In the past few years, there has been a disturbing push in a number of states toward limiting the right to vote and raising barriers to participation in democracy. Not in Connecticut. When it comes to ensuring an inclusive and fair democracy that guarantees every voice is heard, our state has been a real leader and taken important steps forward.
The landmark Citizens Election Program passed in 2006 has become a national model for reformers seeking to make elections less captive to large-scale fundraising. Connecticut's adoption of Election Day registration and online voter registration are excellent steps forward, and adopting early voting would be another major advance.
But a bill before the General Assembly that would ban the practice of electoral cross-endorsement in Connecticut would be a serious step backward, and would tarnish our reputation as a leading protector of voting rights and voter choices. The legislature should reject this proposal.
As a former Connecticut secretary of the state, I'm very familiar with operation of Connecticut's elections. As president of Demos, a national public policy organization advocating for a healthy and vibrant democracy, I have the opportunity to observe and be involved in election issues all over the country.
Under Connecticut law, minor parties can support either their own candidate or the candidate of a major party. This is healthy for democracy. Banning cross-endorsement would narrow the electoral process, limit voter choices, and discourage the full participation of voters and parties who don't fit perfectly into the two major parties.
Minor parties have always played an important role in introducing new issues to the political debate. In the 19th century, that was the role of the Greenbacks, the Grange, the Free Soil and the Populist parties. All were minor political parties that routinely cross-endorsed major party candidates. Some history-changing ideas that began in such minor parties include the abolition of slavery, the eight-hour workday, unemployment insurance, Social Security, family farm support and women's suffrage.
Minor parties also serve to push major parties on important issues. Although minor parties playing that role can be irritating to major parties and party leaders, that's surely not sufficient reason to curtail their rights. But that's exactly what the proposal would do.
Without cross-endorsement, minor parties can be made irrelevant, because our two-party system is so dominant. But they also then play the role of a spoiler, asking their supporters to cast a vote that may perversely serve to aid their least favorite candidate, thus distorting what the true majority preferences are. Consider liberals voting for Ralph Nader in 2000, or fiscal conservatives voting for H. Ross Perot in 1992. Consigning minor parties to this role has a chilling effect on their ability to contribute to the democratic process, and a distorting effect on our democracy.
Cross-endorsement allows minor parties to play a far more constructive role. They increase voter choice and create a richer democracy by providing voters with more information on the ballot. A major party candidate who receives — and accepts — the endorsement of the Libertarian Party, for example, or of the Working Families, Green or Independent parties provides voters more information about what he or she believes.
A cross-endorsement is, of course, always optional for a candidate to accept.
The argument is made that the system is confusing for voters and complicated for administrators. But we have had this system in place for many years. Voters have not complained, and Connecticut has developed a clear formula to assign party results, so it is quite simple from an administrative perspective.
An important principle is at stake. A democracy that is vibrant and inclusive asks that we open the political process to all participants. Election Day registration, online registration and early voting will give more people the opportunity to register and vote. Public financing opens up the field for many more citizens to run. And cross-endorsement gives voters more choices and more ways to make their voices heard. These are feathers in Connecticut's democracy hat. The legislature would do our democracy and our citizens a serious disservice if it passes this proposal.
Miles S. Rapoport is president of Demos and former secretary of the state.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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