The students union at my undergraduate university was one of three in the UK that was completely self-governing. Although it received funding through charges the university levied on students, all administrative and policy decisions, from the annual vision for the guild to the colour of the paint in the toilets was taken by the Guild Council.
As a result, elections were hotly contested and students over time organised themselves into voting PACs, representing the most politically active and vocal communities. To win an election, those running for Guild President had to lobby these key constituencies, and to ensure that their issues were discussed, constituencies had to get organised.
Despite this highly charged atmosphere, there was always one candidate, who appeared one very ballot for every position every year that was guaranteed to make significant gains, at least in early rounds of voting. This candidate was RON; or in full “Re-Open Nominations”.
All voters were told that if they were dissatisfied with the candidates on the ballot, they could petition those managing the elections to re-open nominations and get a new batch of candidates on the ballot. There was no limit to the number of times that RON could win, and every time he did, candidates on the ballot had to return to their constituencies and try harder to earn their votes.
Putting RON on the ballot
The US presidential election is an excellent case for putting RON on the ballot in any modern democracy. There is no way, by any calculation, that either candidate from the two main parties is an absolutely positive choice for the majority in their parties. On one hand, you have an incumbent who represents triumph over centuries of racial oppression and exclusion, but who also has shown a consistent ability to bend or break domestic and international laws in order to achieve geostrategic goals.
In line with past practice, and between the escalation of renditions and drone attacks in Pakistan, the Obama administration has affirmed that US and non-US lives are expendable in pursuit of US national security. By widening the healthcare safety net, Obama has done more for American poor than most of his predecessors, but he has also done more to sustain an inherently unstable economic system, shoring up predatory, non-competitive or non-sustainable industries like mega-bank finance, using taxpayer money.
On the other hand, you have Mitt Romney whose struggles to manage a successful and coherent presidential campaign may be a chilling foreshadow of his inability to run the most powerful country in the world. Ideologically vapid and plagued with rudimentary political miscalculations, even GOP insiders have indicated their fears that nothing informs Romney’s presidential run beyond his own ambitions.
Unashamedly elitist, Romney has been caught on camera scorning the very real plight of millions of uninsured, homeless or otherwise poor Americans. His promises to undo the few successes of the Obama administration are disheartening; his persistent pandering to the extreme elements of the US right is frightening for everyone who would be considered “Other”. Chillingly, he sits atop the GOP at a time when prominent elements of the party have unabashedly advocated for the creeping disenfranchisement of supporters of the Democratic Party through changes in the electoral law.
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All of which makes a great case for putting RON on the ballot. Instead of falling back on the cyclical “lesser of two evils” argument, which only further fossilises the two parties in their ideological backyards, it is time to consider putting more options on the table. Most people reject minority candidates because they argue that their votes are wasted on candidates who have no chance of winning.
RON unites voters
But that’s the beauty of RON: if RON wins, everyone wins because all political parties have to go back to the drawing board and come back better. Similarly, although votes for minority third candidates historically hit the left far harder than they hit the right, but in this election more than others in recent history, even the right has shown extreme dissatisfaction with the candidate chosen by their party. RON promises to unite voters from both sides of the aisle.
RON is a signalling mechanism. RON represents collective dissatisfaction with the menu and more importantly, an avenue to keep the disenchanted engaged in electoral politics. It shows respect to the people who have died so that others would have the right to vote, giving younger generations a reason to vote during these cynical times. It tells those who are running that they have to raise the bar on their conduct and on their campaigning in order to convince moderate or undecided voters.
Over time, RON would level the playing field for smaller parties who are able to attract second or third place votes in a proportional election. It would stop Democrats or Republicans in the US to stop acting entitled to certain voting blocks and actually go back to the drawing board and come up with policies that positively convince those voters to vote for them.
Of course, RON is not without operational difficulties. The obvious problem is that RON only makes sense when used alongside Single Transferable Vote systems, otherwise there is a real threat of endless rounds of elections to decide the next leader of the country. RON makes elections expensive.
At university, turnout was usually low, and the president of the Guild was normally selected after two or three rounds. However, extrapolated for a country the size of the US may represent 3-6 months of voting, each of which must be held to the same standard of rigour.
Still, imagine if all the money currently wasted on fear-mongering through negative adverts or super-PACs was actually spent on organising and running a transparent and fair election?
A vote for RON is a vote to restore positive choice in modern politics.
Nanjala Nyabola, a writer and political analyst, is currently a graduate student at Harvard Law School.