Mark Trahant: Reinventing democracy with Indian Country's help

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on the campaign trail. Photo from Facebook

#NativeVote16 – How does a country with a rigged, two-party system, reinvent itself as a multiparty democracy?
Independent voters are the majority, yet party rules limit participation in primary elections
By Mark Trahant
Trahant Reports

There are a lot of failed political campaigns taking hard looks at what went wrong. Why, they ask, did Donald Trump walk away with the Republican nomination for President? What happened to the contested convention? Or the mainstream alternative that surfaced at just the right moment, where was this year’s Mitt Romney?

And those same questions are being asked about journalism. What did we get wrong? Are we too concerned about the horserace and not enough on the content of the campaigns?

The New York Times put it this way:
But in the end, you have to point the finger at national political journalism, which has too often lost sight of its primary directives in this election season: to help readers and viewers make sense of the presidential chaos; to reduce the confusion, not add to it; to resist the urge to put ratings, clicks and ad sales above the imperative of getting it right.

I have not written a lot about the presidential primary process, choosing instead to focus most of my material on the many races where Native Americans are running for Congress or for seats in state legislatures. But I am not silent either. I did write a bit about the presidential primaries and for most part avoided the horse race aspect of who’s winning. I did write one piece, though, explaining that I thought the math favored Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. That was back in February and nothing has changed my mind.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail. Photo from Facebook

I also speculated that this election could see a third-party bid with Paul Ryan on a ticket. That’s still possible although it would probably not involve Ryan. I still worry about a major electoral college fail and worse the implementation of the dysfunctional 12th Amendment with the election determined by the House of Representatives. (Previous: America and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Election.)

But there is a bigger story that needs to be told over and over: The mechanism of democracy is broken.

The nomination of Donald Trump and a likely nomination of Hillary Clinton is evidence that there are at least five major political movements in the United States that ought to be represented by political parties with a fair shot of winning. But we have a system that forces voters to narrow their thinking to two parties.

“The number of independents has continued to grow, as both parties have lost ground among the public,” according to Pew Research. “Based on surveys conducted this year, 38% describe themselves as independents, up from 32% in 2008 and 30% in 2004. Independents today are more numerous that at any point in the last 70 years.”

So how does a country with a rigged, two-party system, reinvent itself with multiparty democracy?

There are short-term fixes and long term, Constitutional reforms.

Mushulatubbee, a Choctaw leader who signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830, ran for a seat in the U.S. Congress that same year. Image of painting by George Catlin via Smithsonian American Art Museum

A few reforms that are possible now:
• Indian Country should have its own primary. We are members of tribal nations that have geographical and political status. We have many more citizens than some of the territories that do have participate in Republican and Democratic primaries. In the Northern Mariana Islands primary, for example, 471 people voted in the Republican Primary and 189 on the Democratic side picking more than a dozen convention delegates.
• Congress should appoint tribal representatives as Delegates. This could happen with a simple majority vote of the House.
• Caucus elections are undemocratic and should fade into history. A caucus is hardly better than the smoke-filled rooms it was supposed to replace. Too many people can’t attend because they are working or traveling or ill. Or just what ever. A primary with early voting is far more fair.
• And as for “Super Delegates?” Just no.
• We need to make voting easier. Ninety-two percent of Americans own cell phones. It would be much easier to design a system around that fact, even adding in alternatives for those without phone service, than sticking with a voting apparatus that was built for another time.
• This is a simple reform. If a political party wants a closed primary, then it should pay for it. If taxpayers are funding any election, it must be open to all voters. I think this principle has worked well In Washington and California with their top-two primary.
• We need a better path for third parties, that starts with ballot access. Today the Green Party is only on the ballot in 20 states. And the Libertarian Party is in a little stronger shape, but still short of fifty state access. There is also the Constitution Party and it’s on the ballot in nearly 30 states.

It’s impossible to funnel the ideas of a country with 320 million people into two options.

That’s just for starters. Long term we need to rethink the Constitution: The electoral college, the Senate, the role of tribal governments, these are all critical conversations. As I wrote last August: “It’s long past time for Indian Country to have a say in how the government of the United States runs. Why? Because this country cannot be the democracy it purports to be as long as indigenous people do not have a real voice in the political conversation.”

That’s especially true for Independents, Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians and Greens. And journalists.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

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