore on maybe 50 percent.  He promotes free trade and the WTO — two of the worst things I can imagine for the environment.  He has done nothing to push for auto fuel efficiency standards or regulations on genetic engineering or a strong enough climate policy to actually stabilize the climate.  The Greens are the only party talking seriously about solar energy or stopping corporate welfare or real campaign reform.  Isn’t it worse to waste your vote on a spineless party patsy, up to his neck in his own overflowing bucket of campaign contributions, than on a guy who will at least speak and fight for what you want fought for — no matter what his chance of winning?

Dana on campaign reform and restoring democracy:

October 17, 1996
If you have the privilege of voting for one of the few candidates, at any level of government, with the guts to talk about campaign reform and mean it, please do use your vote.  If you don’t have that privilege, ask your candidates the unasked question, the most important question — what are you going to do about campaign reform?  Releasing democracy from the grip of money is the only way we can ever get the politicians to talk about, or do anything about, everything else that’s important.

September 19, 1991
Whether we’re concerned about abortion, the environment, peace, jobs, taxes, we have to drop our causes and come together around campaign reform for one, two, or three elections, however long it takes. We need to meet politicians, organize parties, get into the SELECTION of candidates at early stages, asking of them only one question — how would you restore our democracy? — and judging them by their performance on that issue.

If we don’t do these things, all causes, except those of the privileged and the hard-liners, are lost.

It’s tough to maintain a true democracy. It requires time, energy, commitment, a scary level of responsibility. But, my East European friends tell me, it’s not nearly as tough as trying to recover after a generation or two of incompetence and corruption.

Dana on the possibilities for better voting systems:

August 3, 2000
For the longer term, why should we put up with an electoral system that gives us nothing but choices between lesser evils?  There are far better alternatives.  One is the proportional parliamentary system practiced in most democracies.  I see people stick up their noses at it, but I never understand why; it allows a fairer hearing to a wider spectrum of views than does our winner-take-all system.

Another intriguing possibility is the instant runoff, practiced in Ireland and Australia.  In this system you mark your ballot with your first, second, and third choice.  In the first round only first-choice votes are counted.  If no one wins a majority, the lowest vote-getter is eliminated.  Those whose first choice was that eliminated candidate automatically weigh in with their second choice.

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